American “Hydrograds” – Cities built for hydroelectric projects


Glen Canyon Bridge and Dam in Page, AZ – Source:

Two recent posts I’ve written on the Atomgrads (nuclear cities) of the former Soviet Union that were developed to both construct and support both nuclear weapons and energy plants led me to explore similar government built community for hydroelectric power projects. Using the Cold War-era term of Atomgrads, these cities and towns built for housing the construction workers on large hydroelectric projects will be referred to as “Hydrograds.”


Below is a list of the twelve known Hydrograds in the United States, along with one (1) other community (Pick City, ND) which may be one, as well. Unlike the Atomgrads in the former Soviet Union, as well as the three (3) here in the United States (Las Cruces, NM; Oak Ridge, TN; and Richland, WA), these communities tend to quite a bit smaller in size.

Page, AZ – Source:

The smallest Atomgrads have a permanent population of roughly 8,000 residents, while the majority have well over 30,000 residents, and are as large as over 100,000 people. Only Boulder City, Nevada; Page, Arizona; and Shasta Lake, California have permanent populations exceeding 7,500 residents. Most of the Hydrograds in the United States contain a population of 1,000 or less.

Hoover Dam and the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge – Source:

Another similarity between Atomgrads and these eleven Hydrograds is they tended to be built in out-of-the-way places. For Atomgrads, this made sense due to the potential dangers association with an explosion and/or radiation from the nuclear materials. All of the Hydrograds listed were either built during the Great Depression or during the economic boom that followed the war years. They were located in rural locations (for that time period) were meant to help to put Americans to work and to provide power, irrigation, recreation, and flood control to rural communities.

From a City & Town Design Perspective

Looking at the designs of the eleven Hydrograds built in the United States by either the Bureau of Land Reclamation or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are some striking similarities. These include:

  • The town design generally follows a triangular (Boulder City, NV and part of Grand Coulee, WA) or semi-circular/arched design (Dutch John, UT; Fort Peck, MT; Page, AZ; and Riverdale, ND), when the topography of the site is generally level.
  • In those locations limited by steep riverine terrain (parts of Grand Coulee, MT and North Bonneville, WA), the community design appears to be more of a traditional grid pattern.
  • Streets and/or rail lines form the outer boundaries of the triangle/semi-circle.
  • In both town design types, a community park is placed at the top of the triangle or apex of the semi-circle arc. Additional parks appear to be located further from the apex surrounded by sites for future homes.
  • City blocks then spread gradually outward from the peak of the triangle/apex of semi-circle.
  • Approximately midway down the triangle/semi-circle from the top is a linear park/boulevard to break up the development. This can best be seen in the town plan for Boulder City, Nevada (see below) and the recent aerial photo of Riverdale, North Dakota (see second below).
  • Several of the communities included a hotel for visitors and a theatre for entertainment.

1930 Boulder City Plan – Source:

Riverdale, North Dakota – Source:

Here is the list of American Hydrograds. As always, any additions, corrections, further information, or suggestions are most welcome. Enjoy!

Boulder City, Nevada (1931-present):

Early aerial view of Boulder City – Source:,_Nevada_-_NARA_-_293834.jpg

  • Established for the development of Hoover (Boulder) Dam and Lake Mead on the Colorado River.
  • the town was intended to represent both clean living and optimism during the Great Depression.
  • Fully planned under government supervision by Saco Rienk de Boer.
  • Designed to house up to 5,000 workers.
  • Plan modified during development due to costs.
  • Nicknamed “Nevada’s Garden City” upon completion.
  • No schools or hospitals initially, as the Bureau of Reclamation intended all residents/workers to be men.
  • One of only two (2) places in Nevada where gambling is prohibited (to this day).
  • Alcohol prohibited in 1969.
  • Federal government control was dropped in 1959.
  • Several buildings from this era are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the theatre, hotel, and dam.

Boulder Dam Hotel – Source:

  • Now a growing suburb of Las Vegas with 2018 estimated population of 15,977.
  • Though more triangular, note the similarities to Riverdale, ND in town’s design and of the design for Grand Coulee, WA on the right bank of the river (see both below).

Cartwright Oklahoma (1940-present):

  • Was built to house workers constructing the Denison Dam (or Lake Texoma Dam) and Lake Texoma on the Red River along the Texas-Oklahoma border.
  • Cartwright had a population 609 in 2010.

Coulee Dam, Washington (1933-present):

  • Originally two separate government towns of Mason City and Engineers Town.
  • Established for the development of Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt on the Columbia River.
  • These government towns merged into the Town of Coulee Dam in 1948
  • The process of selling the town to the public took place from 1957 to 1959.
  • Estimated 2018 population 0f 1,084 residents.

Early view of Engineers Town – Source:

Dutch John Utah (1957-present):

Dutch John, UT – Source:

  • Planned and built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1957 to house workers for Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River.
  • Noted the semi-circle town design – similar to Fort Peck, MT; Page, AZ; and Riverdale, ND
  • The town was owned by the federal government until 1998.
  • At its peak, Dutch John housed as many as 3,500 residents.
  • The town’s estimated population in 2018 was 144.

Fort Peck, Montana (1933-present):

Layout of Fort Peck – Source:

  • Built in 1934 to house workers from the Army Corps of Engineers who were involved in construction of the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River.
  • Designed to be a temporary town – the town’s design proved to be inadequate for the task.
  • More than 10,000 workers at the dam construction site resulted in several nearby shanty towns also being established – Wheeler (see photo below), New Deal, Delano Heights, and Park Grove.

Wheeler, MT shanty town – Source:

  • Fort Peck’s estimated 2016 population was 247 residents.
  • Eight (8) structures related to dam construction are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These include:


    • Fort Peck Dam
    • Original Houses Historic District
    • Fort Peck Theatre – restored and still operating


    • Fire Station and Garage
    • Hospital


    • Recreation Hall


Grand Coulee, Washington (1935-present):

Early aerial image of Grand Coulee – Source:

  • Established for the development of Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt on the Columbia River.
  • Notice the similarities of the town’s layout to Boulder City, NV on the right bank of the river.
  • Estimated population of 1,056 in 2018.
  • Peaked in “official” population in 1940 with 3,649 residents.
  • The Grand Coulee Bridge shown at the bottom right of the photo below is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Grand Coulee Dam – Source:

Norris, Tennessee (1933-present): ADDED on May 27, 2020

Norris Dam – Source:

  • Planned, founded and developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to house construction workers and support staff for the Norris Dam on the Clinch River.
  • The town was designed to be walkable around a central commons and includes modest house sizes that were built with local natural materials.
  • The town has a greenbelt growth buffer around it.
  • Roads were designed to fit the contour of the hilly terrain.
  • Estimated 2018 population of 1,607 residents.
  • The town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Town Plan of Norris, TN – Source:

North Bonneville, Washington (1933/1978-present):

    • Established on the former site of the town of Cascades to house construction workers and support staff while constructing the Bonneville Lock & Dam on the Columbia River.
    • Construction of a second powerhouse in the 1970 required the town to be relocated to the southwest of its original location.
    • The relocated townsite was large enough to accommodate up to 1,500 residents and was completed in 1978.
    • The estimated population in 2018 of the town was 1,000.
    • Home to the Bigfoot Discovery Trails.

Page, Arizona (1957-present):

  • Established in 1957 atop Manson Mesa for the development of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell on the Colorado River.
  • A 24 square mile area was obtained by the federal government in a land exchange with the Navajo Nation for establishment of the town.
  • Originally named Government Camp.
  • Major tourist venue today with Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lower and Upper Antelope Canyons, Horseshoe Bend, and other notable natural and recreational sites.
  • The estimated population in 2018 was 7,566.



Pick City, North Dakota (1946-present):

  • Unclear whether this was a Hydrograd – more details are necessary.

Pickstown, South Dakota (1948-present):

Pickstown and Fort Randall Dam – Source:

  • Constructed as a government town by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the development of the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River.
  • The town was owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until it incorporated in 1985.
  • Pickstown was a boyhood home of NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw.
  • Estimated population of 225 in 2018.

Riverdale, North Dakota (1946-present):

  • Began as a construction camp for workers building the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River – 5th largest earthen dam in the world.
  • The town’s population peaked at approximately 5,000 during dam construction.
  • Was owned and operated by the federal government until 1986.
  • Two other government camps – Big Bend and Dakota City were abandoned upon completion of the dam in 1953.
  • Estimated population of 223 in 2018.
  • Note the similarities in town design to Boulder City, NV and Page, AZ.

Early aerial view of the planned town of Riverdale, ND – Source:

Shasta Lake, California (1938/1993-present):

  • Began as five smaller towns named Central Valley, Toyon, Project City, Pine Grove, and Summit City for the construction of the Shasta Dam and Lake Shasta on the Sacramento River.
  • Toyon was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, while the others were established by the dam workers and their families.
  • These five communities merged into one single entity in 1993.
  • Shasta Lake an estimated population of 10,248 in 2018.

Shasta Dam – Source:

If this topic intrigues you, the following book available through* may also interest you.


*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using these links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


This entry was posted in archaeology, architecture, cities, downtown, economic development, environment, geography, Geology, Health care, Housing, infrastructure, land use, Maps, nature, pictures, place names, placemaking, planning, rivers/watersheds, spatial design, theaters, third places, topography, toponymy, tourism, transportation, Travel, urban design, urban planning, zoning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to American “Hydrograds” – Cities built for hydroelectric projects

  1. Pingback: “Hydrograds” built by the former Soviet Union | Panethos

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