Shoshone Powerplant
Irrigating the Western Frontier while powering the future

A Grand Vision: The Shoshone Project

In the 1890s, a significant number of people began to settle in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, with the desire to establish farms or ranches. To water this dry and remote region, westerners had a grand vision—create a system of canals to distribute the sporadic seasonal rain and snowmelt carried by the Shoshone River to farms and ranches. Buffalo Bill Cody, successful showman and legend of the American West, shared that vision. Cody also foresaw construction of a “great power plant to turn the wheels of industry.”  With his Wild West show partner Nate Salsbury, Cody took advantage of the Carey Act, which made Federal lands available for private development as long as projects were state approved and the lands irrigated and occupied. Cody “withdrew” 60,000 acres near the town of Cody for his irrigation project and acquired water rights from the Shoshone River to irrigate that land. 

Meanwhile, President Theodore Roosevelt also envisioned an irrigated West. In 1902, he championed the Reclamation Act, which established the U.S. Reclamation Service (today’s Bureau of Reclamation) to construct and manage large scale water projects out west. Building these projects cost enormous sums of money, as Cody soon found out. In 1903, the famous showman’s cash ran out and the State of Wyoming took back the land and asked Reclamation to build an irrigation project. Two years later, with Reclamation’s funding and engineering in place, crews began to build Shoshone Dam, now called Buffalo Bill Dam.  The dam would be the key to open about 90,000 acres in northwestern Wyoming to irrigated farming on Reclamation’s Shoshone Project.

Click the image to watch the short film, A Grand Vision

A Desert in Bloom: Transformation of the Bighorn Basin

A narrow canyon six miles west of the town of Cody, Wyoming, drew the attention of Reclamation engineers as the perfect site for the new dam.  It was carved by the Shoshone River, whose rapid and powerful flow drains an almost entirely mountainous area, dropping more than 7,000 feet from its origin in the Absaroka Mountains to the narrow V-shaped canyon of the dam site.

Reclamation built the dam using only hand labor, teams of horses, and steam-powered equipment. When completed in 1910, the concrete arch dam reached a world record-setting height of 325 feet. Today the Shoshone River water fills a reservoir behind the massive dam, some of its once wild waters now stored to use for farming. From the dam, Reclamation releases water into the river that flows to downstream diversion dams. There, a portion of the water is rerouted to canals and on to once-arid fields.  Project farmlands produce beans, alfalfa, oats, barley, and sugar beets.

But Reclamation envisioned a second way to make use of the stored water—to generate hydroelectricity. Rather than being released from the dam into the river, water could first be run through a powerplant to generate electricity, then flow back to the river and resume its course to local farms.

Electric Towns on Reclaimed Desert

In November 1920, Reclamation crews began to build the Shoshone Powerplant at a site 600 feet downstream from the dam. Working conditions were harsh and dangerous. Strong gusts and below-freezing temperatures threatened workers with plummeting ice and rocks.  In 1921, flood water flowing through the dam spillway forced construction crews working from rafts on the river to stop work. Still, crews completed the plant in just two years. Two generators installed in the plant produced 1,000 kW of electricity, which immediately benefitted the Shoshone Project.  It was used to power construction equipment to build a Project dam, the Willwood Dam.  Surplus power, meaning power not needed to build and operate the irrigation project, was sold to towns on the Shoshone Project. In the spring of 1922, the Powell Tribune announced “Powell has now become an electrical town.” In 1931, a third unit installed at Shoshone increased the total capacity to 6,012 kW.  The modern benefits made available by electricity boosted development and industry in this rural Wyoming valley, just as first envisioned by Buffalo Bill Cody, and made a reality by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Shoshone Project.

            How is Hydroelectricity Made?

In a magnificent combination of nature and technology, gravity sends water from Buffalo Bill Reservoir to the Shoshone Powerplant through a penstock (pipe) in the canyon wall. The pipe funnels the water directly into the base of a turbine. The high velocity and pressure of the water pushes against the blades of the turbine, spinning a central rod that extends to a generator.  The water flows through the turbine and back to the river, while inside the generator, the spinning central rod rapidly moves giant magnets past thick coils of copper wire. The interaction of magnets moving past copper wire generates electricity. The electricity created in the generator travels through wires to a transformer where the voltage – which is the pressure that pushes the current over a wire – is stepped up for distribution, transmitting the charge over miles of wire.  

For more information on how water generates electricity, visit Learn Engineering.

Sustainability for the Future—Managing Water in the West

In 1980, Reclamation decommissioned the Shoshone Powerplant because its turbines had deteriorated from nearly 60 years of use.  However, to meet America’s ever-increasing need to power homes and industry, the Shoshone Powerplant was brought back online in 1991 when a modern 3-megawatt unit replaced the decommissioned 1931 unit.  The two original units, although no longer in operation, were left in place within the powerhouse. 

The new generator, together with those in three other Project powerplants built downstream, generate 30,500 kW of electricity using the water stored behind Buffalo Bill Dam. As Reclamation and others interested in renewable energy strive for sustainability, the story of hydroelectric power is returning to its roots in the American West. Historic hydropower plants, like Shoshone, are brought back online to generate electricity without any new environmental effect and at minimal cost. 

Discover our Shared Heritage—A Partnership

In September 2013, CyArk partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service in the digital documentation of this historic site. The partnership enhanced the NPS Discover Our Shared Heritage travel itinerary series titled, “Bureau of Reclamation Historic Dams, Irrigation Projects, and Powerplants: Managing Water in the West.” The travel itinerary includes short histories on the Bureau of Reclamation and its entry into the power business, along with site descriptions on historic Reclamation dams and powerplants that are listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. CyArk personnel used laser-scanning technology to capture interior and exterior data, along with “context” data that included the Shoshone Canyon and Buffalo Bill Reservoir. Reclamation and NPS staff prepared the site history and explanation of hydroelectricity, and gathered historic photographs. These efforts were combined to create the short film, “A Grand Vision: Shoshone Powerplant and Buffalo Bill Dam.”

For a NPS Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan that speaks of Reclamation’s hydropower history, view the plan titled “‘The Electric Project’: The Minidoka Dam and Powerplant,” posted on the TwHP website. This website, maintained by the National Park Service, offers online, classroom-ready, place-based lesson plans created by historians and educators to help teachers use historic places in the classroom. Each lesson is linked to national standards for history and the social studies.


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