US Army Corps of Engineers
Huntington District

Construction of Bluestone Dam: Phase One (1941-1944)

The Huntington District Corps of Engineers appointed Robert B. Jenkinson as resident engineer to oversee construction of the Bluestone Dam. A native of Greenville, Ohio, Jenkinson graduated from Wayne Technical College in 1924 and joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1931. He was involved in the construction of the Huntington District's Winfield, London, and Marmet Locks and Dams on the Kanawha River, and Gallipolis Locks and Dam (now Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam) on the Ohio River in the 1930s. Jenkinson and four other officials traveled to Hinton to study the construction site and to select a location for the office building that would house the Corps' engineering staff. Work began on this two-story wood-frame building on November 28, 1941.

Construction bids for the Bluestone Dam project were opened on December 23, 1941, with the following contractors submitting offers: Seaboard Construction Company of Mt. Kisco, New York, Dravo Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a joint venture by B. Perini & Sons of Framingham, Massachusetts. The government's estimate of contractor costs was $9,749,826; the high bidder was Perini and Sons at $11,722,750, Dravo was next at $11,376,080, and Seaboard Construction bid the lowest at $10,195,575. Major F. H. Faulkner, Huntington District engineer, announced that dam construction would begin in early 1942 after the Corps formally awarded the construction contract to the low bidder. These procedures included investigation of the company that submitted the low bid and approval of the contract by the U.S. Engineer's Office in Cincinnati. The overall estimate for all aspects of the project (including both the contractor's portion and direct government expenses) was about $14,000,000, but installation of proposed hydroelectric generation facilities raised the estimate to $22,000,000.

Seaboard submitted the low bid by slightly over one million dollars. However, the company could not obtain a performance bond and so the contract went to the Dravo Corporation on January 12, 1942. Francis R. Dravo, a mechanical engineer, founded Dravo Construction in 1891. By the turn of the century, the Pittsburgh company was experienced in heavy marine construction. Dravo Construction received its first federal government contract to build a river navigation structure in 1902, and is best known as a builder of federal locks and dams on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

In addition to lock and dam construction, Dravo also built concrete piers and abutments for bridges. Many of these bridges were located on the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers, but the company also constructed bridge piers for spans in Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. However, most of the company's bridge-related work was clustered in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Major clients for Dravo's bridge-related operations included the municipal governments of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. Dravo Corporation was involved in 47 major bridge construction projects between 1903 and 1947.

With regard to dam construction, Dravo was highly active in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. The company held the American patent for a type of roller dam gate developed by the Krupp Corporation in Germany. As a result, Dravo was contracted by the Huntington District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build navigation dams on the Kanawha River at Marmet and London, West Virginia, during the early 1930s. Dravo was also responsible for the construction of Gallipolis Dam (now Robert C. Byrd Dam) on the Ohio River, which was the largest roller gate dam in the world upon its completion in 1938.

Under the contract terms, Dravo would be the prime contractor doing all work in connection with building the actual Bluestone Dam structure. Certain appurtenant work items, such as drilling and grouting the deep curtain wall, clearing the reservoir area, removing cemeteries, and furnishing and erecting electrical and mechanical items, were exempted from this contract and awarded to specialists under separate prime contracts. Dravo's original contract called for completion of all work in 900 calendar days after reception of the notice to proceed, or by July 4, 1944.

The Corps of Engineers issued a notice to proceed for construction of Bluestone Dam on January 14, 1942. Within a week Dravo crews had commenced preliminary excavation, and began erecting a timber bridge over the Greenbrier River and a railroad spur to the construction site. The timber bridge was completed by March 6, 1942, and the first train rolled over it less than six weeks later. Next came the building of the construction plant and other facilities necessary for the dam's completion.

The construction plant was located on a wide plain along the east side of Bluestone River. Laid out on a linear plan with small-gauge railroad tracks that led to the dam site, it consisted of 29 primarily wood-frame structures, including personnel-related facilities, a concrete mixing plant, storage buildings, a boiler plant, sawmill, and various shop buildings. Since electrically powered cranes, vibrators, and other equipment would be used, an electrical line was run to the site and four electrical substations were built as part of the construction plant.

One of the most important components of the construction plant was the concrete mixing facility designed by the C. S. Johnson Company of Champaign, Illinois. It contained three 40-horsepower Koehring tilting mixers, six 100 cubic yard aggregate bins, and one large cement bin with a capacity of 800 barrels of cement. Also included were eight scales for weighing aggregate, cement, and water.


Historic view of the Bluestone Dam construction plant

The concrete plant was also equipped with a "dinkey" small-gauge railroad system for transportation of materials. Characterized as a 42-inch gauge track system built on elevated trestles supported on steel bents, Dravo apparently used one diesel 42-inch gauge dinkey locomotive and two gasoline-powered 36-inch locomotives on the project. Concrete was transferred from the dinkey cars to forms on the dam by whirler cranes mounted on steel trestles that were, in many cases, mounted on completed portions of the dam. Locations of the whirler cranes changed as concrete pouring began on higher sections of the dam.


Historic photograph of a dinkey locomotive and car.

Not all of the concrete preparation work took place at the construction site. A series of powerful blasts occurred at the aggregate quarry located 25 rail miles from the Bluestone Dam site at Fort Springs, West Virginia. Here, workers shot the rock that provided the necessary aggregate that was transported to the crushing plant for use in making concrete. The project is credited with detonating the largest blast of its nature in the southeastern United States at the time, when 160,000 pounds of dynamite reportedly blasted some 240,000 cubic yards of stone into smaller bits of aggregate.

In addition to the remote quarry blasting, on-site use of dynamite loosened the rock hillsides on which the dam itself would be erected. These blasts proved to be some of the most important, and visually dramatic, components of the entire dam project. Workers began by first drilling and preparing the holes into which the dynamite charges were set and tamped. Then came the earth-shattering detonation of the dynamite charges, followed by the introduction of heavy shovels that were employed to clear the blast area of exploded rock.

Another early task was the installation of a large cofferdam that diverted river flow and provided a safe, dry area for construction. This cofferdam was completed using a large whirler crane. Mounted on steel rails, the crane positioned materials and drove piling. Once cofferdam construction advanced into the river, it became necessary to build crushed rock fill mounds to support the crane. Located on the eastern section of the dam, much of the first cofferdam was built of steel sheetpile cells filled with sand, loam, gravel, and shale. Construction of the first cofferdam required approximately 93,000 linear feet of sheet piling weighing 1,430 tons. Builders completed the cofferdam on the "Ohio River Box Type" plan with timber sheeting tied together with steel coffer rods. The south wall of the cofferdam consisted of 19 cells, while the west wall consisted of 20 cells. As dam construction proceeded across New River, it became necessary to erect another cofferdam that was not completed until the second phase of construction in 1946.


Construction of the first cofferdam in May 1942. 
Note whirler crane positioned on a mound of crushed rock. (1949 Final Report) 


Historic photograph of a whirler crane used at Bluestone Dam. 
(Final Report, 1949)

Work on the construction plant, transportation facilities, and the first cofferdam proceeded fairly smoothly at the outset. However, the project soon fell behind schedule due to unforeseen difficulties with the foundation rock. After drilling a series of test holes into the riverbed to explore the condition of the rock under the dam, Corps officials ordered an exploratory shaft excavated at the toe of the dam. This drilling revealed a series of problems, including a seam in the foundation rock. Concerned that the seam might result in water seepage, a large open pit investigation was undertaken. A total of 16,023 cubic yards of rock were removed from this area, requiring 25,665 feet of line drilling and pouring of 11,737 cubic years of concrete backfill. Nearly the entire area under the dam was consolidated by the drilling of 879 holes to an average depth exceeding 45 feet per hole, followed by the placing of 89,666 bags of concrete grout.

Dravo Corporation recorded several construction delays due to materials arriving late or being totally unavailable due to wartime shortages. Many key items arrived weeks or months late, including concrete mixers, conveyors and locomotives for the narrow gauge railroad system used to haul building materials. Part of the problem, according to Dravo Vice President J. S. Miller, was the project's rating by the War Production Board. Particularly harmful was the demotion of the project from a favorable rating of A-2 (the highest rating was A-1-a) to a much less favorable rating of A-6. Construction delays do not appear to have been attributable to poor performance by Dravo Corporation, but they still had a devastating effect on company efforts to complete the project in a timely manner. Nevertheless, work proceeded during the early days of World War II in an attempt to secure much-needed hydroelectric power to alleviate a critical shortage.

The first concrete pour on the main dam at Bluestone was originally scheduled for July 13, 1942, but delays in receiving equipment held up the first pouring of concrete on the main portion of the dam until November 13, 1942, four months later than originally scheduled. A few months later the need for electric power reached crisis levels, and so the War Production Board raised the priority ranking, thereby allowing the contractor for a time to obtain needed materials and supplies. Finally, due to incessant delays and the slow pace of construction, the War Production Board directed that all work on Bluestone Dam be stopped on January 8, 1943, except for that which was necessary to bring the project to a safe suspension point. Dravo Corporation was directed to construct the portion of the dam to 1390 feet in elevation, a level approximating the top of Cofferdam No. 1, and to remove the cofferdam and suspend operations for the duration of the war. Once existing monoliths were completed to this level, work was suspended on March 1, 1944, with the dam approximately 35% complete.

During the first construction phase from 1942 to 1944 a great deal of important work had been completed. Namely, the dam site had been cleared, weak foundation rock had been removed and the resulting spaces filled with concrete, and work had begun on lower sections of some of the monoliths that make up much of the dam's concrete mass. However, there was much work yet to be done.