"Before completion of Lost Creek Dam," said Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield at the dam and lake's 1978 dedication, "the Rogue River's character was either drought or flood."
In the audience, sheltered from a rare summer rainstorm, were two men who had worked 23 years to see this day.
While Bill Jess and Ben Day were hardly the only people who had pressed the government with a never-ending zeal to stop the flooding and regulate the yearly water supply, no one had ever worked harder. They were at the forefront of a movement, leading and working together with hundreds of dedicated allies.
Jess and his brother, George, brought their ailing parents to the Rogue Valley in 1952, settling on a cattle ranch along the Rogue River near Eagle Point. The brothers were Stanford University graduates and both had served as officers during World War II.
Only a few months after their arrival, the river rose to its highest measured level since the 1927 flood that had washed away auto-camp cabins, destroyed bridges and submerged the swimming pool at Jackson Hot Springs under 4 feet of water. Though not as devastating as that flood, the 1953 version still washed away part of the brothers' ranch, leading to discussions about how to control floods.
Day had arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1914, when he was barely 2 years old, and grew up on the family's Sams Valley ranch. He saw the 1927 deluge and the periodic flooding that plagued the county over the years. A rancher all of his life, he still found time to serve two terms in the State Assembly and one term in the state Senate. He received his law degree in 1957.
The Rogue River flood of December 1955 caused nearly $9 million in damage, ranking it close to the worst floods in recorded Rogue Valley history: 1861, 1890 and 1927. It also tore away a good chunk of Jess' ranchland.
One month later, 14 people, including Jess and Day, met in a Grants Pass home to discuss flood control. With Jess chosen as chairman and in cooperation with the Grants Pass Chamber, they began holding mass meetings to drum up support. In February 1956, they organized the Rogue Basin Flood Control and Water Resources Association, and in July filed as a nonprofit corporation with the state of Oregon.
"The name of the group came about as the result of compromise," wrote Jess in a brief history, now in the files of the Southern Oregon Historical Society. "During the organizational meetings, it became clearly apparent that there was wider interest in the river than just flood control."
There always had been opposition to a dam on the Rogue, primarily from fishermen and the tourist industry, but opposition reached its peak when a dam was proposed in 1935.
"They united in the cry, 'No dams on the Rogue River,'" Day told an Oregonian reporter. "We began to ask, can a project be put in which will be beneficial to fishing?"
After years of study, they believed they had the answer — three dams, at Lost Creek, Elk Creek and on the Applegate River.
"We will reduce the water temperature by 10 degrees," they assured fishermen, "and we will more than triple the flow of the river in the period that is critical to salmon."
The project was approved by Congress in 1962, but funding wasn't appropriated until 1966, far too late to defend against the 1964 flood, considered the valley's second worst after the 1861 flood.
"This lake is a legacy to the future," Jess said at the 1978 dedication, "one which will serve the needs of those who follow us."
William Jess died in September 1995, and in 1996 Sen. Hatfield introduced a bill to rename Lost Creek Lake Dam as the William L. Jess Dam and Intake Structure.
Ben Day died in April 1998.
Although all of the dams faced some opposition, the Applegate and Lost Creek structures were completed. Elk Creek Dam construction began in 1986 but, mired in controversy, it was never finished.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.