Powering the Cherokee Nation
Since 1817, the area of the Grand River has been an active trade and travel spot. French traders trapped wildlife for their valuable furs by rowing along the riverbanks, paddling between trading posts and outlying settlements in search of wild game. Travelers would rest in the area in their journeys along the Texas Road.
The Cherokees themselves didn’t arrive until President Andrew Jackson forced them from their home in the Southeastern United States in the 1830s. The journey to modern-day Oklahoma killed thousands in the bitter cold and became known as the Trail of Tears. This relocation led to Native American settlement in the Grand River area. However, being free from encroaching white settlers wasn’t enough to bring prosperity to this group of hard-beaten people. As the twentieth century approached, poverty and a rising need for electricity became an increasing problem.
The first man to propose a dam to create a lake in the area was Henry Holderman. Holderman, along with his brother and two classmates, surveyed possible dam locations in 1896 while floating their houseboat along the winding Grand River. The man would fight for the majority of his life to try and create what would become Grand Lake. He and his supporters formed a lobbyist group called the “Rainbow Chaser” to petition Washington D.C. for the dam’s funding. Sadly, Holderman died before being able to see construction begin. In order to get the dam built, citizens had to literally hold up a sign to the president of the United States. A city ordinance in Vinita, a town along the Grand River, forced all presidential campaigners to stop if the train would pass through. It was an attempt to gain presidential attention and it worked. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his whistle-stop reelection campaign tour, was forced to halt, the citizens greeted him with a huge sign that read “Let’s Built Grand River Dam.” The president said he would see what he could do.
Finally in 1935, the Oklahoma State Senate wrote a bill creating the Grand River Dam Authority, authorizing a dam to be constructed. The group lobbied the federal government, amidst Great Depression needs and desperation for jobs and construction projects, for two years until 1937 when President Roosevelt approved the Works Progress Administration to fund the dam’s construction. Further troubles occurred, however, when then governor Leon C. Phillips opposed the dam’s construction. He felt that the lake would interfere with highways and other roads passing through the area.
When construction began in late 1938, despite the governor’s opposition, thousands of job-hungry workers flocked to Langley and Disney, tiny settlements that became instant boomtowns, seeking work at what would be called the Pensacola Dam. Concrete poured, workers shaped, and heavy machinery molded the dam into the largest multiple arch dam in the world. Architects chose the simple design due to a severe lack of materials. The dam’s hydroelectric plant would bring much-needed power to the area after years of neglect. Working 24 hours a day with bustling depression-era workmanship, the dam was completed only 20 months later. The finished Pensacola Dam was the first hydroelectric power station built in Oklahoma and fed its citizens their much-needed supply of affordable electricity. Governor Phillips set aside his reservations and opened the dam in 1940. By the end of the summer, heavy rains had filled the reservoir to fully complete the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. As of 2002, Pensacola Dam was on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The lake’s construction near completely surrounded the small town of Grove with water. As new bridges connected Grove to surrounding towns and highways, it became a bustling city with a rich culture and lake lifestyle. Grand Lake, and especially the Grove area, is one of only two lakes in Oklahoma where residents can build homes right on the lakeshore. Grove is the biggest center for Grand Lake activity and boasts both gorgeous lakeside living and attractions as well as entertainment for tourists from miles around.
While the area has a rich history, the lake itself has richness all its own: fish! Grand Lake has been called a proverbial “fish factory” by local fishing guides and continues to be ranked among one of the top bass and other variety fishing areas in the state. The lake has become such a successful fishing spot that there are several area businesses that charter 8-hour fishing trips for tourists wanting a great lake fishing experience. Jim’s Guide Service and Dempsey’s Fishing Guide Service both operate out of Grove, Oklahoma, both claiming to know the secret spots for the best fishing.
It’s not unusual to find white bass in hefty amounts, being a big fisher in the area. And catfish of all types come in the lake, including some 30-40 pound blue catfish in large amounts.
Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees is known for many events and year-round entertainment. Drawn by the allure of the lake’s size and abundance of fish, sportsmen come every year to compete in the Bassmaster Elite tournament “Sooner Run” held on Grand Lake. It is a major series on the Bassmaster tour and is televised on ESPN.
Sail boating, behind fishing, is probably the second biggest sport in the area. Sail boaters across the country come to experience the lake’s broad waters. The biggest draw is the prevailing wind coming across the lake due to its particular location facing a southwest to northeast direction. This makes sail boating ideal and can push boats quite swiftly. Sailboat enthusiasts love the great sailing conditions and come from all around to compete in annual races.
The scenic and romantic tours aboard the Cherokee Queen are also a major attraction to the area. This old fashioned vessel, modeled after the paddlewheel riverboats of days long passed, takes evening cruises around the lake to show off its natural beauty.
A new tradition that Oklahoma and its Native American residents have become known for is casinos. There are several casinos in the Grand Lake area. The closest is the Grand Lake Casino, just north of Grove, Oklahoma. This casino is owned and operated by the Seneca/Cayuga tribe and boasts one of the largest gaming floors in the state. Other casinos include the Buffalo Run Casino, roughly 25 miles from Grove.
For live entertainment, the town of Disney, near the Pensacola Dam, boasts a very unique theatre experience called the Picture in Scripture Amphitheatre. After 17 years over 150,000 people have come to see the wonderful productions of biblical stories in this outdoor theatre. Picture in Scripture is best known for its award-winning show “The Man Who Ran,” a production about Jonah’s story currently in its 23rd season. They do several other shows as well, including “The Elijah Factor.” Live animals, special effects, and grand sets make this award-winning theatre one of the area’s biggest attractions.
With all these attractions, all the fun and excitement to have on Grand Lake, it has become a very big Oklahoma icon. However, due to its distance from the Springfield area, and the presence of other lakes nearer Springfield, Grand Lake remains a special destination for Ozarkers who want a fun, unique lake experience they can’t get anywhere else.
For contact information on lodging, camping, boating, gear, and other area recreation please check:
Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce
918-782-3214 Fax: 918-782-3215
Grove Area Chamber of Commerce
Grove Area Chamber of Commerce
310 S. Main
Grove, Oklahoma 74344
Phone (918) 786-9079
Fax (918) 786-2909
Grand Lake Association
9630 Hwy 59 N, Ste B
Grove, OK 74344