Each May, a celebration called the Shasta Damboree brings as many as 1,000 people to line the streets of the city of Shasta Lake in northern California. This annual event features a parade, leadership competition, awards banquet and more to commemorate the construction of Shasta Dam and its 663-MW hydroelectric project. The multi-purpose Shasta facility brought about 4,700 jobs to the area during the Great Depression. The operator of Shasta Dam, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, participates in the Shasta Damboree and sponsors the Shasta Dam Workers Reunion to recognize the men and women who labored on the original project.
Roots of the Shasta Damboree
The Shasta Damboree has its roots in the Great Depression. During the summer of 1937, Reclamation announced that a “large concrete dam” would be constructed in Shasta County, Calif. Standing 602 feet tall and nearly 3,500 feet across, Shasta Dam contains 6.5 million cubic yards of concrete, making it the second largest concrete dam in the U.S. It was conceived as a multipurpose facility to provide flood control, a reliable water source, irrigation, wildlife habitat conservation, hydroelectric power and recreational opportunities. Shasta Dam is the keystone of the Central Valley Project, which provides irrigation to the central valley of California. This area includes millions of acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world. Construction of this dam began in 1938 and was completed in 1945.
After the announcement that construction would begin, thousands of people poured into the area in hopes of securing one of the about 4,700 jobs made possible by construction of the dam. Hopeful workers and their families started to spread out along the newly graded road stretching from Highway 99 toward the dam site. As these small settlements grew, a variety of commercial establishments — such as restaurants and grocery stores — sprang up along what came to be known as Shasta Dam Boulevard. This group of buildings grew and eventually was called Central Valley. Other small communities, such as Project City and Summit City, soon followed. Times were still tough, but there was work and a real sense of community in this small rural area of northern California.
As more families arrived in the booming area, pressure grew to provide education for the children of the dam workers. Recognizing this need, Reclamation donated the land for a new school, while Pacific Constructors Inc., the private company building Shasta Dam, donated building materials. The school project was on its way, but more was needed to achieve its construction.
In 1939, a community celebration called Hell’s Gulch was held to raise the additional money needed for the school. The celebration also provided an opportunity to forget the doldrums of the Great Depression, to celebrate the success of the new town and to encourage civic participation.
Hell’s Gulch was a fun event that was truly western in character. It featured shotgun weddings and street dances. Attendees even were able to witness the burning of the casket of “Old Man Gloom.” The community was coming together for a cause and having fun doing it. Toyon School was established later that year using the funds raised.
Two years later, a second Hell’s Gulch celebration was held, this time to raise money to buy a fire truck to relieve the bucket brigade. Again, the celebration was a success. Central Valley raised the money to acquire its first fire truck, a 1921 4-cylinder REO Speedwagon.
Unfortunately, World War II brought an end to these celebrations. It wasn’t until 1948 that Hell’s Gulch was revived. On this occasion, Hell’s Gulch was not a fundraising affair but instead a celebration to commemorate completion of a water system for the new towns, built by the newly formed Shasta Dam Area Public Utility District.
To keep the momentum of this celebration going, Central Valley’s civic organizations incorporated under the name Shasta Damboree Delegation in 1951. They renamed the celebration Shasta Damboree, and it has been an annual event ever since. The focus continued to be on building a strong community and having a little fun doing it. Over the following years, the Shasta Damboree celebration added several events, including carnivals, parades and various hobby shows. And the first Queen of the Shasta Damboree was crowned in 1952.
The Damboree today
Today, the Shasta Damboree organization’s purpose is still to promote the civic, economic, and social welfare of the Shasta Dam area. Each year, locals are encouraged to help come up with the theme for the celebration. The theme of the 2010 event was, “Keeping the Unity in Community.”
The Shasta Damboree is now a weeklong celebration that includes a Youth Leadership Competition, where young people perform public service projects and volunteer throughout the year to earn the title of Damboree King and Queen, and their court. Other activites include the Community Awards Banquet, the Talent Show/Spaghetti Feed, the For Pete’s Sake Car Cruise, and a pancake breakfast before the Shasta Damboree Parade. After the parade, the festivities continue in the community park, where people can enjoy local handcrafts, food, dancing, and music. Car enthusiasts are able to admire the classic cars lined up for the annual “Show and Shine.”
Reclamation participates in this annual event in several ways. Reclamation enters a float in the parade, designed and constructed by the staff at Shasta Dam, honoring the legacy left them by the dam builders. Reclamation also sponsors the Shasta Dam Workers Reunion for the men and women, and their families, who helped construct the dam. Each year, the remaining builders of the dam gather in the community to reminisce over old times and to share the stories of their involvement in this significant water project. Their pride is evident.
For Reclamation, participating in the annual Damboree helps promote and celebrate the significance of Shasta Dam and Shasta Lake and what this project has brought to the community and the country.
Each May, the small city of Shasta Lake (population 10,000) comes out in force to watch the annual Damboree Parade with great pride. The Shasta Damboree is a strong community tradition and a testimony to the hardworking men and women who built Shasta Dam. The dam builders came to secure steady work but stayed to create a community and a legacy. Because of them, millions today will never have to endure the floods and devastating droughts of the past — their lives are changed for the better.
— By Sheryl M. Harral, public affairs specialist, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior