The Hidden Treasure of New Mexico

Conchas Lake, NM

---------- Where the Toy Sheds are Bigger than the Homes  ----------

Conchas Lake State Park was established in 1955 and named after the Conchas River, one of the tributaries of the Canadian River. It is 24 mi north of Newkirk and 31 mi northwest of Tucumcari on NM–104 and NM–129 (Fig. 1). Conchas is Spanish for shells and was applied to a group of Indians living in the area when Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th century. The word conchas may be a corrupted name that is confused with the Spanish word conchos, a term also used to describe the Native American tribes in northern New Mexico.

The dam that formed Conchas Lake was the 17th dam in the country built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (Young, 1984). One of the state’s oldest dams, it was completed in 1939 to control floods, store water for irrigation and local supplies, and assist in local economic recovery from the Depression (Welsh, 1985). More than 3,000 people were employed to build this concrete and earthen dam that is 235 ft high and 1,250 ft long. The lake has a reservoir capacity of 528,951 acre-ft of water and sediment. It extends 14 mi upstream of the Canadian River and 11 mi upstream of the Conchas River.

Ancient petroglyphs, marine fossils and tales of Spanish Conquistadors mark the past of Conchas Lake. Today, twenty-eight different species of fish, including walleye, large-mouth bass and bluegill await the avid angler while many come to Conchas Lake for boating, water skiing, and swimming. Boating facilities include a marina, boat ramps on both the north and south side of the lake, and concessionaire stores that carry fishing and boating supplies. Three separate recreation areas provide a total of 200 campsites, and ample room to hike, picnic, or watch wildlife. Lodging facilities are available at the lake as well as a nine-hole golf course. Interpretive activities are offered at the Corps of Engineers Visitor Center or through New Mexico State Parks.

This location is of historical significance because of the construction of Conchas Dam from 1935 - 1939 by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era. Conchas Dam became the 17th dam project built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the first district in New Mexico was established here.

Conchas Dam is the oldest and one of the largest water projects of the US Army Corps of Engineers in New Mexico. Begun under the New Deal’s Emergency Relief Act of 1935, the construction of the dam and associated facilities provided employment for nearly 2400 people. The WPA supported school teachers for the children of the work crews and after the dam was completed, the work camp provided housing for CCC crews building onsite recreational facilities. Today the headquarters building is still in use, and five other units provide housing for staff.

The following quotes are all from a 2005 National Register of Historic Places nomination form:

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Conchas Dam project on July 29, 1935 as part of the Works Relief Program under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Congress adopted it in the Flood Control Act of 1936 to provide flood control, irrigation, and municipal water supply benefits. The undertaking involved nearly every New Deal program created by the Roosevelt. Both the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration (PWA) were involved with the construction of Conchas Dam, while the CCC built the Permanent Housing and Administration Building and park.”

“Built between 1935 and 1939 by the U. S. Army, Corps of Engineers, the Conchas Dam project was a direct result of the many New Deal Programs designed to put Americans back to work and bring the country out of the Great Depression. In addition to the dam, an 89-building town with all necessary amenities was constructed with adobe bricks. It was later dismantled and the adobe bricks were reused to build the U.S. Corps of Engineer’s permanent housing and an administrative building. They survive, though altered, as part of the legacy of this large New Deal engineering project. In addition to the various construction related programs, two paintings of the dam were commissioned through the Federal Artists Program.” 

“Civilian Conservation Corps and other government employees dismantled the construction town following completion of the dam in 1939. The adobe blocks were salvaged and reused to build the Corps of Engineers’ permanent administration building and housing. These buildings stand today as examples of the historic and architectural resources of the New Deal in New Mexico.

After completion of the housing and permanent facilities, the CCC created a small 6.2-acre park of grass and trees adjacent to the administration building. Many of the trees planted still exist today and prompt visitors to delight in the “oasis” in the desert. As a final touch, the CCC again used recycled adobe to build an imposing gateway into the Administration Area.” 

The CCC-built administration building of the park contains two WPA murals “by Odon Hullenkremer, a Hungarian-bom artist who worked with the WPA Federal Art Project during the 1930s. The larger of the paintings, six feet by twelve feet, hangs on the north wall of the Visitor Center in the administration building and is called “Commencement of Main Dam Construction.” The foreground of this painting depicts four surveyors with their instruments. The actual identities of the surveyors depicted have been verified by their descendants. In the background are depicted machines and men at work. The second Hullenkremer painting, “Conchas City, New Mexico” measures approximately four feet by eight feet and hangs on the south wall of the conference room of the administration building. This painting illustrates from a distance the town built for the construction and support personnel of Conchas Dam. The town itself is dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.”