Eastern Oklahoma owes much of its prosperity to Henry Holderman’s vision
By William Swaim
There are no markers with the name Henry Holderman at the Pensacola Dam site or any of the dam sites on the Grand River. No mention of him is made on the Grand River Dam Authority’s large plaque at the dam site. No honoring of the man who spent most of his life working to realize a vision he had for the River and the Cherokee Nation – to construct a dam along the Grand River and bring hydroelectric power to his people.
Henry Holderman was truly a forgotten man. Yet it was his foresight, his life’s work that ultimately led to the historic construction of the dams along the Grand River and the prosperity that followed.
Holderman, who lived in Wyandotte and is buried at the Wyandotte Cemetery alongside his wife, Maude, hasn’t been forgotten by the Cherokee Nation or the people of this region who know the ‘whole’ story of the dam construction.
The Cherokee Nation and the Wyandotte Nation hosted an evening honoring Holderman June 24 at the Wyandotte Nation Casino Event Center, 100 Jackpot Place, Wyandotte, Okla. The event featured a program paying tribute to the Cherokee citizen as well as a dinner. Jennifer Loren emceed the event as Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker discussed the significance of the dam and Grand Lake. Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Disney Mayor Judy Barger also spoke at the event. Relatives of Henry Holderman were also honored at the event. The Cherokee Nation Color Guard posted the colors and Axyl Langford sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
A monument honoring Holderman is now on display at Twin Bridges State Park – giving long overdue recognition to a man who played an important part in the history of this state.
Holderman lived long enough to see his vision become a reality, but saw none of the money or credit that came along with the realization of his dream. One week after his death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he was entitled to over $1 million dollars for his holdings on the Grand River that made the construction possible. A man who spent the final years of his life living off $45 a month “old age pension.”
Born in 1874 in Chetopa, Kansas, Holderman obtained a fifth grade education at the Wyandotte Mission School and worked at the family sawmill. Holderman’s vision started when he was a child, inspired by his father, who wanted Henry to build a dam on the Grand River.
As a teenager, he was involved in a ‘youthful altercation’ that led to him no only leaving the area, but the country. A move that ultimately sent him on his lifelong journey. He worked in the diamond mines and served as a hunting guide in Africa before working on the construction of mud and log dams in India.
When he returned to Oklahoma in 1896, he sought to survey the river and hired two student engineers. Along with his brother, Bert, and the two engineering students, Holderman boated down the river and selected three possible sites. Interestingly enough, the sites were a few feet from where engineers later deemed as the dam sites some 40 years later. Sites that would create hunting, fishing and a boating mecca for the state as well as supplying the electricity for many people in eastern Oklahoma.
Holderman obtained ownership of the sites and the riverbed from the Cherokee Nation. He spent the majority of his life doing everything possible making his vision a reality, spending nearly every bit of time and money he had trying to enlist capital and political support for his idea.
Holderman rejected offers from various capitalists that would have made the cost of electricity so high the Cherokee people would not have been able to afford it. He also wanted to be a millionaire so he could reward the friends who had helped him with the project.
He nearly gave up on the dream at one point. While his dream was finally realized – thanks in part by a presidential visit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt — the construction work was done by others and a lot of the credit with it.
In 1935, Oklahoma established the Grand River Dam Authority. The GRDA’s cornerstone project was the Pensacola Dam – it was completed in 1940 and the dam’s power plant began commercial operation in 1941. The Dam became Oklahoma’s first hydroelectric power plant and the world’s longest multiple arch dam.
Holderman died in 1951.