Lahontan Dam and Reservoir stores the natural flow of the Carson River and additional waters diverted from the Truckee River via Derby Dam and the Truckee Canal. It is the distribution point of irrigation waters that make the desert bloom. Located in Churchill County, this key feature of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation Project is now known as the Newlands Project. Lahontan Dam was built during the early years of the twentieth century in response to the 1902 passage of the Federal Reclamation Act. Construction on the dam proper began in 1911 and was completed in late 1915.
The U.S. government determined that the entire construction process would be different from previous efforts such as those at Derby Dam, where dissension on the sites and in neighboring communities plagued the project. To that end, construction bids were not let to private companies. Under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and its chief engineer, L.H. Taylor, Lahontan Dam would be built and operated by federal employees. Even the mules used were, essentially, government employees.
Workers were, for the most part, experienced, skilled tradesmen who had worked previously on U.S. government projects—both domestic and foreign—including some who had worked on the Panama Canal. Existing job applications show the expert caliber of men hired to build Lahontan.
These federal workers enjoyed many benefits beyond the monetary. A company town called Lahontan City was built to accommodate them, as there were no living accommodations within miles of the job site. In addition, an onsite doctor was hired to care for the workers' day-to-day injuries and emergencies. Medical records from this period show a variety of ailments were treated, from scarlet fever and mumps to infected wounds, influenza, gastritis, appendicitis, lumbago, burns, and even gunshot wounds.
State-of-the-art machinery complemented the age-old techniques of men and animals in the massive effort of dam building. A Bucyrus steam shovel and cyclone drill worked steadily alongside hired mules and drivers with their sheepsfoot rollers and scrapers. The heavy-duty equipment moved rock and debris the animals could not budge, yet it was the teams that came to the rescue when the equipment became mired in the mud.
A railhead at Lahontan City was established to serve as an offshoot of the railway from Hazen. Supplies and equipment for the dam and the town were shipped via this route. While the spur track is no longer in use today, it was essential for the construction at the dam.
Lahontan Dam was proclaimed complete and water began to flow into the reservoir in 1915. Though it would take many months to fill, and yet another year before the first waters were distributed to project farms, the construction phase was primarily over by January of 1916.
Today Lahontan Dam serves many purposes in the region. While fulfilling its original purpose for agricultural irrigation, it can generate up to 6,000 kilowatts of electricity from the two power plants at the base of the dam. Lahontan Reservoir provides the area with recreational opportunities for camping, boating, swimming, water-skiing, and fishing.