COMMENTARY: This month is the centennial celebration of a large dam in Southern New Mexico that was officially named the Woodrow Wilson Dam. Nope, that name didn’t stick. We know it as Elephant Butte Dam.
The celebrations this month tell many stories about how the Rio Grande Project was started and how the engineers constructed the first phase of the dam, completing it by 1916. At the time it was constructed, Elephant Butte Dam was the largest man-made dam and lake in the world. Electric generation was added in the 1930s.
But there is more to the story of this dam. If we were alive 100 years ago we would have been aware of German sponsored terrorism in the United States. Most people remember the Pancho Villa raid on Columbus in March 1916.
But there was more terrorism going on at that time.
There was even an attempt to destroy Elephant Butte Dam — which historians note, but isn’t mentioned in any of the celebrations. New Mexico author Eugene Rhodes wrote a story about this attempt entitled, No Mean City, in the May 17 and 24, 1919 Saturday Evening Post.
Rhodes died in 1934. In 1975 there was a collection of his stories published: The Rhodes Reader: Stories of virgins, villains, and varmints. This is where I found the story. The book is still available at Amazon.com.
The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center was not the first major terrorist attack on New York City. There was a large terrorist attack on New York City at 2:08 a.m. on July 30, 1916. The target was a huge munitions supply terminal called Black Tom Island.
German terrorists attacked Black Tom Island because it was shipping ammunition, powder and artillery shells to the Allies. These were loaded onto ships bound for France and Great Britain.
In 1916, America was technically neutral in the European War. However, America leaned heavily toward the Allies by supplying munitions to the French and British. The German High Command considered America an enemy so they created a terrorist organization inside America.
The German saboteurs started fires in the ammunition transportation areas. The resultant blast leveled Black Tom Island and peppered the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel. Citizens in the New York City area were terrorized by the explosions that broke most of the windows in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The story is detailed in a 1989 book by Jules Witcover, Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America, 1914 -1917.
The perpetrators were agents of the German government. In that era, the largest terrorist-supporting government in the world was Germany. There were more than 50 major acts of terrorism in the United States from 1914 to 1917 sponsored by the German government.
That same month, German agents attacked the Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Several people were killed in that attack. Financier J. P. Morgan was shot but survived a terrorist attack. America struggled with how to control terrorism.
But what is not part of the discussion today was the attack on New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Dam. After talking to several historians, it seems plausible that the ultimate aim of the destruction of the dam was to keep our country home dealing with this instead of coming to the side of France and England. Our country already had 10,000 soldiers in Mexico trying to capture and bring to justice Pancho Villa.
Even though the Germans were engaged in the attempted destruction it appears there was an attempt to make it seem Mexico did this because of our invasion of their country. Or, worse, maybe British agents did this to try to pin it on Germany.
In 1993 I wrote a screenplay, Hero’s Choice: between duty and honor lies every hero’s choice. Unfortunately, the eight saboteurs were killed in the attack on the dam, so much of what I could write had to be fiction because there were no German survivors to tell their side of the story.
Still, in celebrating the 100 years of Elephant Butte Dam, we should acknowledge some of the rest of the history. It was a dangerous time back then, as it is now.
Michael Swickard is a former radio talk show host and has been a columnist for 30 years in a number of New Mexico newspapers. Swickard’s new novel, Hideaway Hills, is now available at Amazon.com.