Trove of historic Isabella Dam photos give insider’s view of the dam’s construction

May 11, 2023
by Lois Henry
A new book about construction of Isabella Dam is out just in time for completion of current construction. Courtesy of Kern River Valley Historical Society.
Lois Henry

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The best marketing team in the country could not have timed the release of Gene Verbeet’s and Larry M. Holochwost’s  latest history book better.

“The Building of Isabella Dam: Taming the Mighty Kern,” a pictorial history in coffee table form went on pre-sale through the Kern River Historical Society a couple of months ago.

About the same time the books went on sale, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the dam marking the completion of a years long project to address seepage issues in the dam and construct the striking labyrinth weir to prevent overtopping.

And, of course, all eyes are laser focused on the dam this spring as it fills with runoff from an historic snowpack.

“It all kind of came together and – voila – there it is,” Holochwost said of the timing of the book’s release.

The authors will be available at a book sale and signing event Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Kern Valley Museum, 49 Big Blue Road, Kernville. For more information call: (760) 376-6683. Cost is $32 per book. All proceeds benefit the Kern River Valley Historical Society.

The book is a fascinating look back at the conceptualization and construction of one of Kern County’s most important public works facilities.

The authors did a nice job laying out the  photos in an organized fashion and even squeezed in some “what the heck” moments, such as a small series showing trucks overturned and smashed in the course of the work as well as how construction had to be halted and restarted after flooding in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1952.

“I’m really very proud of it,” Verbeet said, noting that with all the content they had to work with, the pair was disciplined in keeping the book focused on the construction. “There were so many rabbit holes we could have gone down.”

There was the fight over how large a “minimum pool” the Army Corps of Engineers should maintain to support tourism for local businesses, and how the community prevailed to get the “Sierra Highway” built around the back side of the lake from Weldon to Kernville.

“We came across so much stuff,” said Verbeet, a long time Kern River Valley artist and history buff.

Workers backfill around a massive main dam control tower in 1952.

He and Holochwost, who retired after decades of working as an administrator in the Kernville and Southfork union school districts, already had a monumental task just with the photos.

They came across an album with more than 1,300 black and white photos taken by the Corps during the dam’s construction from 1949 to 1952 that was among artifacts left to the historical society by local historian Ardis Walker.

“As soon as we saw it, Gene had the idea for a picture book,” Holochwost said.

“We were very fortunate in that, every one of the photos had the meta data on the back,” Verbeet said. “They had dates and contractor names and information explaining what you were seeing in the photo.”

If they thought this book was going to go faster than their previous book about the formation of the Golden Trout Wilderness area, which Walker spearheaded, they were wrong. That book took about three years to complete.

The Isabella Dam book was clipping right along, but was waylaid with the rest of life by COVID. The team couldn’t visit the National Archives in San Francisco for two years.

As they waited, though, Verbeet met Evan Nelson, Project Manager of the Isabella modification project and that proved to be a “huge, huge benefit,” Verbeet said.

They submitted the old photos to Nelson to better understand what they were showing and Nelson even helped proof read the captions so there were no mistakes. Plus, Nelson provided photos of the current construction which makes a great addition to the ending of the book, Holochwost said.

“The book wouldn’t be what it is if not for Evan and his crew with the Corps,” Verbeet said.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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