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Wed, June 19

Amazing Places: Rains can bring Sullivan Lake to life

Verde River Gorge — dry as a bone! (Nigel Reynolds/Courtesy)

Verde River Gorge — dry as a bone! (Nigel Reynolds/Courtesy)

Like most lakes in Arizona, Sullivan Lake is really a reservoir with a man-made dam. Back east, the Great Lakes are natural lakes, but most other American “lakes” are not — the ones on the Columbia, the Colorado, and more locally on the Salt and the Verde.


A major flood at Sullivan Lake, with the old clubhouse in the background (Nigel Reynolds/Courtesy)

These reservoirs were built to preserve water for agriculture and for us to drink. Usually a hydroelectric plant provided cheap electricity, and perhaps the dam reduced flooding.

The saying in the West is that “whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting”. When you look at the seven lower basin states arguing over the Colorado River water, this adage is still true today — especially for Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

I’m guessing few of you have heard of Sullivan Lake — it’s where the Big Chino Wash ends and the Verde River begins. It’s an easy 24-mile drive north of Prescott with no hiking required. Go north on Highway 89 through Chino Valley to milepost 333.4 (before reaching Paulden). Turn right there onto old Highway 89 (signed). The Verde bridge is 2.1 miles farther on. Actually two bridges — the one on the right is the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge, abandoned in 1983. Park there, either just before or after the bridge. Then walk onto the highway bridge for the views (there’s little traffic but still be careful).

Look away from the railroad bridge and you’ll see Sullivan Lake — more of a pond than a lake. You’ll see the old masonry dam. To the left, you’ll see a square building that appears to be in ruins. (Keep reading and I’ll soon tell the fascinating history behind all this.)

If you look in the other direction, you’ll see the first photo — the view looking east down the gorge, which is considered to be the start of the Verde River.

It’s dry and not very exciting. However, the second photo is what you might see looking upstream if you were lucky enough to be there after a period of very heavy rain. Sullivan Lake is now a real lake, and the dam has disappeared completely — covered by the torrent flowing down the Big Chino Wash.

Look carefully in this photo and you can make out the squat and square building on the high ground with the flood in the foreground and the lake extending behind it. I took this photo back in February 2005. The people who lived farther upstream on the Big Chino were stranded for days during that flood.

Fortunately, this rarely happens.

The history behind the lake, the dam and the building goes back more than 80 years. In the 1930s, the Prescott Sportsmen Club persuaded the city to buy some land in the Paulden area to create a fishing and duck hunting lake for the club. The city then persuaded the federal government to build a dam as a WPA project – providing jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression. After a few years, the dam was completed and the lake was filling with water. But, out of the blue, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. All WPA projects were immediately stopped, leaving the clubhouse unfinished.

Regrettably, the designers hadn’t taken into account the seasonal river flows during the monsoon period and occasional winter floods, which brought tons of silt down the Big Chino Wash. As well as filling the lake, this silt also cracked the dam. By the end of the war, the sportsmen were out of luck.

Read my blog at for exciting extra photos and lots more information related to the lake, the source of the Verde and the Sportsmen Club. Also, visit Drew Desmond’s website for more details:

Nigel Reynolds ( was born in England and has lived in Arizona for 40 years, and in Prescott for over 20 years. “Exploring is in my blood,” he says. To see today’s or previous articles with the photos in color, visit and enter “Amazing Places” in the search-bar at top right – you’ll need to be a subscriber.


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