New book by local author captures pictorial history of Oroville Dam construction era


OROVILLE — Looking out across Lake Oroville, it”s hard to imagine towns and landmarks that existed before Oroville Dam was built.

Many of those are gone now because of the dam, but photographs taken before, during and after construction offer glimpses of the past in a newly published book, “Images of America: The Building of the Oroville Dam.”

The author is Yuba City resident Larry R. Matthews, who spent his teenage years in Oroville watching the dam emerge.

“I remember the excitement of citizens of Oroville and Butte County — all the people being hired, the changes being made, the hope it would bring a lot of jobs and recreation to the area on a permanent basis,” said Matthews in a recent interview with this newspaper.

Matthews was 12 years old in June 1963, when he and his family moved to Oroville from Southern California.

At that time, people enjoyed a favorite swimming hole at what was Curry-Bidwell Bar Recreation Area, and construction of the dam had been underway for about two years.

Matthews, now 62, attended junior high school in Oroville and graduated in 1969 from Oroville High School. From there, he joined the Navy and went to Vietnam twice.

Later he returned to Oroville, spent time as a radio disc jockey and also worked as a Veterans Services representative for Butte and Yuba counties. He also worked as a child support specialist for 21 years before retiring.

“When I moved up to Oroville, the core block was being built,” he said. “I was fascinated by the construction, and was able to watch it grow to its height of 770 feet.”

Matthews said he has always liked to write. When he moved to Oroville, he read Bill Talbitzer”s book “Lost Beneath the Feather.” The history interested him.

Over the years, he talked a lot with people about Oroville”s history and began writing history-based websites in 1998.

One such website was about the Oroville Dam train tunnel collision, which he also included in the book.

Matthews said he was approached in 2012 by a representative of Arcadia Publishing who saw the train accident history and asked if he”d do a book on building the dam. Matthews agreed.

It took about 15 months, he said. Matthews spent five hours at the California Department of Water Resources archives, searching through hundreds of photographs.

He also obtained pictures from the Butte County Historical Society and from individuals he came in contact with through a Facebook page.

Much of the information he wrote with the photos came through several sources he researched, he said.

Time has dimmed some of his own memories, but he does still have recollections.

He and his parents used to go to an overlook every week to watch the construction. The overlook still exists above the dam and was recently restored for public use.

“It seemed like every time I went to the dam, you could see it rise a little more,” he said.

Matthews also got to see officials blow up Hansell”s Bridge.

The bridge used to be where the dam is now.

Watching the demolition was “very exciting,” he said.

“There was a lot of people there that day,” he said. “Everyone expected a colossal explosion, which to me it was. It was very impressive.”

There were two overlooks where people could observe the progress on the dam. People had to go to the upper site to watch the explosion because officials were afraid flying shrapnel would hurt someone, he said.

Matthews remembers visiting a stone building and the community of Bidwell Bar before buildings were moved or demolished, and also got to tour the Hyatt Power Plant before it was completed.

“I worked for the high school newspaper,” he explained. “I saw a man wiring up generators.”

As he contacted people and compiled photos for the book, he often heard from people who talked about how much fun it was to swim at Bidwell Bar and how they miss it.

Bidwell Bar was inundated when the dam was filled.

“I learned there”s a lot of people out there that think being involved with building the dam was one of the highlights of their life,” he said.

Matthews also found children and grandchildren of the men who built the dam are very interested in what their ancestors went through.

For him, much of the reward in doing the book has been in hearing from people who are excited to see the photos of themselves or relatives.

“You see these photos and don”t know if people are alive or what they”ve done,” he said. “I really like connecting with these people. I feel good about it.”

Looking back, Matthews indicated everyone was interested in the dam project, but the expectations didn”t pan out.

“I think people expected Oroville to become a bigger town, with more jobs and more recreation than it turned out to be, for whatever reason.”

Matthews concluded by saying he hopes the book does justice to the accomplishments of the construction workers who built the dam.

He dedicated the book to the 34 men who died building it.

“I felt they”d given the maximum effort to build the dam,” he said. “The dam itself is a monument to everyone that worked on it.”

“The Building of the Oroville Dam” costs $21.99 and is available at local and online bookstores or through Arcadia Publishing at, or 1-888-313-2665.

Reach Barbara Arrigoni at 533-3136,, or on Twitter @OMRBarbara.

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