The French Lake Dam Fish Ladder and the Temporality of Usefulness

French Lake Dam Fish Ladder (photograph: Larry Smith)

French Lake Dam Fish Ladder (photograph: Larry Smith)

In southwestern Oklahoma, the French Lake Dam forms a small artificial lake. Its edifice is unremarkable save for a tall spiral construction independent of but appended to it. Made of concrete, this twisting tower comprises an observation deck above a ramp, both of which extend from the top of the dam, another ramp that lets out into the creek below, and four identical, overlapping, and concentric loops that join the two ramps together. To those not familiar with this obscure architectural type, the turret-like structure’s purpose could not be less readily apparent. This odd accessory to the dam is in fact a fish ladder built in the mid-1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Its purpose is to enable fish, specifically salmon, to swim up West Cache Creek and over the French Lake Dam by way of its curves, through the lake, and still further upstream to spawn.

There is only one catch here: salmon are not native to Oklahoma, and neither lake nor creek has ever been stocked with any.

Today, the French Lake Dam fish ladder stands as a folly in the architectural sense and a monument to folly in Erasmus’ sense. I keep imagining, however, a future in which, due to a drastic ecological change, salmon actually use this purely ornamental commemoration of human error, for an apparent mistake would thereby prove to be something quite different: a demonstration of extraordinary if unintentional foresight. This sort of temporality seems to be one with which we, not fish, will soon become acquainted if we are not already. What resources lay in wait for us to find as we are forced to acclimate to a changed climate? Will we discover the things of whatever origin or manufacture that can take us where we need to go to fulfill our purpose? In other words, I think we might look at the French Lake Dam fish ladder less as a funny curiosity and more as an invitation to reflect on the significant lessons about usage and time that it offers us.

As an art historian, I can claim no special expertise in the infrastructural history of southwestern Oklahoman hydrology. I have gleaned what I know about the French Lake Dam fish ladder from my friend and colleague Brent Goddard (who first mentioned it to me), from my own firsthand experience of it, and from two far from scholarly sources.1 I have yet to identify much specific detail about the fish ladder’s construction, but it makes sense that it exists in Oklahoma, a state that transitions from prairie to woodlands and slopes gradually downward in elevation from north to south and west to east, becoming increasingly wet in the process. Oklahoma is accordingly full of rivers, including smaller creeks like the West Cache Creek that feed them, but it has no naturally occurring lakes apart from oxbow lakes and playa lakes, which are not lakes in the conventional sense. What Oklahoma has are more dammed lakes than any other state in the United States. They number over two hundred, and it is peculiar but not unfathomable that one of them, for whatever reason, has a fish ladder attached to it.

The French Lake Dam fish ladder is there, and precisely because its present dereliction makes it appear so irrational, I think that the structure raises some important questions about what scholars in the sciences and humanities are increasingly calling the Anthropocene. As an art historian, I am not necessarily tasked with analyzing all that this term entails. The current tendency amongst ecologically attuned art historians is to analyze art that addresses itself to ecological concerns and not to analyze the actual ecological concerns themselves, at least not art-historically. But why not? A fish ladder on West Cache Creek or any other piece of evidence that humanity is a planetary force is a potential object of art-historical investigation, and we might benefit in singular ways from what art history is uniquely qualified to say about such things.

A piece of infrastructure like the French Lake Dam Fish Ladder can be an object for art history by extending the scholarly procedures art historians have developed to discuss the materiality, form, and meaning of artworks beyond the conventional conception of art, which might get reconceived to encompass any and all traces of human artistry as they manifest in the world, in history, and in nature. Like anything, the French Lake Dam fish ladder assumes its place as a manmade artifact amidst various kinds of time that involve the worldly, the historical, and the natural: the Great Depression, stylistic mutations of spiral forms, the New Deal, the setting of concrete, the flow of water, the development of dam-building techniques, the seasonality of salmon migrations, persistence in the face of entropy, waiting, and so on. This invites analyses of how our artistry exacerbates, interrupts, directs, calms, or otherwise affects time. In the case of the fish ladder, I am particularly taken with inquiring into how, because it is not currently serving its intended purpose, it might serve instead as a prompt to think rather broadly about temporalities of usefulness that speak to the artistry with which we exert our agency on Earth.


Tatlin’s Tower, via Wikimedia Commons

For a structure of its age that seems not to have been maintained with much care or regularity, the fish ladder nevertheless appears in good working order, seemingly capable of providing salmon with uplift should enough water be let in to allow it. This futurity of the fishless fish ladder recalls to me two other, much more famous spiral-shaped monuments to the future built by artists in the twentieth-century: Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919), built amidst the initial fervor of revolution in Russia, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), constructed after the first signs of a flagging New Left began to show.


Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty; Image: Soren Harward, via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

The two works are like bookends to the last significant period in the cultural politics of the left, in the midst of which the fish ladder came to be built. Tatlin’s spiral is a utopian model for a building that was never builtand a call for the unrealized society that it was to have helped to usher into being, while Smithson’s is a dystopian actuality that manifests its own acquiescence to the inevitable decay it suffers at the mercy of physical laws of thermodynamics. The fish ladder, in its humble way, resolves the differences between these two monuments. If Tatlin’s tower projects upward toward a lofty aim it never reaches and Smithson’s earthwork spirals flatly and resolutely earthward, toward an end that will come only long after it has disappeared, then the fish ladder promises to be there when its time comes even if it never comes. It stands as a resilient witness to the possible timeliness of its own possible use.

All that the French Lake Dam fish ladder requires to actualize its potential is a change in circumstance that brings salmon to West Cache Creek and lets water pass continuously from the top of the dam down its upper ramp, through its loops, and back into the creek’s flow at the bottom of the dam. The fish, having come up to the dam, would know what to do. They instinctively understand how to use fish ladders (though some fish ladders are more successful than others at aligning with fishes’ instincts).

Would we, however, know what to do amidst a similar encounter? A change in our circumstance has been happening for some time now, and what we consider to be follies might actually prove useful as we meet obstacles that, like a dam for a salmon seeking to spawn, could put a halt to our movement. Indeed, insofar as our current plight is entirely a result of our own mistakes, we must come to understand those mistakes as something other than mistakes, since they will remain with us and with the planet from this point forward. It remains to be seen how they do so. We will perhaps have to think in unexpected ways — in ways beholden neither to the pursuit of further profit extracted from natural resources nor to imaginaries that center on fantasies of sustainability — to recognize the follies all around us as things with which we can fulfill aspirations to persist and, hopefully, coexist justly with everything else that, like us, relies on this planet’s temporalities of usefulness. Art history, which addresses itself to matter, form, and meaning triangulated in their historicity, might help us to comprehend these follies now that we have unwittingly found ourselves in the position of Oklahoman salmon that built their own fish ladders but might not know how to use them.

  1.   A website with suggestions for scenic drives from Enterprise rental cars, and a hiking guide by a local author Alan Thode. 

One thought on “The French Lake Dam Fish Ladder and the Temporality of Usefulness

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #03 | Whewell's Ghost

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