A Little Black Box

Black box with a plaque, small light, key switch, and two large red buttons
The Black Box is on display in the permanent exhibit at Chamizal National Memorial.


This isn't a black box you would find inside an airplane. So what is it?

On December 13, 1968 in El Paso, Texas, President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz met on the Santa Fe Bridge for the Inaugural Ceremony of the new concrete-lined channel named in honor of President Adolfo López Mateos, who had initiated the settlement of the Chamizal dispute six years before.

So why the black box?

The International Boundary and Water Commission built a temporary dirt dam to hold back the water upstream, and the plan was to have both presidents turn the key to arm the box. A light would come on and then they would simultaneously push the red buttons to detonate an explosive charge to blow up the dam and have a gush of water flow through the channel.

As it turns out, the Secret Service did not allow for all that wiring to be near the presidents. Instead an engineer was on standby and when he saw that the presidents had pushed the red buttons, he radioed down to another engineer who was supposed to detonate the charges. Well, when the charge was detonated, nothing happened! All that was seen was a puff of smoke! In haste, engineers bulldozed the dam so the river could flow through, for two nations and two presidents were anxiously awaiting the gush of water from the Rio Grande to flow through the new channel.

Partial contact sheet showing six black and white images of ceremonial black box and presidents
Partial contact sheet shows White House Photo Office pictures taken during the ceremony on December 13, 1968.


Last updated: January 6, 2022

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