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The Documentary   Boulder City
City Design - Inside the Gate - Incorporation - The DocumentaryKNPB-TVPBS Online  

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Boulder City
Documentary Script

Pat Lappin:
The road that came down here was just two tracks in the sand. There wasn't much that you could say for it. People didn't come here unless they were going down to the river. It was a very hostile place. Only the Indians and fisherman, really, came down here.

The place where Boulder City stands today was nothing but barren desert in 1928, when Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the Colorado River in Black Canyon between Nevada and Arizona. It would be a monumental task - a dam to dwarf all others, built during a period of national uncertainty created by the Great Depression. Black Canyon lacked existing facilities to accommodate workers. Las Vegas, the nearest city, was 33 miles away. A simple construction camp would be insufficient for the size of the workforce and the duration of the project. The government decided to build an entire city. Bureau of Reclamation engineer Walker Young selected the site for the new town, to be called Boulder City. Frank Crowe, a veteran engineer of six other dams, came on as construction supervisor for Six Companies, Incorporated, the government's contractor. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead withdrew lands from public access for the project. Both the Federal Government and the state of Nevada wanted jurisdiction. The government had particular reasons for its interest in controlling the new city.

Dennis McBride:
The men who were designing Boulder City and directing construction of the Dam did not want their workers getting drunk in Las Vegas where liquor was flowing freely during prohibition, getting involved on Block 16 where the prostitutes lived and worked and they figured that if they had a separate town built by the government on land that was owned by the federal government then Nevada state law wouldn't apply here.

In August 1930, Government Survey Camp Number One was established near the proposed town site to house the engineers and surveyors during their preliminary work. As word spread about the project, thousands of jobless Americans moved into Las Vegas. With no guarantee of food, shelter or work, they carried with them only the dream of earning a living.

Frank Carroll:
Back east you had cities that had as much as 80% unemployment and especially in the steel mill towns. They needed to employ as many people as they could in many different projects and Hoover Dam was one of them.

Squatter's camps began to appear around the future location of Boulder City. Government Survey Camp Number One became known as McKeeversville, named for the government cook who lived there with his family. Another camp grew down by the river where the heat was most intense.

Dennis McBride:
It was called Ragtown; it was called Hell's Hole. Officially it was called Williamsville because Claude Williams was hired by the government to sort of keep an eye on things down there.

The Bureau of Reclamation turned to award winning architect Saco DeBoer to design the city plan.

Dennis McBride:
DeBoer's original design was actually very farsighted for its time. He was a prominent city planner who worked for the bureau of rec out of Denver and he had in mind a series of greenbelts separating various parts of town and circular blocks with multiple family dwellings, that kind of thing.

Frank Carroll:
He had golf courses, he had swimming pools. He had large recreation areas. Much more than was ever built.

But the stock market crash of 1929 radically affected DeBoer's plans. The government no longer had the money to implement his vision. DeBoer's design was scaled back.

Dennis McBride:
It was actually Walker Young and Frank Crowe who took the plan and sat down with it and said, "well we can't do this and we can't do this but we can do this and we can do this," and the BC (Boulder City) that we have today, the original part of it, is more a product of Frank Crowe and Walker Young that it is of DeBoer.

Even before they had a city to live in, the future residents of Boulder City began work on the Dam. The men spent their days laboring in the withering heat of the canyon, blasting away rock to divert the river water. Although the work was exhausting, the men, particularly those from Ragtown, knew that an even more trying ordeal awaited them when their shifts ended. They had to go home.

Pat Lappin:
The summer of 1931 was the hottest on record, so they're down here in the canyon w/o any kind of shelter. My friend Erma Godbey's husband found four two by fours and dug them into the ground. She had woolen blankets and spread those over the top and that was where they lived. She had four little children - she had two cribs when they came here and the rest of them slept on the ground. It was almost an impossible situation.

Frank Carroll:
It was 100 to 125 degrees in the summer near the river - 110 to 115 in BC.

Lee Tilman:
We worked in heat. (Our) clothes white (got) with salt. (We) hung them on the line and sprayed with water. At night we kept cool by sleeping with wet sheets. That was the early air conditioning.

Survival was difficult. With the nearest adequate medical facility over thirty miles away, disease and the severity of the desert took many lives. On one scorching July day, four women succumbed to heat stroke. Some of the men fell victim to the conditions as well. Their positions were quickly filled by enthusiastic replacements. Despite the hardships, the spirit of fairness and camaraderie in the camps was illustrated in the operation of riverman Murl Emery's store.

Pat Lappin:
He ordered canned goods, and since he was so busy taking people up and down the river he couldn't stay at the store, so what he did was he left a crowbar so people could open up these crates and they...it was kind of a self serve place. You went in and you got what you needed and you paid what you paid in the town where you came from.

Conditions slowly began to improve. In February 1931, the Boulder City train station opened and began supplying materials to the builders. By late summer construction on the new city began in earnest. A combination of independent contractors and State of Nevada crews paved a road to Las Vegas, while the grading of roads within the town was a burden shared by man and beast.

Dennis McBride:
They called them four up and fresnos. A fresno was the grader and they used four mules and they penned the mules right here on the town site. And that's an interesting thing about construction on Hoover Dam and BC is that it came in a period of transition from the days of mules and four ups to more mechanized and technologically advanced equipment for the time. So not only were they grading BC with mules they were also using state of the art equipment.

Boulder City was built in a triangular shape. At the peak was the Bureau of Reclamation Administration Building. Just below were the permanent government houses. Below the business district was the temporary housing for Six Companies workers, homes that would be torn down after the Dam was built. They were called dingbat houses because of the quick and shoddy way they were constructed.

Frank Carroll:
Three room house, living room, bedroom and bathroom. The crew was two men and they put the frame up and the plywood and the roof and had it ready to go in a day and a half and if you wanted your windows you put em in and screens you put em in and any other finishing you wanted done. You may leave in the morning and yours was the last house on the block, and come home and there were two more just below yours, now yours was not the last house on the block.

The dingbat houses were a great improvement over the squatters' camps, but the ragged construction style created hazards of its own. Dust blew in through the cracks in the walls and doorways, piling up against the houses, creating small dunes throughout the neighborhood.

Pat Lappin:
That was the worst for the women besides the heat. They couldn't put the babies on the floor because it was so splintery. About the first thing they did when they got a paycheck was to get congoleum for the floor. And of course that helped the dust problem but at least their kids could crawl around w/o getting splinters.

In just over a year, Boulder City rose from the dust into a fully functioning construction town of 5,000. Before the government's plan could reach full efficiency, however, outside forces infiltrated and disrupted the burgeoning operation. In August of 1931, workers angry at a Six Companies wage cut for some canyon laborers and incited by the radical labor organizers known as Wobblies went on strike. They demanded improved working conditions. The response from Six Companies was quick and decisive. It shut down construction and the camp. Non-striking workers were taken to Las Vegas. The strikers occupied dormitories and waited for government intervention that would support their position. It never came. The Government sided with its contractor, Six Companies, and moved the Wobblies and their supporters out of Boulder City. A gated fence and checkpoint station were built at Railroad Pass to prevent another influx of labor organizers, but also to control access of those trying to enter the Federal Reservation.

Dennis McBride:
They put the gate up and they wouldn't let anyone in to the Boulder City project federal reservation is what the withdrawn lands were called unless they had a signed pass from one of the subcontractors or from the contractors from the six companies or from somebody who hired them to show that they had a job here or that they were related to somebody here you know, that they had a very good reason to be here.

Pat Lappin:
You were stopped at the gate and couldn't bring any liquor into the reservation. So there was a big pile of broken bottles out there. I'm not so sure all the good stuff got broken but the stuff that came from bootleggers ended up out there. And on the road coming up to the gate was littered with bottles because they would drink it real fast before they got to the gate and throw it out.

The brief dispute was soon forgotten with the resumption of the daily work routine. But the government's security measures created a different atmosphere inside the gate.

Dennis McBride:
That immediately set up this understood barrier between us and them, inside and outside. And we have to remember too that it was just in the worst years of the depression, but everyone in Boulder City had a job and eventually had nice houses to live in. And everything was provided for them here. They didn't have to worry about anything that was going on in the rest of the country, outside the gate.

Racial discrimination had also contributed to the exclusivity of Boulder City. Even at the outset of Dam construction work was restricted to white Americans. Eventually a few minorities were hired, but whites still widely outnumbered them.

Dennis McBride:
Black people could not live in Boulder City. They were not allowed, so even if you were working on the Dam you still had to live in Las Vegas and make your way out here.

Inside the gate, the population of Boulder City went about the business of fulfilling its singular purpose - building Hoover Dam. The operation became routine. Every day workers ate their meals at the Anderson Brothers Mess Hall. Transport trucks arrived, unloaded exhausted men, and then returned to the Dam with a fresh cargo of workers. Meanwhile, small businesses thrived under managed competition. Off-hours workers went to the pool hall for relaxation. It all seemed very natural. Yet behind this sense of normalcy, one man, who was hand picked by the government to pull all the strings, manipulated life in Boulder City. In October 1931, Sims Ely was hired as the city administrator. Ely was given carte blanche power to run the city as he saw fit. Ely made sure the government's rules and regulations were enforced.

Pat Lappin:
He was a small, kind of dried up person. He was in his 60s or 70s when he came here to govern the town. He was sure he was right. Always he was sure he was right. Some people hated him with a passion.

Frank Carroll:
They needed a city administrator and someone who could keep everybody in line and act as kind of a city judge and keep the employees straight and operate the town as they needed somebody who could control things. He was sort of a mayor without the title. He was also a judge. He was in charge of the police department.

Floyd Jenne:
He lived in one of the brick houses on Utah Street. Right down the street where central market is now was Bert Smiths Hamburger Joint. Bert would close the doors at eleven, but if any lights were on Sims would say, "Go close Bert Smith up." I'd just seen Bert close the doors. I said, "The doors are locked, but there are people who just got in before eleven eating." "Don't give a damn, they can eat by their nightlight."

With Ely firmly in charge Boulder City may have been the safest place in the country. Anyone found guilty of a crime could lose his job, and that meant the loss of his home and his right to stay in town. Banishment was a chilling prospect.

Dennis McBride:
And that in those days really worked to scare people because if you were thrown out of the reservation you had no job you had no place to live you had nothing. You were essentially on the streets.

Most Boulder City residents lived in concert with the community's standards. They spent their time simply - working and raising families. In hindsight the existence of women and children in Boulder City may seem quite normal, but it came as a surprise to the Government. The Bureau anticipated the standard construction town population of single men. The Depression, however, created a workforce of family men as well. Their children needed an education, something for which Boulder City was not prepared.

Dennis McBride:
That was the damndest thing because here they were going to build a town and they didn't plan any schools and here all these people showed up to work dragging their children behind them and there was nowhere to go to school.

Pat Lappin:
Women took care of the social things. They got the churches and schools started. They just made do with what they had. Then Six Companies donated three houses for the grade school. Everybody donated chairs from their homes, desks, whatever they had.

Within a short time, a sense of community developed among the residents of Boulder City. Unlike more traditional construction towns, Boulder City offered families a sense of stability. Social and spiritual organizations strengthened their ties to the area.

Lee Tilman:
This was before it was unpopular to have, say, 5 or 6 kids and everybody had 5 or 6 kids. It was a great place to live, I think.

Still, the idea of getting outside the gate for a few hours appealed to many.

Frank Carroll:
Friday nights, Saturday nights. There were quite a few dance halls along Boulder Highway that the husbands and wives, they might not have kids or they'd get a babysitter and they go out for the evening and get away from town and go to one of the dancehalls along boulder highway.

Meanwhile, inside the gate, those not interested in gambling, liquor or highway dance halls had plenty to do. Baseball was a very popular sport among the men in Boulder City. Occasionally they would include some of their four legged friends. One could always find action in the pool hall as well. When not playing a game many enjoyed playing a tune.

Pat Lappin:
Music was very important. Almost everybody played an instrument and so they would get together and play just for their own enjoyment and for other people to listen to.

One very popular business was the only movie theatre in town. For the overheated men coming back from the long workday it was a most welcome sight, but not because they loved movies.

Frank Carroll:
The boulder theatre was the first building in BC that was air conditioned. It was one of the first in the west. Many of the men would get off shift and they'd pay their 15 cents or a quarter and that's where they would sleep for the evening. Because it was air-conditioned and it was so hot at night . . . even during the coolest part of the day.

At the height of the Dam construction period, Boulder City had the largest population in the state of Nevada, approximately seven thousand people. In the fall of 1935, after four years of unrelenting effort, the Dam was nearly complete. To celebrate the occasion, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to the Dam for a dedication. Boulder City eagerly awaited his arrival. The two-lane, winding road to the Dam was packed solid with cars. Thousands of people lined the crest of the Dam to hear Roosevelt speak.

Dennis McBride:
We can't imagine today by any stretch of our imagination the kind of hero worship that people had for a president as they had for Franklin Roosevelt. They blamed Hoover for the depression and this was the man who saved them from it.

But the completion of the Dam raised new questions about the future of Boulder City. The original plans envisioned a small operations and maintenance crew remaining in town. The Six Company houses, though, were to be torn down before the company moved on to its next project. No one considered the possibility that some of the residents would actually want to make Boulder City their permanent home.

Pat Lappin:
While some people moved on, more people than they anticipated stayed. They decided that this was the town that they wanted to stay in . They say over and over again the town was good to me. I managed to pay all my debts. They had debts when they came out here but they managed to clear them and so they never forgot that.

Six Companies decided to stop tearing down and instead sold its houses. It handed the completed Dam over to Uncle Sam and left the area while the federal government remained in control of the reservation. With that control came the continued responsibility for public services and administration.

Pat Lappin:
It was a nice cozy place to live because you had everything taken care of for you. If something happened in your home you called up the reclamation plumber and he came and fixed it. Your house was painted every few years by the reclamation painter.

Like children living under a parent's roof, residents grew comfortable with the quality of life afforded them by the government. This relationship continued for more than a decade after the completion of Hoover Dam, but eventually the "parent" grew weary of it.

Dennis McBride:
Should the government be in the business of running a town? Well, in the 30s, yeah and during the war, when this was such a strategic spot, yeah. But after the war and the postwar business boom that came, then the business owners decided, "we're kind of missing out on the postwar boom that's going on everywhere else in the country because we're still operating under this kind of socialism that made sense in the 30s when capitalism was failing, but doesn't make much sense now."

Gene Segerblom:
The businessmen in Boulder City were in favor but I believe the majority of just the residents who stayed here after the completion of the Dam were happy under the government control. So the first event was in 1946, Berkeley Bunker who was our senator, introduced a bill in Washington D.C. and it didn't even get out of committee.

The failed bill marked the first battle in a decade long conflict over incorporation. A report issued in June 1950 suggested a gradual release of control over the course of several years. There were many questions to be answered.

Gene Segerblom:
We didn't have a tax base. How were we going to pay for incorporation? How were we going to run a government? In 1951 we elected an advisory committee who was going to meet and they would meet and decide what should happen, the best way to do it. And the majority of them were against incorporation.

The committee's resistance prolonged the government's reluctant presence and extended the debate about Boulder City's future. Finally, by 1958, the government was determined to cut its ties to Boulder City once and for all. The Boulder City bill was passed and the businessmen would have their way, with a few exceptions.

Gene Segerblom:
The one thing we were very happy to do, we put in our incorporation papers there would be no liquor, gaming or prostitution.

On September second President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Boulder City Bill into law. Formal incorporation ceremonies in January 1960 made it official, and Boulder City was free to face its future.

Today, Boulder City is flush with reminders of the way things were in its earliest days. McKeeversville, the first squatters camp, remains, but under its new name - Lakeview. Government houses as well as their Six Companies counterparts still line the streets. The Boulder City Theatre still stands, but is no longer the most popular building in town. A few miles to the west, outside of where the gate once stood guard, is a casino. Decades later, Boulder City maintains a position as one of Nevada's unique places. There has been a grudging acceptance of change over the years. Since 1969, liquor has been legal in town, but opposition to gambling and prostitution remains and growth ordinances keep Boulder City from duplicating the sprawl of Las Vegas. Long time residents here are protective of the lifestyles that separate their town from all others in Nevada. They remember and respect a time when Boulder City was seen not simply as a gateway, but as a backbone, a vital support for a monumental effort of ambition, industry and hope.


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