It has been compared to the Acropolis of Ancient Greece and the Coliseum of Imperial Rome. Rising 726 feet above the raging waters of the Colorado River, it was called by the man whose name it bears “the greatest engineering work of its character ever attempted by the hand of man.” In fact, Hoover Dam reflected the engineering genius and design philosophy of the time. And, in the midst of the Great Depression, it was a symbol of hope for the dispossessed.
Winding through California’s richly fertile Imperial Valley, the Colorado River was wildly unpredictable—flooding in the spring, drying up in the summer. The only way to harness this indispensable resource was to build a dam, which in turn would provide badly needed electricity to the western states. It was a brilliantly conceived scheme, uniting public works and private enterprise. A giant construction company was formed by six previously smalltime contractors.
The engineering problems were stupendous, the solutions ingenious. Before work could start, the river had to be diverted. Four tunnels, each 50 feet in diameter (which today could accommodate a 747 without the wings), were drilled through the solid rock walls of the Black Canyon. Men called “high-scalers,” lowered in bosun’s chairs, stripped the canyon walls of loose rock.
For two years, workers poured concrete 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Working conditions were dangerous, pay was low, housing inadequate. But it was the Depression, and many were grateful to have work. Five thousand men and their families settled in the Nevada desert. There were two mess halls, each seating 600; the dishwasher was sixteen feet long.
The federal government built Boulder City, an efficiently run, well-ordered company town, but dozens of tent cities sprang up—honky-tonk towns dotted the road from the dam to the small town of Las Vegas.
In 1935 the job was finished under budget and ahead of schedule. But Hoover Dam also raised policy questions about the economic and environmental impact of large scale irrigation throughout the West.
Temporarily renamed Boulder Dam by the Roosevelt Administration, the project’s electrical output helped build the ships and planes used in World War II; its water grew fruits and vegetables in California. It tamed a wild river and, for a time, renewed faith in American ingenuity and technology.
The contradictory history of a dam that became a statement of American power and prestige.
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