American History: the Construction of Hoover Dam

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The construction of Hoover Dam is considered to be one of Americas finestengineering achievements. However the dam that rose from the floor of Black Canyonwas not only a structural accomplishment, it was a proposition firmly rooted inpracticalities. The necessity of such a dam had been obvious for more than twodecades. The Colorado Rivers cycles of drought and flood in the American southwestincapacitated the growth of the agricultural industry. It was felt that a dam that couldcontrol the river would also provide hydroelectric power, eventually rendering the damself-financing. The growth of Las Vegas and Southern California as major metropolitancenters also depended, to a large extent, on the availability of water and power. Almostfrom the beginning of its construction, the dam possessed an epic quality thatstimulated the national imagination. It was apparent that the meaning of the dam itselfwas beyond even that of a structure that equaled the vast landscape it inhabited. Thedam, and the people who built it , began controlling nature in a new and powerful way.Although construction actually began on the Hoover Dam in 1931, site testingfor the project had begun early in the 1920s. In 1927 the Swing-Johnson bill waspassed by Congress and President Coolidge, which gave the go ahead on Hoover Damproject. So many construction companies around the country began to evaluate theproposals. Most agreed that the plan was too ambitious, too difficult, the landscapewas too unforgiving, and the technology was not advanced enough to build a dam ofthat size.But on March 11, 1931; Six Companies Incorporated, a conglomeration ofsix smaller construction companies, won the job with a bid of $48,890,955. (The StorySince this dam site was so remote , the first task was to lay roads and railroadlines, so that all the materials would be easily accessible. The Colorado River , mostimportantly, had to be diverted. Four diversion tunnels were cut over a period of a yearthrough the bedrock of Black Canyon. A temporary dam was constructed whichdiverted the water into the diversion tunnels. Meanwhile, the loose rock had to beremoved from the canyon walls. Special men were required for the job, they werecalled high-scalers. They had to climb down the canyon walls tied to ropes. Thehigh-scalers used jackhammers and dynamite to strip away the rock. The men whochose to do this work came from many backgrounds. Some were former sailors, somecircus acrobats, others were American Indians. All of them had to be agile men,unafraid to swing out over the canyon hanging by a rope. It was hard and dangerouswork, perhaps the most physically demanding work on the entire project. They scaledthe walls with a forty-four pound jack hammer chipping away at the rock and thenplacing dynamite around boulders too large to demolish by hand. The scalers had to doall this while moving about, avoiding live air hoses and electrical lines, it was notFor all men on the job the danger of being hit from falling rocks and droppedtools was the most common cause of death during the building of the dam. Ninety- sixmen were killed in industrial accidents while building the dam. So for their ownprotection the men started making improvised hard hats for themselves by coating clothhats with coal tar. These hard-boiled hats, were extremely effective when being hitby falling objects. The Six Companies eventually distributed commercially made hardhats and issued one to every man on the project.

The risk and high visibility of the job gave it a certain status which appealed tosome types of men. When the formen were not looking, these men would often swingout from the cliffs and attempt stunts, in competition with other scalers. One standoutscaler used these acrobatic skills for a useful service. Louis The Human PendulumFagan transported a crew of shifters around a projecting boulder on the Arizona side.

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The man to be transferred would wrap his legs around Fagans waist, grasp the rope,and with a mighty leap, the would sail out into the air and swing around the boulder. Fagan then returned for the next man in the crew. But perhaps the most famous feat ofthe high scaler was performing a daring midair rescue. Burl R. Rutledge, a Bureau ofReclamation engineer fell from the canyon rim, only to be caught by a scaler,twenty-five feet below. The scaler was Oliver Cowan, who had heard Rutledge slip. Without a moments hesitation he swung himself out and seized Rutledges leg. A fewseconds later, high scaler Arnold Parks swung over and pinned Rutledges body to thecanyon wall. The scalers held Rutledge until a line was dropped and secured him andsecured around him and the shaken engineer was pulled, unharmed, to safety.

Once the canyon walls had been cleared and the river floor dredged down tobedrock, only then could the pouring of the concrete begin. A major problem with astructure as large as the Hoover Dam was the cooling of the concrete because of theimmense heat in the desert. Engineers calculated that the massive amount of concretewould take over one hundred years to cool, and if not fully cooled the dam wouldcrack. To avoid this, the dam was poured in rows and columns of blocks. Refrigeratedwater was then pumped through the blocks in pipes, and the pipes were then filled withconcrete. This technique made the dam entirely one piece. The dam itself wascompleted two years ahead of schedule, in 1935. In 1936 power generation began andturbines continued to be added until 1961.

The remote nature of the Hoover Dam site presented its builders with aproblem of housing laborers. The unemployment caused by the Great Depression andthe publicity the project received, brought workers from all over the country to the LasVegas offices of Six Companies, Inc., the firm that contracted to build the dam. Beforethe building had even begun, the offices had received over 2,400 job application andmore than 12,000 letters of inquiry from job seekers. Many men arrived with all oftheir possessions and their families, ready to begin a new life in the desert.

As soon as construction activity began in April of 1931, people rapidlyabandoned the Las Vegas area and moved closer to the actual site. The cluster ofmakeshift homes that emerged was named Ragtown, and as the summer of 1931passed, it became a living hell. The average temperature in July was 119 degrees.

(Hoover Dam Vistor Center) Despite the availability of waster from the Colorado,more than two dozen dam workers and Ragtown family members died of heatexhaustion between June and July of the year. Although Six Companies quicklyerected a river camp, a group of buildings for single men on the side of the river, thepopulation of Ragtown increased to 1400 by the end of the summer. At the height ofthe Hoover Dam construction, some 5000 men would be working on it.

Fortunately, the federal government had anticipated this problem and had madeplans to build a modern city to house the workers and their families near the dam site. This was on the federal land that surrounded it, rather than on land in the jurisdiction of the state of Nevada. Joseph Stevens argues in Hoover Dam: An AmericanAdventure, that the decision to provide living arrangements for the dam workers wasnot only an attempt to protect health and welfare, but also to shield this very publicproject from the dangers that lay in an unstable workforce. A breakdown in theworkforce would inevitably lead to bad publicity for the project, with the possibility ofhaving to import a “foreign tropical labor” pool which was apparently dreaded by all.

The presence, Stevens writes, of large numbers of blacks in Black Canyon, with itsimplied confession that within the continental United States a task had been found toodifficult for white American physique and morale to perform’ was unthinkable, and sothe blueprint for a modern community that would keep 3000 or more Americans,mainly of the native or northern European stocks contented and healthy’ wasapproved.” (Hoover Dam: An American Adventure) The other advantage was financial.

No rent could be charged in shantytowns, but Six Companies stood to collect a goodprofit from their workers living in company-owned housing. A Denver architect S.R. DeBoer was given the task of designing Boulder City,the town was to be called. Unfortunately, DeBoers ideas of making the town into adesert oasis were considered ridiculous. Given the existing conditions, the majority was in favor of a more Levittown approach: build quickly, sensibly, and rectangular, and leave the landscaping for others to worry about. The town was thrown into place with construction continuing through the spring of 1932. Eight large dormitories and a dining hall for the single men, and rows upon rows of individual houses for families were put into place, as well as the Six Companies and Bureau of Reclamation offices. The blistering summer of 1931 and the visual desolation of the desert town caused those in power to realize that DeBoer had not been so wrong to purpose of grass, trees and shrubbery running throughout the town. The decision toin the aptly-named landscaper William Weed to create the garden city was certainlya political decision. With Hoover up for re-election and strike threats from workersconditions on the job, it would be something of a publicity faux-pas to display a model town that amounted to cottages, cactus and a few dusty streets. Weed did well. By the spring of 1932 his landscaping efforts came to fruition, and Boulder City had lawns,parks that were more than dust lots, and trees that shaded its inhabitants from the Somewhat to the surprise of the government and Six Companies, Boulder City forged itself into a community. Churches were built in off hours, and to deal with the “unexpected fecundity” of the workers’ families, schools which had been entirely forgotten in the original plan were added to open in the fall of 1932. A newspaper, the Boulder City Journal, sprang up, and a library was opened, funded by Six Companies.

all seemed quite fitting with a model community. What was different was the form of government. In what was to be, supposedly, the most American of towns, a communitymodern pioneers, braving the elements, taking on the monumental tasks for the good of the country, democracy was non-existent. The town’s government lay in the hands of a city manager, selected by Six Companies; during the dam construction, the city manager was a “banker-businessman-bureaucrat” named Sims Ely. Ely was initially charged with creating a business district for Boulder City, which he did, awarding the few permits through a rigid selection process. A successful applicant would pass Ely’s requirements for character, personality, age, physical condition, financial fitness and past experience. Once the stores were opened, Ely fixed prices so that no conspiring for high pricesoccur between the owners. However, the real competition in town for the independentstore owners was the Six Companies Company store; the only store in town that offered everything under one roof, it also was the only place that dam workers could spend the scrip in which they were sometimes paid. Scrip payments were made illegal in 1933, but until then, many felt that fair competition had been completely undermined. Ely, as the “local autocrat”, also took it upon himself to create the kind of wholesome living environment he felt was necessary for Boulder City. Every effort was made, and it generally succeeded, to keep the evils of Las Vegas out of town. Bootlegging and prostitution made few inroads on the local environment. Any worker caught withor intoxicated was summarily fired and escorted out of town. This continued after Prohibition had been repealed in 1933 until the end of the Hoover Dam project.

Interestingly, Ely’s bulldog “sheriff”, Bud Bodell, ran the local gambling ring in the mess hall with Ely’s knowledge, although gambling was explicitly illegal in Boulder City. Ely also acted as town magistrate, granting divorces, jailing troublemakers, awarding custody of children, and apparently attempting to instill a formal dress codethe town’s citizens. Perhaps most disturbing is the anti-labor activity that was promulgated openly, particularly in the early years. Any suspicion of union activity was grounds for termination and removal from the town. However, residents did not complain. If there was any resentment of this twisting of the rules, the forcibleof hundreds of workers, and the creation of a police-state atmosphere, it was not expressed loudly. Labor Commissioner Leonard Blood’s list of applicants for jobs at Hoover Dam, numbering twenty-two thousand at the close of 1932, cast a long shadow and it was evident that from the outside looking in, Boulder City, where everyone had a job, a full stomach, and a roof overhead, appeared to be the model town the government said it was, whatever the reality. But the reality was the rest of thewas struggling to get back on the feet in the work force, while Boulder City was theBecause of the construction Hoover Dam, the Colorado was controlled for thefirst time in history. Farmers received a dependable supply of water in Nevada,California and Arizona. The major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, San Diego,Phoenix and a dozen other towns and cities were given an inexpensive source ofelectricity, permitting population growth and industrial development. The Hoover Dambecame an icon of the Depression-era and spoke directly and profoundly to theAmerican people who were afraid and unsure. The mammoth structure silentlyaddressed the power of technology, the hope for the future, and the ability of man tochange the natural course of things. As its physical image rose from the desert in the1930s it offered a alternative narrative to the that of the Great Depression.

Bibliography:1.Stevens, Joeseph. Hoover Dam: An American Adventure. Norman, Oklahoma:University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

2.U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. The Story of HooverDam. U.S. Government Printing Office, 19663.Hoover Dam Virtual Visitor Center,

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