America’s greatest construction feat remains a marvel.
BY MEGG MUELLER
On Sept. 30, 1935, Hoover Dam was officially dedicated. For eight decades, this bastion of American ingenuity has stood sentinel over the Colorado River, keeping its waters consistent, calm, and constructive. Its story has been told time and again; its facts revealed, its impact explained, and its legend recounted. But we can never get enough, as evidenced by the approximately 1 million people who tour the dam each year. There are many moving parts to the story of Hoover Dam; here are but a few.
WORKING FOR THEIR LIVES
For most of us, Hoover Dam has always existed. But in 1931 when construction began it was merely a dream, and for many of the workers, a much-needed paycheck on the heels of the Depression. Thousands of workers flocked to the area in the hopes of gaining a steady income and to be a part of the monumental task ahead. The Bureau of Reclamation notes 21,000 men worked on the dam in total, with an average daily total of 3,500 workers.
G.C. “Buck” Blaine told Nevada Magazine in 1985 he came to work on the dam in 1931 for what he thought would be an easy, well-paid engineering job. He wasn’t alone in that thought; there were nearly 100 applicants for every job. Buck worked as a highscaler—workers who drilled holes in the canyon wall while suspended 700 feet above the river—because it paid a dollar more a day than mucking. (Visit nevadamagazine.com/hoover to read about Buck and four other dam workers from our 1985 May/June story.)
The often dangerous conditions have led to tales of thousands of deaths, and even that men were buried within the walls. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, 96 deaths are attributed to work-related incidents during construction, and no bodies were left inside the walls. The last-known dam worker—identified by museum records as reported by the Boulder City Review—died in November of last year.
A TOWN OF THEIR OWN
For some workers, the pay also included room and board at the federally created town of Boulder City. The government knew it needed a place to house the men and women who came to work on the dam, and Boulder City—eight miles from the dam—was built to house 5,000 workers.
The Boulder Theatre was built in 1933, and because it was the only air-conditioned building in town, dam workers would buy a movie ticket just so they could sleep in the cool air. Designed as a place of clean living and family values, Boulder City banned gambling from the onset, and was built with numerous parks and plenty of centralized public space. Despite a preponderance of young, single men, Boulder City easily retained its innocence as workers looking for more varied pursuits were able to take a train 26 miles to Las Vegas.
Today, the population is about 15,000, but the town still fiercely preserves its small-town feel, and is one of only two towns in Nevada that still bans gambling.
A POWERFUL LEGACY
The power created by Hoover Dam was instrumental in how the southwest corner of the country developed; the growth of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix is directly related to the availability of energy. Hoover Dam and its partner dams Davis, Parker, and Imperial, helped create the rich farmland of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys as they transformed the untamed energy of the Colorado River into a steady, usable feed.
During World War II, defense plants in Southern California needed power, as did the newly built Basic Magnesium, Inc. (BMI), in Henderson, which had been contracted to create magnesium bombs. BMI eventually came to use up to one-fourth of the dam’s output. Hoover Dam’s energy output was so important to the war effort, machine gun pillboxes were built into the canyon walls in an effort to protect the structure.
Today, some 4.2 billion kilowatt hours are generated via the 17 turbines that crank ceaselessly within the dam’s immense power plant. From 1939-49, The Bureau of Reclamation allocated the power to entities in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Today, despite a drop in water levels of 20 percent in the last 15 years, six new turbines are being built. The first was installed in 2012, and the final two are expected to be completed this year—this is expected to help keep power generation up during the current drought.
BRIDGING THE GAP
While crossing over the dam is a bucket list item for many—roughly 7 million cars drive across each year—the original two-lane road quickly became inadequate for the burgeoning through traffic the route from Nevada to Arizona experienced. Citing unsafe conditions (hairpin turns, limited sight) and the potential danger to the dam itself, officials as far back as the 1960s expressed concern about the roadway.
That concern increased each year, along with tourist traffic and the number of pedestrians. Delays and congestion prompted the Federal Highway Association to find an alternate crossing, and in 2001, the Sugarloaf Mountain Alternative site was designated, just 1,500 feet south of the dam.
Construction on what would become the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge began in 2005, cost $114 million (the entire bypass project cost $240 million), and was completed in 2010. It was the first concrete-steel arch composite bridge built in the U.S., and is the longest concrete arch bridge in the U.S.
Mike O’Callaghan was Governor of Nevada from 1971-79 and Arizona Cardinal’s player Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004.
GO JUMP IN A LAKE
Stemming the tide of the Colorado River was one thing, but creating a reservoir to contain its waters was an entirely separate feat. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. by volume, and in its creation, at least three towns were left beneath its waters. The most notable was St. Thomas, which once sat along the Muddy River south of Overton. The Mormon settlement was once home to 500 people, but the last resident left in 1938 as the waters rose and covered the town. When the water was at its highest point, St. Thomas was 60 feet below the surface. Today, however, the town site is again visible due to the receding waters.
Lake Mead was the country’s first designated national recreation area, named Boulder Dam Recreation Area in 1935; the name was changed in 1964. The park covers 1.5 million acres; 200,000 of those acres are water. In 2013—the most recent year data is available—more than 6.3 million people played in and around Lake Mead’s waters.
While the drought has lowered the lake’s levels, it’s also given rise to some new opportunities. This year the National Park Service authorized guided dive tours of the Boeing B-29 that crashed into the lake in 1948. It’s the first time in six years the dives have been allowed, due to the water level. Once-submerged caves, a concrete construction facility used in the dam’s creation, and the town of St. Thomas are also drawing visitors.
The future of Hoover Dam is often debated, mostly due to the mercurial nature of western weather. And while the waters of the Colorado River are indeed a more fragile resource than the dam’s creators understood, the importance of Hoover Dam as an energy source is undeniable. It may be facing a perilous future, but the dam itself is a feat of nature and a testament to the dreams and fortitude of men. The preservation of this monumental giant will certainly be a part of its story in the coming years.