The construction of Hoover Dam is considered to be one of Americas finest engineering achievements. However the dam that rose from the floor of Black Canyon was not only a structural accomplishment, it was a proposition firmly rooted in practicalities. The necessity of such a dam had been obvious for more than two decades. The Colorado Rivers cycles of drought and flood in the American southwest incapacitated the growth of the agricultural industry. It was felt that a dam that could control the river would also provide hydroelectric power, eventually rendering the dam self-financing.
The growth of Las Vegas and Southern California as major metropolitan centers also depended, to a large extent, on the availability of water and power. Almost from the beginning of its construction, the dam possessed an epic quality that stimulated the national imagination. It was apparent that the meaning of the dam itself was beyond even that of a structure that equaled the vast landscape it inhabited. The dam, 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 testing for the project had begun early in the 1920s.
In 1927 the Swing-Johnson bill was passed by Congress and President Coolidge, which gave the go ahead on Hoover Dam project. So many construction companies around the country began to evaluate the proposals. Most agreed that the plan was too ambitious, too difficult, the landscape was too unforgiving, and the technology was not advanced enough to build a dam of that size. But on March 11, 1931; Six Companies Incorporated, a conglomeration of six smaller construction companies, won the job with a bid of $48,890,955.
The Story Since this dam site was so remote , the first task was to lay roads and railroad ines, so that all the materials would be easily accessible. The Colorado River , most importantly, had to be diverted. Four diversion tunnels were cut over a period of a year through the bedrock of Black Canyon. A temporary dam was constructed which diverted the water into the diversion tunnels. Meanwhile, the loose rock had to be removed from the canyon walls. Special men were required for the job, they were called high-scalers. They had to climb down the canyon walls tied to ropes.
The high-scalers used jackhammers and dynamite to strip away the rock. The men who chose to do this work came from many backgrounds. Some were former sailors, some circus 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 dangerous work, perhaps the most physically demanding work on the entire project. They scaled the walls with a forty-four pound jack hammer chipping away at the rock and then placing dynamite around boulders too large to demolish by hand.
The scalers had to do all this while moving about, avoiding live air hoses and electrical lines, it was not For all men on the job the danger of being hit from falling rocks and dropped ools was the most common cause of death during the building of the dam. Ninety- six men were killed in industrial accidents while building the dam. So for their own protection the men started making improvised hard hats for themselves by coating cloth hats with coal tar. These hard-boiled hats, were extremely effective when being hit by falling objects.
The Six Companies eventually distributed commercially made hard hats and issued one to every man on the project. The risk and high visibility of the job gave it a certain status which appealed to some types of men. When the formen were not looking, these men would often swing ut from the cliffs and attempt stunts, in competition with other scalers. One standout scaler used these acrobatic skills for a useful service. Louis The Human Pendulum Fagan transported a crew of shifters around a projecting boulder on the Arizona side.
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 of the high scaler was performing a daring midair rescue. Burl R. Rutledge, a Bureau of Reclamation 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 few seconds later, high scaler Arnold Parks swung over and pinned Rutledges body to the canyon wall. The scalers held Rutledge until a line was dropped and secured him and secured around him and the shaken engineer was pulled, unharmed, to safety. Once the canyon walls had been cleared and the river floor dredged down to bedrock, only then could the pouring of the concrete begin. A major problem with a structure as large as the Hoover Dam was the cooling of the concrete because of the immense heat in the desert.
Engineers calculated that the massive amount of concrete would take over one hundred years to cool, and if not fully cooled the dam would crack. To avoid this, the dam was poured in rows and columns of blocks. Refrigerated water was then pumped through the blocks in pipes, and the pipes were then filled with concrete. This technique made the dam entirely one piece. The dam itself was completed two years ahead of schedule, in 1935. In 1936 power generation began and urbines continued to be added until 1961. The remote nature of the Hoover Dam site presented its builders with a problem of housing laborers.
The unemployment caused by the Great Depression and the publicity the project received, brought workers from all over the country to the Las Vegas offices of Six Companies, Inc. , the firm that contracted to build the dam. Before the building had even begun, the offices had received over 2,400 job application and more than 12,000 letters of inquiry from job seekers. Many men arrived with all of their possessions and their families, ready to begin a new life in the desert. As soon as construction activity began in April of 1931, people rapidly abandoned the Las Vegas area and moved closer to the actual site.
The cluster of makeshift homes that emerged was named Ragtown, and as the summer of 1931 passed, 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 heat exhaustion between June and July of the year. Although Six Companies quickly erected a river camp, a group of buildings for single men on the side of the river, the opulation of Ragtown increased to 1400 by the end of the summer. At the height of the Hoover Dam construction, some 5000 men would be working on it.
Fortunately, the federal government had anticipated this problem and had made plans 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 American Adventure, that the decision to provide living arrangements for the dam workers was not only an attempt to protect health and welfare, but also to shield this very public roject from the dangers that lay in an unstable workforce.
A breakdown in the workforce would inevitably lead to bad publicity for the project, with the possibility of having 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 its implied confession that within the continental United States a task had been found too difficult for white American physique and morale to perform’ was unthinkable, and so the blueprint for a modern community that would keep 3000 or more Americans, ainly of the native or northern European stocks contented and healthy’ was approved. (Hoover Dam: An American Adventure)
The other advantage was financial. No rent could be charged in shantytowns, but Six Companies stood to collect a good profit 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 a desert oasis were considered ridiculous. Given the existing conditions, the majority was in favor of a more Levittown approach: build quickly, sensibly, and ectangular, 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 to n the aptly-named landscaper William Weed to create the garden city was certainly a political decision.
With Hoover up for re-election and strike threats from workers conditions 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 orged 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 community modern pioneers, braving the elements, taking on the monumental tasks for the good of he 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 prices ccur between the owners.
However, the real competition in town for the independent store 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 enerally succeeded, to keep the evils of Las Vegas out of town.
Bootlegging and prostitution made few inroads on the local environment. Any worker caught with or 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, warding custody of children, and apparently attempting to instill a formal dress code the 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 forcible of 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 the was struggling to get back on the feet in the work force, while Boulder City was the Because of the construction Hoover Dam, the Colorado was controlled for the first 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 of electricity, permitting population growth and industrial development. The Hoover Dam became an icon of the Depression-era and spoke directly and profoundly to the American people who were afraid and unsure. The mammoth structure silently addressed the power of technology, the hope for the future, and the ability of man to change the natural course of things. As its physical image rose from the desert in the 1930s it offered a alternative narrative to the that of the Great Depression.