Hoover dam

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
lines, 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
tools 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
out 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.

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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 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
turbines 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
population 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
project 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,
mainly 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
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 to
in 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
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 community
modern 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 prices
occur 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
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 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,
awarding 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.

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 Hoover
Dam. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966
3.Hoover Dam Virtual Visitor Center, www.Hooverdam.com