Keeping It Straight: Hoover Dam - A Man-Made Wonder

Hoover Dam from the Nevada side of the Black Canyon

Hoover Dam from the Nevada side of the Black Canyon

A short distance from Route 66 lies one of the most amazing sights in the United States. Over three and half million cubic yards of concrete span and plug the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. Selected in 1955 by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Civil Engineering Wonders, Hoover Dam has long held a fascination for all who visit. A quick 70-mile trip from Kingman, the dam is well worth the detour from the Mother Road to investigate this modern wonder.

Back in the 1940s and early 1950s, we would go to Las Vegas about twice a month, and Dad had been promising me for the longest time to take me to see Boulder Dam - the name had been changed just a few months before and Dad, a life-long Democrat, swore he would never call it by the new name. (Even today, decades later, I occasionally call it Boulder Dam).

Each time we went to Las Vegas, Mom found a reason to reject a trip to the Dam - it was too hot, too cold, or too windy. Finally Dad decided he and I would go by ourselves and leave mom in the air-conditioned comfort of Bugsy's Flamingo, where she would sit and pull handles on the slot machines.

After breakfast we climbed in the Packard and drove to the Boulder Highway where we headed south toward the dam. Driving through Boulder City, I was amazed at the expanse of green grass and trees that seemed to leap out of the dusty desert. Down the hill from Boulder City we wound our way though the canyons, dodging the trucks and buses that labored up the hills. After one particularly sharp hair-pin turn I saw it. It was like looking at the Grand Canyon. This man-made monolith was so huge my eyes could not take it in all at once.

Even my Dad, who always seemed so cool, said, "Wow, take a look at that!"

He maneuvered the Packard into a parking spot on the Nevada side and we walked down the road to the visitor's center. My head turned first one way, then another as I tried to see everything. We passed a huge pair of statues, the Boulder Dam Memorial, two stylized seated figures with tall, upraised wings. At the base was a bronze diagram of the planets and stars as they were when the dam was dedicated.

The remainder of the day was spent walking across the dam to peer down into the huge spillway tunnel on the Arizona side (kind of scary), looking at the exhibits in the Visitors Center, and best of all, taking the elevator down, inside the dam for the tour of the power plants and to stand atop the 13-foot penstock pipes that direct water into the turbines. On the Nevada side I could hear water rushing deep in the spillway tunnel. Dad told me what I was hearing was the sound of the river rushing past the tunnel outlet over half-a-mile away. We walked up the road and looked at the power transmission towers angling precariously over the edge of the canyon, drawing power from the immense turbines below.

Once we left the dam site we drove back to Boulder City, where we watched a film on the construction of the dam and Dad bought me a souvenir coin from a machine that embossed "Hoover Dam" on one side and "Bobby Moore" on the other side.

Years later I was hitchhiking around the country and stopped at Hoover Dam. It was the same as the first visit with my Dad, only this time I was to cause a stir that echoed against the walls of Black Canyon. I wanted to take the tour as I had done years before, and in order to not be encumbered with my duffel bag, I stashed it in a pile of rocks just past the old snack bar on the Nevada side. I was in line waiting to enter the elevator when I was approached by three Bureau of Reclamation police and a red-headed woman who said, way too loudly, "He's the one. We seen him put a bomb up in the rocks. Me and my husband seen him do it!"

The police pulled me from the line as everyone standing close to me backed away. One officer asked me if I had hidden anything in the rocks above the Dam and I told him I put my duffel bag there while I took the tour. We retrieved the bag and went to the office where I had to dump everything out to prove what was in it. I didn't take the tour that day.

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The idea of a dam on the Lower Colorado had been the dream of government geologists and hydrologists since the turn of the century. With the publication, in 1922, of the Falls-Davis Report, with the simple line suggesting, "the government should construct ... a giant dam at or near Boulder Canyon ..." the dream was close to reality and a site for the great dam was needed. Two canyons had been selected, Boulder Canyon - the first choice because of its foundation rock of granite - and Black Canyon with a foundation of volcanic tuff. After two years of extensive core drilling in the canyons, Black Canyon was found to be the superior site. Severe jointing of the sub-surface granite at Boulder Canyon made it a poor second to the bedrock of Black Canyon. Also, the Black Canyon was narrower, had less silt to be moved from the bottom, and the walls would be easier for excavation of the tunnels the dam would require.

Battles over water allocation between the seven states that used Colorado River water ensued, and President Hoover didn't sign the Boulder Canyon Project Act until June 25, 1929, appropriating the $165 million to build the dam along with the All-American Canal in the Imperial Valley of Southern California.

Work on the massive project began in July of 1930 and continued, around-the-clock, until September 1935 when the structure was completed. The contract for construction of the dam was awarded to Six Companies, Inc., which bid $48,890,995.50. Six Companies, Inc., consisted of W.A. Bechtel, San Francisco; Henry J. Kaiser, Oakland, Calif.; Utah Construction Company, Ogden; MacDonald and Kahn Company, Los Angeles; Morrison-Knudsen Company, Boise, Idaho; and the J. F. Shea Company, Portland, Ore.

Diversion tunnels over fifty feet in diameter were blasted over 4,000 feet through the canyon walls to carry the wild and unpredictable Colorado River around the dam site. A huge cofferdam to divert the river was constructed upstream, and downstream another was constructed to prevent the river from backing into the work site as the riverbed and sidewalls were prepared for the gigantic structure.

Once the pouring of the concrete began at 11:20 a.m. June 6, 1933, it was a continuous process as the dam rose in a series of columns, each one topped by a new pour of five feet of concrete laced through with a series of cooling pipes.

The staggered column design was necessitated by the need for heat dissipation as the concrete cured. Engineers determined had the dam been poured in one continuous flow, it would take 150 years to cool and cure. The very design of the dam precludes the long held belief there are men buried in the concrete of the dam, trapped in the pouring process. The closest anyone came was November 8, 1933, when a form collapsed, spewing a hundred tons of cement into the slot - the eight foot wide central core that carried the pipes for cooling the concrete. Two men were on a scaffold below when the cement avalanche began. One of them leaped to safety. The other, W. A. Jameson, was swept to his death in the 100-foot deep slot. His body was recovered sixteen hours later from beneath a mound of wet cement, broken pipes and shattered lumber.

Along with the dam came a city to house and feed the workers, administrators and others associated with the largest construction project ever tackled in the United States. Built at a cost of $1,6 million, Boulder City literally sprang from the desert in a year's time to provide a 1,000 homes, a dozen air-cooled dormitories with 172 rooms each, a 1,300 seat dining hall that in seven shifts would feed over 6,000 men a day, a 60-bed hospital, four churches, a grade school, a 700-seat theater, along with shops, garages and other amenities that make up a city. Founded as a government owned and operated city gambling was not allowed within the confines of the town. Today Boulder City is the only municipality in Nevada that does not allow gambling, although it was officially incorporated as a Nevada city in October of 1959 and separated from the U.S. Government in January of 1960.

The dam was dedicated in 1935, a full two years ahead of schedule, and in February of 1936, with the closing of the bulkhead gate at tunnel number 4, the dam began its job of controlling the flow of water in the Colorado River.

Hoover Dam has always held an attraction for Americans and as such has been featured in films and books. Over the years many movies have used the dam as a backdrop, or a central character, from 1932's "I Loved You Wednesday," to 1992's Universal Soldier. Zane Grey spent the better part of 1932 on research and wrote "Boulder Dam," which was not published until after his death. Frank Crowe, the celebrated general superintendent of the project, was fictionalized in John Hasse's "Big Red," published in 1980. A major non-fiction work is Joseph E. Stevens, "Hoover Dam - An American Adventure," published in 1987. Another outstanding book is "Building Hoover Dam - An Oral History of The Great Depression" by Dennis McBride. (1993)

I am now older than my Dad when he first took me to see the dam, but still, today, when I drive around that last sharp hairpin turn and see the dam I think to myself, "Wow, take a look at that!"