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Monday, October 21, 2013

Hoover Dam: An American Adventure by Joseph E. Stevens | LibraryThing

Hoover Dam: An American Adventure by Joseph E. Stevens | LibraryThing:

The Hoover Dam, an extraordinary engineering achievement of the thirties, was originally called the Boulder Dam because it was to span Boulder Canyon. This is ironic because the dam actually spans Black Canyon. The early assumption was that Boulder Canyon would be the better site, but early geological surveys revealed better foundation rock at the Black Canyon location ' by that time the decision had been made, the name Boulder had stuck to the project. That is, until Governor Wilbur of Nevada arbitrarily named it the Hoover Dam at the ceremonies that marked the beginning of the work - to a storm of protest. The name would switch back and forth between Boulder and Hoover until it officially became the Hoover Dam in 1947.

The political machinations to get the enabling legislation were as much a feat as the engineering. Arizona claimed the whole project was unconstitutional and filed suits in, federal court to stop the project. They worried probably accurately - that California wanted to steal all the water of the Colorado for itself. Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, fought the project for a more selfish reason: he owned hundreds of thousands of acres in a Mexican valley that might lose its source of water should it all be diverted by the dam to other locations. The sheer size of the project was staggering. It would be the largest dam on earth: 726 feet high and 650 feet wide at the base, a graceful but solid convex arch presenting its gravity mass to the enormous pressure of the water it held back. At the top, it was 45 feet wide and became a highway connecting Nevada and Arizona. In order to build the dam, water was detoured around the site through four massive fifty-foot high, concrete-lined tunnels through the mountain rock. More than a thousand feet long, the tunnels were engineering marvels in themselves. A 26-mile railroad was built to bring supplies to the site and town that had to be built to house the workers.

The contract for the dam was awarded just as the full impact of the 1929 stock market crash began to have effect. Unemployed men, desperate for work, flocked to 'Ragtown," located on the outskirts of Las Vegas, hoping to get a position working on the dam. Those who were hired faced miserable working conditions in spite of efforts by the contractor, Six Companies, to make conditions bearable. During July the average low temperature was 950, and in the bypass tunnels temperatures of 1400 were not uncommon. Heat exhaustion began killing people. Conditions improved somewhat following a report by company physiologists that the men were dying of dehydration. Thereafter, unlimited water was supplied with meals and carried to the men by water boys. The exhaustion produced by the extreme heat made the men lethargic and careless. Accidents became commonplace.

The work was dangerous enough without inattentiveness. Agitation by IWW recruiters brought about one short strike, but the plentiful supply of workers coupled with the shortage of jobs gave the company the upper hand. It did prod the supervisors to develop additional ways to reduce suffering. No one could control the weather, and the
summer of 1931 was particularly brutal. Temperatures averaged 12 degrees above normal all summer. Conditions did improve following completion of Boulder City, a federally financed city to house the workers.

The city was run with fascistic control by Sims Ely, who had been hired by the Bureau of Reclamation to make sure nothing happened that would embarrass the administration. They were frightened that the "anything goes" atmosphere of nearby Las Vegas would lead to all sorts of immoral behavior. Ely had total control over the police, all government actions, including judicial functions. He couldn't stop all the bootlegging without a small army, but he made the penalties for drunkenness so severe that one would have to think twice before drinking.Anyone caught intoxicated was immediately fired. To reinforce his edicts, he periodically issued press releases reminding the workers about the depression and the difficulty of finding a job should they lose their place on the dam. He also had a fetish about neatness, and if he found trash on someone's yard the offender was certain to receive a summons and a lecture. Occasionally, he acted as a one-man divorce court. If he suspected marital problems he would assign child custody and dissolve marriages. Under the reign of his ranger deputy (who, incidentally, had started his own gambling operation in Boulder), evictions ran as high as three per day, an astonishing figure given that fully one-third of the workforce had been evicted in one year. Complaining was held to a minimum - the job applicant list held 22,000 thousand names.

The dam was designed to last thousands of years. When viewed at night, all lighted up, it does convey the extraordinary testament to the many men who provided the fantastic effort to complete the domination of the river.

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