THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HOOVER DAM
We have all heard of the Hoover Dam; one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World and National Historic Landmark. However, if we were asked questions about it, like when where is it located, when was it constructed, and what makes it such a wonder, would we have the answers? Probably not. In this guide, we will answer those questions (and more), and tell you why the Hoover Dam is worth learning about and visiting!
Why do we need dams anyway? We know water is power and rivers bring life to the areas they pass through. They are a mode of transportation, think whitewater river rafting, and of course give us our precious life-giving water. But they can also be destructive. Flood water can decimate communities every year turning farmland into mush. For hundreds of years, dams have been a solution to that by taming the river water and in the process, generating electricity. It works for everyone!
HISTORY OF THE HOOVER DAM
The Hoover Dam was a feat in engineering that was believed impossible, and construction techniques and resources were needed that had never been tried before. So what was the idea behind this great and massive creation? Why was it built?
In 1928, plans, known as the Boulder Canyon Project, were made to build a massive dam on the Arizona/Nevada state border in order to control the Colorado River; to prevent flooding and provide water and hydro-electric power to the Southeastern states. Before this, farmers had tried to divert the Colorado River to these areas with various irrigation canals, however, in 1905 the Colorado River broke creating the Salton Sea, thus leaving the job of controlling this raging river to the federal government, specifically the United States Bureau of Reclamation. A commission was immediately established with a representative from the 7 states of the Colorado River Basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California – with Herbert Hoover, then Commerce Secretary.
This was going to be an enormous undertaking and the construction cost of $165 million worried many lawmakers. They were primarily concerned that the water would not be evenly distributed to all states, and that California would receive most of it. After some time of legal wrangling, a deal was eventually agreed upon by all parties and formally signed off by President Calvin Coolidge.
The next step was to find a construction company capable of taking on this challenging project. In 1931, Six Companies, a group of construction companies that pooled together to meet the $5 million performance bond, was chosen. As this was the time of the Great Depression, over 21,000 laborers funneled in with the hopes of getting involved in the construction project. The chosen ones set up home in Boulder City, a town 6 miles from the work site built specifically to house all employees. And now construction began on the 60-story arch dam.
Fun fact: Las Vegas (Sin City) bid to be the headquarters of the Hoover Dam project but because it was considered a wild west party town and would distract the workers, it was not denied the privilege and given to Boulder City.
The massive project involved several stages, the first being to blast the canyon walls to create diversion canals so the Colorado River would be diverted while the project was being completed. The workers were under a strict deadline and were working in insane conditions, including being trapped in 140-degree tunnels and being exposed to dust particles and carbon monoxide, which led to a 6-day strike.
Interesting Fact: Hoover Dam's construction inconveniently began during a heatwave in Nevada state. Temperatures soared to 119 degrees Fahrenheit just 2 months into construction. So not only were the workers already facing poor ventilation in the tunnels, the heatwave made it even worse during the summer months. It's no surprise many workers suffered heatstroke.
The second step involved clearing the blasted canyon walls. This was probably the most dangerous part of the construction process as workers were suspended from great heights above the canyon floor, pounding jackhammers weighing up to 44 pounds, and surrounded by exploding dynamite. Sadly this cost the lives of more than 100 workers, either falling to their deaths to the canyon floor or from falling rocks and explosions.
And the third and final step was the construction of the futuristic-looking power plant, the 4 intake towers, and the dam itself. Enormous amounts of cement, 5 million barrels to be exact, were transported via cableways (that is enough concrete to build a highway from New York to San Francisco!), and 600 miles of reinforcement steel was rooted in the concrete blocks to carry refrigerated water and absorb the heat that concrete naturally generates.
The dam slowly rose in height, block by block, and was finally completed in 1935 – 2 years ahead of schedule. It had a height of 726 feet above the canyon floor, 1,244 feet long, and was at one point the tallest dam in the world. It currently irrigates 2 million acres and via its 17 hydroelectric power turbines, 1.3 million homes receive power. It has become known as a great influence in the development of some of the largest cities in the United States, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Over 10 million people visit the dam, per year along with nearby Lake Mead, a popular recreation area as well as the world's largest reservoir.
Cool fact: In 1972 the Nurek Dam on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan beat out the Hoover Dam becoming the tallest dam in the world, standing at 984 feet.
FUN FACTS ABOUT HOOVER DAM
Now that we know the historical facts about the Hoover Dam, let's talk about some other interesting and fun facts.
One of the most fascinating trivial pursuit type facts about the dam is its name. It literally went back and forth for years until Hoover Dam stuck. It began as Boulder Dam, however in 1930, US Secretary of the Interior, Ray Wilbur, announced at a ceremony to celebrate the construction of a railroad to the dam site, it was renamed Hoover Dam, after his boss who had been elected president a year earlier. After Hoover, came President Franklin Roosevelt, and his Secretary of Interior was not a huge fan of Hoover, so he changed it back to Boulder Dam. At that time, people were not fond of Hoover blaming him for the Great Depression, so it seemed like a good idea all-around. For many years, both names were used interchangeably, depending on a person's political viewpoint. It was only in 1947, under President Harry Truman's command that the name would legitimately become Hoover Dam via a congressional resolution.
The laborers were fun! The technological feats brought hundreds of spectators to the project, of course, however, it was the "shows" they witnessed that kept them coming. The workers, known as "high scalers', would hang high across the canyon removing rock, all while performing acrobats and stunts that were truly death-defying. The most famous of the daredevils was Louis Fagan, known as the "Human Pendulum" and "One-Rope Fagan". While working on canyon outcroppings, his colleagues would interlock arms and legs around him and have him swing them to their next location. So scary!
Fagan stopped traffic but a man named Oliver Cowan won the popularity game when he literally caught his supervisor who was plummeting to his death. Scaler Inspector Burl Rutledge lost his footing and was plunging to the canyon ground when Cowan intercepted him. It was a miracle. Needless to say, he received a Carnegie Medal for bravery from the city of Las Vegas.
A two-lane highway, US Route 93, had been the principal way to the Hoover Dam, running right along the top of the dam. It proved to be dangerous, however, with the number of cars passing through on a daily basis and its many blind curves. It was determined that a dam bypass bridge was urgent and in 2010 the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge bypass bridge was born; the first steel-concrete composite arch bridge built in the United States. It stands at 890 feet above the Colorado River and is 1,905 feet long, providing exceptional views of the Hoover Dam.
A SYMBOL OF AN ERA
The Hoover Dam is much more than a dam. It represents an era of an industrial America that harnessed its natural resources. It is a monument of advanced engineering and ingenuity and a symbol of simple strength and unity. The Hoover Dam is listed as one of the United States' most iconic infrastructures, aside from the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridge, which propelled the country's development and marked its history.