Travels in the American Southwest

Hoover Dam

See Also:
CmdrMark's Trip Report from 1998 on Hoover Dam

Built in Black Canyon, Hoover Dam has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Over 700' high and 600' thick at the base, an estimated 4,500,000 cubic yards of concrete - Enough for a two lane road from Los Angeles to Boston.

As can be expected, many lives were lost trying to dam the Colorado river. The first man to die was a surveyor, J.G. Tierney who drowned while trying to locate the optimum site for the dam. On February 6, 1935, thirteen years later (to the day), another life was lost as a man named Patrick Tierney fell from an intake tower and drowned. Patrick was J.G. Tierney's son.

Once the site was chosen, accessibility had to be improved as there were no roads. Workers were transported to the site by barge from up river. While some workers began carving roads in the canyon's sides, others began work on the four diversion tunnels which would carry the Colorado river around the work area. These tunnels were carved through solid rock and were fifty-six feet in diameter and lined with three feet of concrete. Rather than construct staging (to drill holes for the explosive) only to have to break it down and move it each time, the builders erected three levels of staging on a ten ton truck. This speeded up the removal of 10,000,000 cubic yards of rock in record time. It was hot in the tunnels, temperatures of 135 degrees were common. Add to that the constant build up of carbon monoxide and it wasn't surprising that fourteen men had died by this time.

Work went on in three shifts, seven days a week. Workers had two days off, Fourth of July and Christmas. Since this was the depths of the depression, a short-lived stike in 1931 had no effect on the workers or their working conditions. Safety continued to be abysmal. For every worker, there were five willing to take his place. Workers lived in Ragtown, a collection of tents where the workers and their families lived. It was not a nice place to live let alone raise a family. Dirt, heat, and unsanitary conditions had to be remedied.

In 1932, construction began in Boulder City for worker's housing. Again, 24 hour days of construction were the rule. It wasn't unusual for a worker to return from the dam, only to walk into the wrong house as new roads and houses were built since he left for work eight hours earlier. Ragtown emptied as the residents moved into one, two and three bedroom cottages. Single men lived in dormatories. Since this was a "company town", the company made all the rules. "It was like living on a military base" a resident is reported to have said. Of course one of the rules was no gamling/casino in Boulder City. To this day, there is no gambling in Boulder City!

At 11:30 on the morning of November 13, 1932, the diversion tunnels were opened and for the first time in 12 million years, the Colorado's riverbed was altered. High Scalers worked the steep canyon walls, smoothing the rough walls in preparation for the dam. These men worked on ropes, swinging hundreds of feet above the canyon bottom. Some fell to their deaths, but one lucky scaler, known only as Phil, was saved as he fell by another High Scaler who reached out and grabbed him as he plunged past.

But it wasn't all work. On payday, the workers would head for Las Vegas for gambling in the city's casinos or sought other diversions in the infamous "Block 16", only to return hours later to begin their shift at the dam.

The dam mascot was a black labrador named "Little Nig" who had the run of the job site. He'd ride the big open elevators to the base of the dam with the workers, eating lunch that the men shared with him. One day, while snoozing under a truck, the mascot was crushed when the truck moved out with a full load of rock. Today, you can see his now unmarked grave on the Nevada side of the dam.

The "pouring" of concrete began on June 6, 1933. Since you couldn't pour the concrete, large buckets on ariel tramways carried the concrete to the base of the dam. The dam was built in five foot interlocking blocks. Had the dam been poured all at once, it would have taken 125 years for the concrete to cool. The concrete work proceeded faster that anyone imagined - One bucket, a ton, every 78 seconds. Despite the rumors we've all heard, no worker is buried in the concrete.

On February 6, 1935, the last bucket of concrete was poured. Within hours, the diversion tunnels were closed and Lake Mead began to form. The rising water slowly covered what was the site of Ragtown. The seventeen turbines, capable of producing two billion watts of power were readied. The president, FDR, arrived to dedicate the dam. To commemorate the event, there is a celestial map located on the Nevada side of the dam. This map indicates where the stars were situated when the dam was dedicated. Hoover dam _was_ that big a deal, especially in the middle of the depression. An engineering marvel, conceived, designed and implemented by man.

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