Hot Dam

Hoover Dam, Photo by Snakefisch, Wikimedia Commons-300px
Hoover Dam, Photo by Snakefisch, Wikimedia Commons

Today on Museum Bites we’re scaling the Hoover Dam. More than 70 stories high and made of 6 ½ million tons of concrete, this massive barrier was built to rein in the Colorado River. Despite political pettiness, agonizing work conditions, and a fierce and unforgiving river, the Hoover Dam was completed under budget and in record time. Join me for a look at this impressive feat of engineering. We begin along the shores of the Colorado River…

This morning I came, I saw, and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind.
~Franklin D. Roosevelt, Boulder (Hoover) Dam Dedication Speech, September 30, 1935

Colorado River Rafting, Photo by Skeeze, Pixabay-300px
The Colorado River, Photo by Skeeze, Pixabay

Dam River:  Prior to the Hoover Dam’s construction, the Colorado River was a menace. Each spring it surged down the Rocky Mountains, picking up silt, flooding its banks, and destroying precious farmland. A dam along the Colorado was a win-win solution. It would tame the river and provide irrigation, fresh water, and hydroelectric power to fast-growing southwestern states. Such an enormous endeavor would also create much-needed jobs during the Great Depression.

In the spring of 1931, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation chose the Six Companies, a consortium of major construction firms, to build the dam. Their bid of $48,890,955 was the lowest received for the 7-year project. It was also the largest US government contract ever to be awarded at that time. Shortly after the paperwork was signed, workers, with dynamite in hand, began blasting canyon walls.

Fun Dam Fact: The largest dam today is the Jinping-1 Dam in Sichuan China. Completed in 2013, it stands 1,001 feet high.

Hoover Dam Jumbo Rig (c1933), Photo Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation-300px
Hoover Dam Jumbo Rig (c1933), Photo Courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation

Dam Work:  Phase 1 of dam construction consisted of blasting into canyon walls with jumbo rigs and dynamite to create 4 diversion tunnels. Averaging ¾ of a mile in length and 50 feet in diameter, these channels rerouted the Colorado River so that subsequent phases of work could be completed. With the help of more dynamite and adrenaline junkies, Phase 2 focused on clearing canyon walls. Nicknamed the cliffhangers, these gutsy men rappelled down canyon walls in boatswain chairs (think: narrow wooden swing). Dangling hundreds of feet above ground, with metal poles and a 44-pound jackhammer in hand, they planted dynamite and blew away chunks of rock. A cliffhangers job required strength and agility to scuttle away from blast zones and dodge falling rock, equipment, and in some cases their fellow workers. Once the canyon walls were adequately cleared, the third and final phase commenced. Workers descended to the dry riverbed and enormous buckets of cement were whizzed down to the canyon floor on a system of cables. Block by block they painstakingly built the massive dam wall. For 5 grueling years, the construction site was a hive of activity and work on the dam persisted 24 hours a day at a breakneck pace.

Fun Dam Fact:  Located on government land, Boulder City, Nevada housed 5,000 dam workers and was managed by the US Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for dam construction. The city was run like a military camp with housing, cafeteria-style meals, and curfews. In 1960, long after the dam had been constructed, Boulder City was incorporated and placed under the jurisdiction of the state of Nevada.

Fun Dam Fact: The Boulder Dam Hotel was a relatively posh inn where many dignitaries resided during dam visits including, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, and Pope Pius XII.

Boulder Dam Worker (c1935), National Archives & Records Administration-closeup-300px
Boulder Dam Worker (c1935), National Archives & Records Administration

Dam Workers:  When word spread about the massive dam project, thousands of men and their families descended on Black Canyon, desperate for jobs during the Great Depression. Pay ranged from $0.50 to $1.25 per hour for work that was hot, dusty, backbreaking, and dangerous. Their foreman, Frank “Hurry Up” Crowe was a hard-driving leader, who was often more concerned with meeting deadlines than the health and safety of his crew. Temperatures often soared above 100°F. During Phase 1, temperatures inside the diversion tunnels reached 140°F and dust and carbon monoxide choked the air. Outraged by the stifling and unsafe conditions, workers launched a 6-day strike in August of 1931.

Over the course of the project, approximately 21,000 men helped build the dam, with a daily average of 3,500 workers. Officially, 96 deaths were reported during dam construction, but critics believe the number is much higher. Crowe walked away with a $350,000 bonus for finishing the dam project under budget and 2 years ahead of schedule.

Freaky Dam Fact:  On Dec. 20, 1921, John Tierney was one of the first casualties of the dam project.  He and his crew had been surveying possible dam locations when he was swept away in a flash flood. Exactly 14 years later, Tierney’s son, Patrick died when he fell from one of the dam’s intake towers on Dec. 20, 1935.

President Herbert Hoover (front & center) visiting Tunnel 2 of the Hoover Dam (c1932), National Archives & Records-300px
President Herbert Hoover (front & center) visiting Tunnel 2 of the Hoover Dam Project (c1932), National Archives & Records Administration

Dam Name:  The location of the new dam was originally set for Boulder Canyon but many faults were discovered and the construction site was moved several miles downstream to Black Canyon. Despite the move, the project was still referred to as the Boulder Canyon Dam Project or Boulder Dam. In 1930, US Secretary of the Interior, Ray Wilbur raised eyebrows at groundbreaking ceremonies for the dam’s new railroad line when he announced the dam would be named after his boss and current US President, Herbert Hoover. Much maligned for his perceived role in the Great Depression, Hoover’s name on anything, let alone the largest construction project in the US was controversial. In 1933, the dam’s name was changed back to Boulder Dam when Hoover lost his bid for re-election to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It wasn’t until 1947 and an act of the US Congress that the dam was officially named the Hoover Dam. In Hoover’s defense, in 1922 he was the Secretary of Commerce who brokered the Colorado River Compact, a plan to divide water from the Colorado River proportionally among its seven bordering states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming). This agreement helped pave the way for the subsequent construction of the Hoover Dam.

Fun Dam Fact:  Lake Mead was created as a result of the Hoover Dam. At a 150 miles long and boasting depths up to 500 feet, it is the largest freshwater reservoir in the United States.

Dam Results:  Over 80 years after its completion, the Hoover Dam continues to impress. A million and a half gallons of water flow through the dam each second. Four intake towers channel Colorado River water into penstocks (aka massive steel pipes) and the resulting surge powers 17 generators which pump out an average total of 4 billion kilowatt hours each year. Click on this Hoover Dam video clip courtesy of the History Channel to see this mighty dam in action.

Fun Dam Fact: Some rural communities were forced to evacuate once dam construction began. Remnants from the small town of St. Thomas can sometimes be seen beneath the waters of Lake Mead when the water table is low.

That concludes our trip to the Hoover Dam. Next week, we’ll descend into the Grand Canyon. In the meantime have a fantastic week!

Photo by Rawpixel, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Rawpixel courtesy of Pixabay


Britannica: Hoover Dam

Fodor’s: Arizona & the Grand Canyon (2011)

History Channel: 7 Things You Might Not Know About the Hoover Dam

History Channel: Hoover Dam

National Public Radio


US Bureau of Reclamation


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