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Hoover Dam

May 2024
1min read

An American Adventure

By Joseph E. Stevens; University of Oklahoma Press; 326 pages.

“Another great achievement of American resourcefulness, skill, and determination” was how President Franklin Roosevelt described the Hoover Dam upon its dedication in September 1935. Five thousand men had worked through extremes of heat and fatigue seven days a week for more than four years to build the 726.4-foot-high wedge of concrete between the sheer rock banks of the Colorado River. Their labor, combined with brilliant engineering, had brought this —“the great pyramid of the American West,” as Joseph Stevens calls it, “fount for a twentieth-century oasis civilization” —to completion two years early and millions of dollars under budget. Today it is still the largest dam in the United States, and a major tourist attraction.

Raising Hoover Dam presented difficulties of an unprecedented magnitude. The site was in a barren, scorching desert on the border of Nevada and Arizona. The canyon in which the Colorado River ran made it necessary to cut diversion tunnels through nearly a mile of solid rock. An entire town, Boulder City, Nevada, had to be built from scratch to house the workers and their families. Perhaps most important to the government and building company, public opinion had to be kept favorable through the inevitable tangle of accidents, labor unrest, and lawsuits. Stevens covers this ground lucidly, but the greatest virtue of his book is that he is more interested in the lives of men like W. A. Jameson, the only worker who came close to fulfilling the myth about the man buried in Hoover Dam, than he is in engineering or politics. Stevens’s deft narrative shows how a group of hungry, jobless drifters, pulled from improvised squatters’ camps that sprung up around the site during the worst of the Depression, became a seamless construction team. They learned their jobs quickly and remained productive, aware of the hordes of men on the outside willing to work any hours under any conditions for a regular paycheck.

Hoover Dam’s supply of power and water spurred the development of America’s Southwest, particularly Los Angeles; the workers’ understandable craving for entertainment made nearby Las Vegas what it is today. But perhaps the biggest achievement of Hoover Dam was that it helped renew the self-confidence of a nation that had begun to doubt its ability to assert its will.

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