Boulder City, NV – Hoover Dam and Las Vegas: April 17-22, 2012

After putting on only the amount of overpriced fuel we needed to get us out of Tusayan, we charged south to Rte. 40 and across to our first stop in Nevada.

Boulder City is adjacent to Hoover Dam on the Nevada side. Like Page, the city was founded by the inflow of workers on the massive project. Like Page, it didn’t disappear after the last bucket of concrete was poured but, instead, has not only thrived but has done so with an unusual ban on gambling. More than a year before the construction bid was finalized – when America was gripped by the Great Depression—thousands of families flocked to the area and set up whatever shelter they could manage to await the roll call for job openings.

What’s in a name? Originally named the Boulder Dam Project and slated for Boulder Canyon ten miles further downstream, The Dam was eventually built in Black Canyon, where the walls were denser and more water could be impounded. When Interior Secretary Ray Wilbur dedicated the project in 1930, he declared that it would be named after his boss, President Hoover, the prime mover behind the project who contributid his own engineering acumen. When Hoover was ousted by FDR two years later, Harold Ickes, Wilbur’s replacement, renamed it Boulder Dam, clearly a politically motivated deed to disassociate the widely scorned Hoover from the project. But in 1947, shortly after his ascendance to the Oval Office, Harry Truman signed the congressional resolution to rightfully restore Hoover’s name.

The Hoover Dam story is a precursor to the Glen Canyon Dam story by thirty years and is about 200 miles south. The construction processes were similar: Build the transportation network to get there. Divert the mighty Colorado with tunnels and coffer dams. Dig down to bedrock. Stabilize the walls of the canyon. Build a concrete plant. Locate a source of aggregate and mine it. Mix and pour. Mix and pour. Mix and pour ad infinitum, block upon block of barrier, cured by water passing through internal tubes. Construct spillways and penstocks. Install massive turbines and generators. Bust open the coffer dams. Seal up and/or convert the diversion tunnels. Let the lake fill. Easy . . . right? The massive scale says no.

Two iron hands ran the operation. The man who supervised the construction was Frank T. Crowe, a 25 year veteran of dam building. The city manager of Boulder City was Sims Ely, a banker/ businessman/bureaucrat who was said to be “brilliant, quirky, incorruptible and frighteningly strict.” Over 16,000 were employed over the full course of the effort, with salaries ranging from 50 cents to $1.25 per hour. Among the highest paid were the high scalers, who hung in bos’n’s chairs as they bounced off the canyon walls chipping and drilling out the dross.

Physical comparisons: Hoover Dam is 16 feet taller, 300 feet narrower (between cliffs) at the top, but about twice the thickness both top and bottom. And it took over a million fewer cubic yards of concrete, because it descends considerably less to the stream bedrock. The rated output of their generating stations are dissimilar — Hoover’s is almost 70% greater than Glen Canyon — yet their annual output is similar – a litle over 4.5 billion Kw each. The physical capacity of the reservoirs are similar; Lake Powell is longer and shallower and has a 24 million acre/feet capacity while Lake Mead can hold 28 million. (You can figure out what an acre/foot is!). Lake Mead has a chicken-little complex — there are people convinced that it will dry up less than a century after it was created. Both Lakes were low when we were there, since the western snowfall this year has been meager. It’s fallen short in other recent years.

Below are two sets of pictures. The first was taken on our tour of The Dam. Among those are pictures taken of the original visitor’s center, where we sat in a gallery overlooking a huge diorama of the entire river and watched a recorded show that highlighted the history of efforts to tame it – and make the southwest (and southern California) thrive in the style they’ve now become accustomed to.

The second set shows highlights from the museum in Boulder City that displayed the history of its inception in growth, starting with Black Monday (Tuesday?) and highlighting the rewards and travails of its growth. The museum was housed within the Boulder Dam Hotel, an artifact of early days with a beautiful lobby and foyer (last two pictures below).

I could go on at length about what we learned, but to your relief, I won’t. I’m currently six chapters behind in this travelogue, and time’s afleeting. But there are three other facts I’d like to convey.

The contract was so large that it was eventually won by a consortium of six contractors that pooled their proposals. They were Henry J. Kaiser Co. and Bechtel Corporation (Bechtel-Kaiser), MacDonald and Kahn of Los Angeles, Utah Construction Company of Ogden, Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Pacific Bridge Company and J. F. Shea, both of Portland. They were henceforth known as Six Companies, and, based on their qualified completion of The Dam, won subsequent major bids.

During the early days of construction, the summer temperatures rose in excess of 100o – closer to 140 o in the tunnels. Men were literally dropping dead. So they went on strike. Frank Crowe agreed to none of their demands and fired those not willing to return to work, but Six Companies did require concessions to their well-being.

The effort to build The Dam was heralded in numerous on-site ways. Much of that effort was the work of Norwegian-American Oskar J. W. Hansen. The plaza outside ithe old Visitors’ Center is the central focus of his efforts, with two giant statues – the Winged Figures of the Republic – flanking a compass rose and a relief memorializing the 96 who perished during the construction. Other bas relief adorn the towers as testament to the roots of civilization in the area. A later sculpture of Joe Kine, one of the senior high-scalers, hangs on the wall outside the café now named for this effort. Some of the actual transporters that carried the concrete buckets to their dumping sites loom above – and in some cases are still used for maintenance!

We got a seaside view by booking passage on the sternwheeler Desert Princess. The low lake level was evident in two ways. First, the floating docks which housed the home part of the ship were extended way out from their original locations using long cables. And the lower waterline was clearly defined by the chalky cliffs in every direction. The big thrill, however, was when the Princess sailed within the canyon close to The Dam and sounded her whistle, distributing echo after echo all around us.

Well, what of Las Vegas? We drove downtown and cruised The Strip in daytime, mostly to say we’d been there. After sitting at one traffic light for five changes, we turned off and headed back to our family. We had hoped to attend one of the city’s numerous Cirque de Soleil performances, but the only two we were really interested in seeing would have cost between $350 and $400 for a pair of ducats. We passed; the $200 we spent for a performance in Corpus Christi was enough! The city of Henderson, in between, is home to several major corporations and all the shopping we would need. The shoe e-tailer, Zappos, was extremely apparent by the fact that their employees sponsored over 20 miles of road clean-up!

This was the last step in our quest to visit all of the Lower 48, and it called for a champagne toast at cocktail hour. We were in a great campground and the temperatures were 80 over 60 – a pleasant respite from our unexpected weather at the GC. Now it was time to venture north again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *