Before the glittering lights of Las Vegas
Before the glittering lights of Las Vegas, there was a desolate wasteland of barren desert and flash floods that now houses the largest man-made lake in the United States as well as the 18th largest dam in the entire world. Back then, the Hoover Dam was the largest structure of its time, standing seven-hundred and twenty-six feet tall with, “Enough concrete to build a road from New York to San Francisco,” (National Park Service 1). Due to its unprecedented size and the minute section of time spent to build it, this structure claimed numerous lives; despite that, this project offered 21,000 people the chance to avoid unemployment during the Great Depression. The Hoover Dam offered irrigation, some power to surrounding states, jobs for the unemployed, and it stood as a symbol of strength manifested by Americans during the economic hardships of the Great Depression.
On July 7, 1930, construction on the dam began in order to sustain areas surrounding Boulder City as well as hire men from the needy families suffering the extensive ramifications of the Great Depression. The dam’s objective was to prevent detrimental floods caused by drastic amounts of snowfall melting down from the Rocky Mountains, into the Colorado River, and finally to southwest farmland. Additionally, it would aggressively propagate the use of irrigation to regions surrounding Boulder and also, “Provide a dependable supply of water for Los Angeles and other southern California communities,” (HISTORY 1). Another aspiration for the dam was its ability to provide hydroelectricity, “Electricity using flowing water (typically from a reservoir held behind a dam or other barrier-Lake Mead) to drive a turbine that powers a generator,”(Merriam Webster), primarily in Nevada, Arizona, and California. This massive structure sparked the beginning of the end of the Great Depression by decreasing unemployment, controlling flooding caused by the rapid river, dispersing irrigation throughout farming communities down-river, providing a vast water supply, and hydroelectric power for millions.
When Frank Anderson, a representative from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), showed up to Las Vegas looking to stir up trouble, laborers pushed his ideas aside because they knew their jobs would be easily filled due to severe unemployment. In August of 1931, however, when the Six Companies informed tunnel workers that they were to be demoted to lower paying jobs, these workers went on strike and formed a committee that organized a list of demands for the superintendent of the project, Frank Crowe. These items included, “That clean water and flush toilets be provided, that ice water be readily available to workers, and that Six Companies obey all mining laws issued by the States of Nevada and Arizona. Significantly, the striking mine workers also voted to disassociate themselves from the IWW,” (Hoover Dam Strike 1). Their demands were not met, so they forwarded them to the Secretary of Labor, William Doak, who also refused. The six-day strike ended with these men returning to their work. On the bright side, the Six Companies promised that wages would not be cut again, and, “Efforts were made to improve work conditions as additional lighting and water were made available, and construction of living quarters in Boulder City was sped up,” (Hoover Dam Strike 1).
With all of these objectives, plus the intentions to finish in an extremely timely manner of 2 ½ years while avoiding fines, it is no wonder why the safety of laborers was held in low regard during the construction of the dam. Temperatures could reach upwards of 120 degrees in the tunnels during summer, yet plunge below freezing in the winter. High amounts of concentrated carbon monoxide also poisoned many men. The official number of deaths during construction of the dam is 96 people, however, that does not include workers who died at the hospital because of injuries caused by the project, people who died before construction officially began, nor the men, women, or children who lived and died in Ragtown. For example, two men died six years before the project began while surveying the land. These two men by the names of J.G. Tierney and Harold Connelly fell into the river and drowned. They are included in another cited quantity who died on and around the time of the project, this number is 112. Sadly, this is not the only time, nor was it the worst occasion where workers were treated unfairly at the Hoover Dam’s job sites
There was a severe amount of racial discrimination surrounding minority workers during the construction of the Hoover Dam. “It has been said that if the Great Depression years were bad for whites in the United States, then it was worse than that for blacks and other minorities,”(Wilbur 1). This statement was also true for minorities working at the Hoover Dam construction sites. In fact, by 1933 only 24 African Americans were on the payroll of the Six Companies. They were segregated from almost everything one could imagine. For example, they had separate water buckets, and they couldn’t live in Boulder City with the rest of the white folks; they lived in West Las Vega which limited them by taking a 30-minute commute by bus every morning to work. Also, they were assigned to work on the hottest spots on the job site, the Arizona gravel pits. Yet, their situation was not as bleak as that of the Asian Americans. “Under the General Conditions of the contract with Six Companies, the government specified that ‘Mongolian labor prohibited– Pursuant to section 4 of the act of June 17, 1902(32 Stat. 388, 389), no Mongolian labor shall be employed under this contract,”‘(Wilbur 1). In basic terms, the Six Companies refused to hire ‘chinamen’ and restricted the hiring of black workers on the construction sites.
These topics were not the only ones to spark controversy during manufacturing. The name Herbert Hoover seems to bore many negative connotations. Eight months after he was elected as president, the Stock Market Crash launched the beginning of the Great Depression. He created many public works programs and focused on tax cuts, but none of his approaches were successful. Americans blamed him for the onset of the Great Depression as, “Hoover failed to recognize the severity of the situation or leverage the power of the federal government to squarely address it,” (HISTORY 2); however it is without question that most of the accountability should, in fact, be placed on his predecessors’ policies. So why, then, did Congress settle on the name of ‘Hoover Dam’? Hoover was President during the planning stages of the dam, and secretary Ray Lyman Wilber decided to make a swift political move by publicly declaring the name of it to be the Hoover Dam. In contrast, the people of Boulder City had already begun referring to it as the Boulder Dam due to the fact that the name of a project was often based on location as well as the name of the act that enforced said project. It is for this reason, as well as to insult Hoover, that after Roosevelt took his place in Office, Roosevelt’s secretary of interior Harold Ickes regressed the name back to the Boulder Dam. In honor of Hoover, when President Truman took office, he went against his party and finally changed the name back to the Hoover Dam once again.
Today, this structure is still not only a fully functional dam, but it also houses new objectives such as wildlife habitation. Now an extremely famous tourist attraction visited by nearly one million people each and every year, this structure continuously brings in a large sum of money. It produces and distributes four billion kilowatt hours of electricity to surrounding cities annually, while also remaining the most prodigious dam in the southwest. Yet, with the effects of global warming and excessive/unnecessary water usage of surrounding states, water levels at Lake Mead have dropped critically. In fact, “Since 1999, Lake Mead has dropped 130 feet and is currently only 41% full. The Hoover Dam now operates at 77% of its design capacity,” (Walton 1). Currently, the levels of the lake leave a ‘bathtub ring’ and are unwaveringly dropping day by day; if these conditions persist, nearby water will no longer be easily accessible to surrounding states, and the dam’s hydroelectricity production will be cut off from approximately 29 million American people yearly.
Although the Hoover Dam may not have been assembled in the safest and most harmonious of ways, it is a national landmark capable of providing power to millions of people year-round. It delegated jobs to the people of America who were suffering the repercussions of the economic deprivation generated by the Great Depression, and its short-term relief may have even brought about a sooner end to the depression itself. Even the slightest employment of approximately 5,000 people out of the original 21.000 served to assist in lowering unemployment rates drastically. Also, although the hiring of African Americans was severely restricted, this project also gave them the chance to participate in a nationwide statement to other minorities that they can work harder and still succeed in the workplace. This $175 million dollar project sacrificed many lives for not-so-noble reasons, yet the final product changed the lives of everyone in America, and it continues to do so today. Overall, the Hoover Dam had an enormous impact on the American population as it provided a much-needed boost to the economy; in spite of this, in order for the dam to remain a milestone for America, a powerhouse of the Southwest, and a symbol of American persistence through misfortune and adversity, we must, as a united country, protect the dam and its vital resources.