Hoover Dam: An American Adventureby Joseph E. Stevens
In the spring of 1931, in a rugged desert canyon on the Arizona-Nevada border, an army of workmen began one of the most difficult and daring building projects ever undertakenthe construction of Hoover Dam. Through the worst years of the Great Depression as many as five thousand laborers toiled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to erect the huge
In the spring of 1931, in a rugged desert canyon on the Arizona-Nevada border, an army of workmen began one of the most difficult and daring building projects ever undertakenthe construction of Hoover Dam. Through the worst years of the Great Depression as many as five thousand laborers toiled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to erect the huge structure that would harness the Colorado River and transform the American West.
Construction of the giant dam was a triumph of human ingenuity, yet the full story of this monumental endeavor has never been told. Now, in an engrossing, fast-paced narrative, Joseph E. Stevens recounts the gripping saga of Hoover Dam. Drawing on a wealth of material, including manuscript collections, government documents, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, and personal interviews and correspondence with men and women who were involved with the construction, he brings the Hoover Dam adventure to life.
Described here in dramatic detail are the deadly hazards the work crews faced as they hacked and blasted the dam’s foundation out of solid rock; the bitter political battles and violent labor unrest that threatened to shut the job down; the deprivation and grinding hardship endured by the workers’ families; the dam builders’ gambling, drinking, and whoring sprees in nearby Las Vegas; and the stirring triumphs and searing moments of terror as the massive concrete wedge rose inexorably from the canyon floor.
Here, too, is an unforgettable cast of characters: Henry Kaiser, Warren Bechtel, and Harry Morrison, the ambitious, headstrong construction executives who gambled fortune and fame on the Hoover Dam contract; Frank Crowe, the brilliant, obsessed field engineer who relentlessly drove the work force to finish the dam two and a half years ahead of schedule; Sims Ely, the irascible, teetotaling eccentric who ruled Boulder City, the straightlaced company town created for the dam workers by the federal government; and many more men and women whose courage and sacrifice, greed and frailty, made the dam’s construction a great human, as well as technological, adventure.
Hoover Dam is a compelling, irresistible account of an extraordinary American epic.
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An American Adventure
By Joseph E. Stevens
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1990 Joseph E. Stevens
All rights reserved.
A River and a Dream
William H. Wattis, seventy-two-year-old president of the Utah Construction Company, builder of railroads, highways, and dams, one of the wealthiest men in the West, was dying of cancer. Day after day he submitted to the painful injections prescribed by his physicians and watched for signs of improvement, hoping against hope that some of his old vigor would return. The ache in his tumor-ravaged hip, the withering of his arms and legs, the lassitude settling like a shroud over his mind and body only grew worse, however. To his wife, his nurses, and to the friends who came to visit him in his modest room in San Francisco's St. Francis Hospital, he continued to protest that he was growing stronger, but it was a transparent lie. Death was the prognosis, and he knew that his time had almost run out.
Swaddled in a cocoon of blankets, he sat before an open window that commanded a view of the San Francisco skyline; it was March 2, 1931, and warm spring sunshine bathed the city. On the bed beside him, a cigar smoldered in an ash tray. He reached for it, noting ruefully how the skin on the back of his hand, once taut and ruddy from long hours outdoors, was now crinkled and sallow. As he puffed on the cigar, his gaunt cheeks collapsed inward but his head remained fixed and motionless, as if he could not summon the energy to turn it. Only his eyes, bright blue and sparkling, seemed truly alive.
Just now they were focused on a group of men standing at the foot of his bed. Seeing those erect figures, heads bobbing in animated conversation, W. H. Wattis forced the joint in his cancerous hip to shift, putting him in a more upright sitting position. The groan that slipped from his chalky lips went unheard, drowned out by traffic noise drifting up from Hyde and Bush streets and by the sound of voices in the crowded hospital room.
The exchanges were crisp and rapid fire, carried on in a strange verbal shorthand that, if transcribed, would have consisted almost entirely of numbers punctuated by question marks and exclamation points. The numbers, affixed to units of measurement and containing six, seven, even eight digits, were offered up with casual assurance or flung down with defiant aggressiveness. Challenges and rebuttals couched in almost incomprehensible technical jargon, barks of laughter, and gusts of profanity formed a cacophony that seemed certain to grate on the ears of the pain-wracked old man. But rather than wincing, W. H. Wattis relaxed. As he settled back in his chair, wreathed by a cloud of cigar smoke, a faint smile curled the corners of his mouth.
Perhaps he was thinking that a cancer ward was a strange place to hold a business meeting, but then again it was no stranger than a tent or a railroad car or any number of other peculiar settings in which he had presided over similar get-togethers during his long career in heavy construction. He was of the old callus-on-the-hands, dirt-under-the-fingernails school of builders who scoffed at corporate folderol and felt more at home on a job site than in a boardroom. He could have called this meeting in a broom closet and the men now surrounding his bed all would have been there, just as eager and just as intent. Like him they were builders—aggressive, irreverent, incorrigibly ambitious—and they were preparing to go after the contract of a lifetime, the biggest job any of them had ever tackled: the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
Since late 1928, when Congress passed legislation authorizing it, Hoover Dam had been the dream and nightmare of every civil engineer and construction executive in the country. The largest dam on the face of the earth and the linchpin of a grandiose project to corral and harness the waters of the Colorado from the Grand Canyon to the Gulf of California, it would require organization, logistics, and industrial and engineering know-how on an unprecedented scale. It was destined to be one of the greatest monuments to man's ingenuity and conceit ever erected, but before the dream could become reality there were extraordinary risks to be taken and mighty obstacles to be overcome. The construction of Hoover Dam would pit men and machines against river and rock; it would be a battle between human resourcefulness and the raw, elemental forces of nature, fought in a desert canyon that seemed to have been torn open, carved, and scoured clean, just for this purpose.
For a man on his deathbed, it was a staggering undertaking. Even if the group he led won the right to build the dam, he would never see it started, much less finished. To stake fortune and fame on such a perilous venture without any chance of knowing the final outcome seemed a foolhardy gamble, but W. H. Wattis had committed himself to it in spite of his cancer. His partners were eager to proceed, and if they were ready to meet the challenge, so was he, terminal illness or no. Besides, what finer monument could a builder ask for than a dam that would stand for generations, inspiring wonder in all those who looked at it?
The old man's smile widened into a grin. A great adventure was about to start; yet the prologue had been so rich in drama and conflict that it could have stood alone as a complete, well-rounded story of surpassing color and excitement.
The protagonist was a river—Río Colorado the Spanish priest Francisco Garcés had named it in 1776—majestic, beautiful, and possessed of awesome power, running 1,400 miles through the heart of America's vast desert hinterland. Born of snow and ice, it rose high in mountain ranges whose names evoked the wild splendor of the alpine West: Wind River and Medicine Bow; Uinta and Uncompahgre; Sawatch and San Juan. From peaks and plateaus where brooks carved blue tracks across pristine snowfields, from remote valleys where cataracts foamed down boulder-lined streambeds, it gathered strength. From north, south, east, and west, in an area covering seven states and 242,000 square miles, whitewater tumbled out of the high country in an explosion of sound and spray, pouring into the skein of tributaries that fed the Colorado.
The Green, river of the trappers' rendezvous and longest of the tributaries, flowed south out of Wyoming's Bridger Basin into northeastern Utah, swung east into Colorado to meet the Yampa, then turned back into Utah to be joined by the Duchesne and Uinta rivers. Twisting south, it plunged into Desolation Canyon, gathered up the waters of the Price and San Rafael, and rolled on toward its confluence, a few miles south of Grandview Point, with the broad, mud-laden Colorado flowing down from the northeast.
Immense and powerful after its mating with the Green, the Colorado sliced deep into a series of arid plateaus—the Kaiparowits, Kaibab, and Coconino—laying open a maze of spectacular canyons. From the northwest the Dirty Devil and Escalante rivers added their flood to the fast-swelling stream, and from the east came New Mexico's San Juan.
Through Glen Canyon the big river entered Arizona, passed Lee's Ferry, and slashed south into Marble Canyon, flanked on the east by the Echo Cliffs and the Palisades of the Desert and on the west by the eroded spires and buttes of the Kaibab and Walhalla plateaus. The Little Colorado arrived from the sand hills of the Painted Desert after a hundred-mile journey through Navajo country, bearing the accumulated snowmelt of the White Mountains. Engorged by this fresh surge of water, the Colorado turned west and dropped into Granite Gorge, cutting through the heart of Grand Canyon in a series of violent rapids, before rolling on under the Grand Wash Cliffs to a junction with the Virgin River. Past the silent, shadowy walls of Boulder and Black canyons, it flowed west, then wheeled south in a broad, sweeping turn to begin its final run to the sea.
Leaving behind the labyrinth of canyons it had incised in the high plateaus, the Colorado spilled out across the low country under the unrelenting glare of the sun, sliding past the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Its last major tributary appeared from the east: Arizona's Gila River, bearing the waters of the Salt, Santa Cruz, Agua Fría, and Hassayampa. Swollen by this final flood, the Colorado left the United States south of Yuma, flowed some fifty miles through Mexico, and spread out into a muddy, brackish delta at the head of the Gulf of California. In tidal sloughs fourteen thousand feet below the mountaintops where it was born, the river ended its long journey.
The first white men to see the Colorado were the Spanish conquistadors. In 1539 they sought to ascend the river in search of gold and new territories, but as an avenue of exploration and a pathway to conquest, it proved a bitter disappointment to them. Its currents battered and repulsed their boats; its canyons blocked their marches. As the centuries passed, the Spaniards' curiosity about the Colorado gave way to puzzlement and finally to superstition. For men of European birth and heritage, the muddy torrent was too wild to master and too alien to comprehend. It was a source of endless failure and frustration, an unfathomable mystery, and they made only feeble efforts to chart its course and ponder its possible uses. It would be left to a new generation of explorers—men less fearful, more analytical, keenly interested in the commercial potential of the river—to dispel the fog of rumor and legend the Spaniards had spread over the Colorado and its canyons and to map, measure, and manipulate its waters.
When the territories of California, Arizona, and New Mexico became part of the United States after the Mexican War in 1848, American officials and private entrepreneurs, their interest piqued by reports of such adventurers as William Ashley and James O. Pattie, began to think of the Colorado as a highway of commerce similar to the Missouri or the Mississippi. The War Department was especially eager to find a waterway that could link its far-flung southwestern outposts, and in 1857, Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives was ordered to sail up the Colorado and assess its suitability for steam navigation and its potential as a route for resupplying army forts.
Ives embarked on his voyage in January, 1858, leaving Yuma on the 58-foot steel-hulled steamboat Explorer. He and his crew of twenty-four struggled northward, encountering snags, sandbars, shifting currents, and rapidly rising and falling water levels. Four hundred miles upstream from Yuma, at the lower end of Black Canyon, the Explorer hit a submerged rock and was damaged badly, but Ives gamely pressed on in a wooden skiff. He reached Las Vegas Wash, three miles beyond the head of Black Canyon, before turning back.
When the Explorer had been repaired, half of the expedition members boarded it and returned to Yuma; the other half, led by Ives, marched northeast across the Colorado Plateau to the Grand Canyon, then southeast across the Painted Desert to Fort Defiance on the Arizona–New Mexico border. In spite of the obstacles encountered in piloting the Explorer upstream, Ives wrote in his report to the secretary of war that the Colorado could be used as an avenue to transport supplies as far as Black Canyon. But of the region beyond, he flatly stated: "Ours was the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by Nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."
Eleven years after Ives wrote those pessimistic lines, John Wesley Powell, an intrepid, one-armed Civil War veteran, mounted the expedition that finally took the full measure of the Colorado River and punctured many of the myths and legends that had haunted its canyons since their discovery by the conquistadors three centuries earlier. Powell's odyssey of 1869 was one of the great adventures in the annals of world exploration; his second voyage down the Colorado in 1871, and subsequent geographical and geological surveys of the Colorado Basin in the mid-1870s, were landmark achievements in the study and interpretation of the West's natural history.
The records of Powell's voyages confirmed Ives's report: commercial navigation of the Colorado above Black Canyon was impossible. The one-armed major also agreed with Ives's assessment that most of the Colorado Basin was a "profitless locality" made virtually uninhabitable by rugged topography and unrelenting aridity. "Only a small portion of the country is irrigable," wrote Powell, "and practically all values for agriculture inhere, not in the lands but in the water." He was convinced that development in the Colorado Basin, to the extent it was possible, would have to conform to the dictates of geography and climate and therefore would be very modest in scope. This was an eminently logical if not popular conclusion, but what Powell could not foresee was that in fifty years new technology would permit politicians and land promoters to alter geography, ignore climate, and pursue a dramatic scheme for agricultural and urban growth in the Colorado Desert of Southern California.
The key to this scheme was a geological anomaly: a valley beneath the level of the sea. In the very distant past, the Gulf of California had extended 150 miles farther north than its modern high-tide line. It lapped at the base of the Orocopia Mountains in the vicinity of present-day Indio and Coachella, California, and spread back into Mexico, where it filled an oval-shaped bay some fifty miles wide. The Colorado poured into the gulf's eastern side south of Yuma, where it dropped the cargo of silt it had carried hundreds of miles. Each year 140,000 acre-feet of silt, enough to cover 214 square miles with mud a foot deep, was swept past Yuma and dumped into a huge delta at the river's mouth.
Year after year, century after century, the deltaic deposits extended farther and rose higher until finally they created a natural dam, sealing off the upper end of the gulf and forming a huge, shallow, saltwater lake. The sun evaporated the lake and gradually exposed the sandy alluvia that would be known as the Colorado Desert. At the lowest spot, where the receding water concentrated before it finally was burned away, the Salton Sink, a shimmering, brine-encrusted depression appeared. The river continued to follow a winding course along the southeastern rim of the below-sea-level valley, steadily elevating its bed with fresh deposits of mud. From time to time it overflowed its banks and rushed downward, carving deep channels through the sand on its way to the Salton Sink, but in most years it meandered lazily to the sea, leaving the parched valley silent and empty.
In the nineteenth century, explorers began to probe this 2,000-square-mile wasteland, mapping its contours, sampling its soil, and speculating about its bizarre topography. They found that the desert was bounded on the east by a sixty-mile belt of wind-blown sand dunes, which they called the Walking Hills, and on the west by the rocky palisades of the Vallecito and Santa Rosa mountains. Within this outer ring the valley swept downward to the Salton Sink, three hundred feet below sea level, where midday temperatures surged past 120 degrees Fahrenheit and hot winds scorched away any hint of moisture.
This was some of the most desolate territory on earth, a place where even reptiles would not go, yet in 1849 and 1850 caravans of fortune hunters, on their way to California to dig for gold, dared to traverse it. One of the argonauts was Oliver Meredith Wozencraft, a 35-year-old New Orleans physician who had abandoned his family and his medical practice and set out for the gold fields. He arrived at Yuma in May, 1849, weak from cholera and the rigors of his ride across Texas and New Mexico, but grimly determined to push on to the Golconda he was sure awaited him in California.
The four-day journey across the Colorado Desert was always hazardous, but in May, when the heat was near its zenith, the trip was virtually suicidal. The people of Yuma desperately wanted a doctor, and they urged Wozencraft to postpone his crossing until fall, when the temperatures moderated. They hoped that once he recovered from his illness and resumed practicing medicine he would forget the gold rush and stay in Arizona. But Wozencraft would not be deterred; joining a group of similarly gold-crazed men, he crossed the Colorado River on a ferry and rode off on his mule into the sand dunes. The wind and sun soon took their toll, and two members of the group collapsed. At last perceiving the folly of what they were attempting, the others turned back, all but the heat-befuddled doctor, who rode on until he reached the east bank of the Alamo Barranca, one of the dry channels cut by the Colorado in its flood stage. There he tumbled from his saddle, crawled to the brink, and stared in a delirium at the dusty, down-sloping riverbed that led north toward the Salton Sink.
"I felt no distress whatever," Wozencraft wrote of his ordeal. "I was perspiring freely and was as limber and helpless as a wet rag. It was an exhilirating experience.... It was then and there that I first conceived the idea of the reclamation of the desert." The idea was a hallucination, a vivid dream of water rushing down the barranca and flowing across the desert to green fields and oases of palm trees. The dream might have died aborning if one of the doctor's companions had not arrived at that moment with a full water bag; the man revived Wozencraft, hoisted him onto his mule, and led him back to Yuma.
Excerpted from Hoover Dam by Joseph E. Stevens. Copyright © 1990 Joseph E. Stevens. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joseph E. Stevens, a graduate of Princeton University, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His first book, Hoover Dam: An American Adventure, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1988. It received the Western Writers of America Spur Award, the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, and the W. Turrentine Jackson Prize of the Western History Association.
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