Winding through California's richly fertile Imperial
Valley, the Colorado River was wildly unpredictable--flooding in the spring,
drying up in the summer. The only way to harness this indispensable resource
was to build a dam, which in turn would provide badly needed electricity to
the western states.
It was a brilliantly conceived scheme, uniting public works and private enterprise. A giant construction company was formed by six previously smalltime contractors.
The engineering problems were stupendous, the solutions ingenious. Before work could start, the river had to be diverted. Four tunnels, each 50 feet in diameter (which today could accommodate a 747 without the wings), were drilled through the solid rock walls of the Black Canyon. Men called "high-scalers," lowered in bosun's chairs, stripped the canyon walls of loose rock.
For two years, workers poured concrete 24 hours a
day, seven days a week. Working conditions were dangerous, pay was low, housing
inadequate. But it was the Depression, and many were grateful to have work.
Five thousand men and their families settled in the Nevada desert.
There were two mess halls, each seating 600; the dishwasher was sixteen feet long.
The federal government built Boulder City, an efficiently run, well-ordered company town, but dozens of tent cities sprang up--honky-tonk towns dotted the road from the dam to the small town of Las Vegas.
In 1935, in only three years, the job was finished. But Hoover Dam also raised policy questions about the economic and environmental impact of large scale irrigation throughout the West.Temporarily renamed Boulder Dam by the Roosevelt Administration, the project's electrical output helped build the ships and planes used in World War II; its water grew fruits and vegetables in California.