Hoover Dam, Nevada

Posted by on March 27, 2004

Here we were in Nevada again, victims once again of our desire to get a deal. Deals are easy to get if you want to go to Las Vegas, which is a relatively easy flight from Albany. Albany is such an easy airport compared to the majors in the New York City area, that the whole trip begins more gently. This time, I promised that I would go to see Hoover Dam, I mean REALLY see it, go down 700 feet in the big elevator to see the giant turbines, yes, really see it. So, after hemming and hawing a whole lot, off we went. I consoled myself that after all it was only an hour’s ride from Las Vegas, there were pretty mountains to see along the way, and we already had the rental car.

As usual, it proved to be much more interesting than I had expected. Hoover Dam is so powerful, and it is the underlying piece of the development of the southwest in the second half of the twentieth century. The story is a political, social, and environmental tale worth a movie.

And the tour is about as good as any show in Vegas, (with the exception of Cirque de Soleil) It costs just $12.00 for seniors to get the history and the gorgeous views and the inside story of the dam. For a little more money you can take home a hardhat souvenir. Furthermore, the dam is just about the only one left in the world that allows tours, so if dams interest you, get going. The security is tight now, and it may not be long before it’s tightened up more.

The Colorado River provides 65% of our fruits and vegetables from California, (which in turn seems to supply the whole country, at least in winter.) by supplying the Imperial Valley with its water for irrigation. The damming of the Colorado made it possible to make Southern California the garden paradise it seems to be.

During the great depression in this country, work on the Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam) beckoned to hundreds and hundreds of out of work laborers. So they came in droves, from all across the country, to these seven-day a week jobs, with only Thanksgiving and Christmas as holidays. It took five years to build the dam, and five million barrels of concrete. For those who love statistics, here’s a staggering one: 3600 meals a day were served here to the construction crew.

For some more fascinating statistics, the workers earned $4.00 per day. Some, who took on the more obviously dangerous jobs, earned $7.00 a day. However, at that time, a quart of milk cost 10 cents, a gallon of gas cost 18 cents, a man’s shirt cost 47 cents, you could buy a Pontiac coupe for $585, and a six room house for $2800. At least that’s what the 1932-43 Price Index states.

The most comforting statistic I heard on the tour was that NO ONE is buried in the concrete, even though there were 96 deaths directly related to the building of this 726-foot structure.

We arrived at the dam on a bright sunny day, with red mountains, a few white puffy clouds, and the aqua colored water of Lake Mead all around us. It was a photographer’s dream of a setting. Many hundreds of people visit the dam, but there were not overwhelming numbers that day. The United States Bureau of Reclamation manages the dam, and its employees do a wonderful, even passionate, job of conducting tours. The tour is well organized and regulated. It includes a short lecture, movies and stills of building the dam, a elevator ride down 504 feet, than a walk through a large tunnel cut into the canyon’s wall to see (and hear) eight of the dams massive generators creating thousands of kilowatts of electricity. There are observation platforms where tourists on the Tour are allowed to go to get those wonderful photos, and there is a small museum of artifacts from the dam’s building. There are two Art Deco angels at the Flagpole that stand as an artful reminder of the time when the dam was built.

Yes, in addition to all that water for the southwest, the dam generates more than four billion kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power per year, enough to serve 1.3 million people. It provides flood control benefits, and obviously controls the use of the Colorado River water for businesses and homes. Its water helps meet the domestic water needs for more than 23 million people in homes and businesses in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and other Southwestern cities, towns, and Indian communities in Arizona, Nevada and California, and even Mexico.

The beautiful lake created by the dam is called Lake Mead. It has some incredibly huge shoreline, and supports various recreational activities. If you drive out there, take the Lake Shore Drive back north toward Las Vegas, so you can see this deep aqua serpentine shore as it slashes through the rusty desert land. Many people enjoy house boating on the lake as well as every other manner of boating.

The mighty dam divides the states of Arizona and Nevada, and the state line goes right up through the middle of Lake Mead.

I got a kick out of the fact that the building of the dam (five years) took a lot less time than getting the legislation for it through Congress.

The legislation commenced around 1902, after President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act into Law. In 1928 the Boulder Canyon Project Act passed Congress and was signed by President Coolidge. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the completed dam on September 30, 1935.

It also took 70 years for the signing of the Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement, which the seven states involved in receiving water signed in 2003. California was taking more than its 4.4 million acre-feet per year agreed-upon share. Now that state is mending its ways apparently, and will ease off over the next 14 years, stabilizing the allotments for every state.

This dramatic spot is history in the making. On December 7, 1941, the dam was closed to the public at 5:30 PM, and remained closed for the duration of World War II. Since 9-11 no trucks are allowed over the dam, and security is tight. There is now a new bridge project which will provide the Hoover Dam By-Pass, a four-lane, 3.5 mile divided highway flanking a giant new bridge over the Colorado River. I wouldn’t be surprised if they close the dam to regular traffic after that, but the view of the dam from the new bridge will be the most spectacular of all.

(Betsy Shequine found herself drowning in statistics, but flooded with delight at the sight of Hoover Dam.)

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