My first sight of the Hoover Dam came as we boarded a raft for a trip down the Colorado River. To say I was enchanted by the dam is not an understatement. The smooth concave wall of concrete bore down upon me, impressing me into silence with its sheer audacity. The impossibility of it existence struck me, that it could have ever been placed here in the middle of the rocky desert by human hands. I am not usually overawed by engineering feats, even when they impress me, but the Hoover Dam can now be added to my short list of the spectacular which mostly includes pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.
The Hoover Dam has a story to tell. It is a beautiful piece of construction, clean and lyrical to the human eye, yet brimming with intensity, as it bows back against the water and braces itself on the canyon walls. The beauty and the power mingle in my human perception, creating this sense of awe. In this first meeting, as our raft began to float on the current away from its never-ending struggle against the river, I only could sense this awe. I could not yet understand its story.
The following day, my husband and I returned to the Hoover Dam, this time to tour within its walls. We drove across the dam itself, which had been part of Highway 93 until literally that morning when the new Bypass Bridge opened. We curled up the cliff on the Arizona side to the first free parking lot, which gazes out over the Lake Mead side of the dam. It was a crystal-clear day, calm and bright, and in the early morning glow, the still waters of the lake reflected both the striations of the canyon walls and the intake towers of the dam, a painting of coexisting nature and human science. Regardless of one’s feelings about the impact of dams (and thus humans) on the environment, it was a gorgeous panorama.
We walked across the dam itself, gazing down at the river churning out of the concrete wall far below. It is impossible to convey the sense of its huge scale – needless to say I again felt that twinge of awe. As a history major and former US History teacher, I already knew some of the dam’s story. Built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project at the height of the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam not only supplied electricity for the growing needs of Western cities and a water reservoir for Las Vegas, but the dam also created hundreds of desperately-needed jobs when the unemployment rate was nearing 25% nationwide. From 1931 until its completion in 1935, the Hoover Dam provided work to an estimated 20,000 men. It’s difficult to know just how many men were actually employed because the workers, so desperate for employment, often worked multiple shifts under multiple names. All these workers and their families were housed a couple miles away in a brand-new community created for them to live in – today’s Boulder City.
As a WPA project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (although first authorized for construction by President Herbert Hoover in 1930), the government married two essential needs of the country in the building of Hoover Dam – job creation and investing in essential infrastructure for the West’s development and growth. The WPA accomplished these goals in other areas of the country as well, with the building of bridges, roads, post offices and schools, many still in use today.
Growing up in Portland, the WPA project I was most familiar with was Timberline Lodge, the ski resort on Mt. Hood. The same Art Deco artistry that went into the lodge also graces the Hoover Dam, which surprised me. Because the WPA also employed artists, their works can be seen integrated into the design of a utilitarian structure. Intricate relief sculptures on the elevator towers depict both the native peoples of the mountain desert and the function of the dam, such as flood control and electrical power. On the Nevada side stand two “Winged Figures of the Republic”, keeping watch not only over the dam, but also an intricate celestial map on the sidewalk. These figures, designed by Norwegian immigrant Oskar Hansen, seem to guard the heritage and lessons of the dam, their bronze gleaming in the morning light with a dignity that most of the tourists only briefly stop to contemplate as they glance up, take a picture, and scurry on their way.
Eventually we too scurried towards the visitor’s center, running the gauntlet of metal detectors and security before buying our tickets to tour the dam.
There are several options to choose from when visiting the Hoover Dam. We chose the most expensive, and thus most comprehensive, option. For $30 each, we not only saw the huge power generators that churn the water to create electricity, but also explored the depths of the dam itself. Our tour guide, an actual engineer at the dam, led us through the inspection tunnels of the dam wall. Along the way, in the dim light, we could make out the numerical scribbles on the tunnel walls from years past. Our guide explained that these are written by engineers as they inspect the walls for cracks and signs of settling. I saw a notation from as far back as 1942, marking the infinitesimal growth of a crack I could barely see. The concrete of the dam is still in the process of curing and our guide mentioned, with a nonchalance that understated the reality, that the concrete within the massive dam walls will not completely cure for at least a thousand years. In engineering speak, this means the dam is getting stronger year after year, as the concrete further sets. We also learned that the dam is built on a fault line, and has actually been designed to withstand up to an 8.5 earthquake. An interesting factoid when you’re standing in the middle of the dam itself, gazing out off a ventilation shaft onto the canyon below. A piece of metal grating was the only thing separating me from plunging to the river while the guide casually mentions we’re on a fault line. That is a mind-boggler.
We emerged back into the sunlight, an elevator whisking us from deep within up to the sidewalk on the highway crossing the dam. I blinked as I adjusted to the brightness, then gazed yet again down at the river. This time, I could almost hear the groans of hundreds of men, the same ones I witnessed in black and white footage silently scrambling like ants over the dam as it rose like a Lego wall, guiding the hoisted buckets of concrete into hollow wooden block forms. I turned around and gazed back at Lake Mead, infused with warmth in the morning sun, an artificial lake formed in a desert. I marveled at my journey through history and realized how potent this moment truly was – I was standing on a dam built during the Great Depression. This monument of our heritage has so much to teach us who are currently living through the Great Recession, if only we deign to stop and listen.