On September 30, 1935, a crowd of thousands watched as President Franklin Roosevelt officially opened the Hoover Dam, the largest public works project of its time. “Approximately 5 million barrels of cement and 45 pounds of reinforcement steel” went into it, History.com notes, enough to pave a four-foot-wide sidewalk around the Earth at the equator. The massive hydroelectric dam provided water to 7 surrounding states, transforming the arid American West into an agricultural center. Currently, it generates over four billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, “enough to serve 1.3 million people,” notes PBS.
That a project this size could be completed in just five years seems awe-inspiring enough. That it could be done during the worst years of the Great Depression, even more so. When the dam was first proposed in 1922 to deal with flooding on the Colorado River, the crisis still lay over the horizon.
A glorious post-war future seemed assured, masterminded by Hoover, the former engineer. (He did not design the dam, but brokered the deal that pushed it through Congress.) During the dam’s construction, on the other hand — a feat compared to building the pyramids in Egypt — the U.S. economy had fully hit rock bottom. Although it had been dedicated to Hoover by President Coolidge in 1928, the Hoover Dam wouldn’t come to bear his name until 1947.
In its early years, the massive, smooth white concrete curve — stretching 1,244 feet across the Black Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada Border — was simply called the Boulder Canyon Dam. It drew some 21,000 workers to divert the river through tunnels, excavate the riverbed down to bedrock, and build the enormous structure and its machinery. “Due to the strict timeframe, workers suffered from horrible work conditions in the tunnels as the heat and carbon monoxide-filled air became unbearable, leading to a strike in August of 1931,” writes Alexia Wulff at the Culture Trip.
Once they began clearing the blasted walls of the canyon, workers “hung from suspended heights of 800 feet above ground — some fell to their death or were injured by the falling rock and dangerous equipment.” Over 100 men died in this way and such deaths, and near-misses, seemed commonplace after a while. In the TED-Ed video by Alex Gendler at the top of the post, we see one jaw-dropping near-miss dramatized in animation. “Business as usual,” says the narrator. “Just another day in the construction of the Hoover Dam.”
Learn much more about the engineering marvels, and the “blood, concrete, and dynamite,” as Gendler puts it, in the short B1M video further up and the full National Geographic documentary just above. While it has been surpassed in size, the Hoover Dam remains one of the largest power plants in the country, and may even be ideal for use as a giant battery that can store excess power created by wind and solar. Even if that idea fails to pan out in coming years, the story of the dam’s construction will keep inspiring engineers and scientists to reach for big solutions, even — and perhaps especially — in the middle of a crisis.