The Incredible Story of the Hoover Dam

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, 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch the Build­ing of the Empire State Build­ing in Col­or: The Cre­ation of the Icon­ic 1930s Sky­scraper From Start to Fin­ish

Watch Venice’s New $7 Bil­lion Flood Defense Sys­tem in Action

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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