Friday, 20 September 2013

Preview: The Hoover Dam

I'll be honest, so far I've not been blown away by any dams. Years ago I saw the Aswan Dam, and after having seen all kinds of ancient monumental Egyptian structures, my only impression of the Aswan Dam was "What? Is this it?" It looked like a wall and a pond. And then, last year, as part of the Wonder quest, I visited China's mighty Three Gorges Dam. To date, it's bottom of my list. Big, yes, but not majestic, and certainly not attractive. It ably demonstrated that astounding feats of engineering might push the boundaries of technical excellence and be theoretically inspirational, but they don't necessarily excite the senses or capture the imagination. So why, after having already seen two bigger and technically better dams, do I think this one will be any different?

Holding back the wild Colorado River, The Hoover Dam, right on the border of Nevada and Arizona, was built from 1931 to 1936, and while these days it's way down the list on "The World's Most Mighty and Powerful Dams", it does appear to maintain a pleasing sense of the dramatic. It's high, not wide, and looks like it has been forcibly wedged into a deep canyon. Which, I suppose, it kind of has.

Of course, above all a dam is supposed to fulfill a function, and whatever sense of the dramatic it might convey it's all secondary to the dam actually being useful. The Hoover Dam is very useful. It was the world's first large-scale multi-purpose dam, designed for three things: protection, irrigation, and electricity. The first of these, protection, was from flooding. The Colorado River was a wild and seemingly untameable river, prone to bouts of flooding and destruction. Damming it would give man power over nature's whims, creating a large upstream reservoir which would be used for irrigation of new farmland and a controlled flow of water for farmland downstream. Control equals power, and in the case of the Colorado River, actual electricity. Building a dam across the powerful Colorado River would also be a potent source of hydroelectric power. This would then be sold to cities in California, thus eventually recouping the costs of the dam and also giving the west of America a sense of economic independence from the east, no longer being dependent upon them for power and resources. All it needed was to somehow harness the rapid waters of the Colorado, a task not unlike jumping on a wild horse and bringing it under control. In the words of the author Joseph E. Stevens, it would take "the supreme engineering feat of its day, a soul-stirring architectural and industrial achievement, the ultimate expression of machine-age America's ingenuity and technological prowess". So no big deal then.

As early as 1902, the US government had been looking at the Colorado River for a suitable place to dam, but it was more of a pipe dream back then. But by the 1920s, it was a more realistic prospect and a 1922 report pinpointed a location called Boulder Canyon as being suitable. The project soon adopted the name of the Boulder Canyon Project - even though it was eventually a different canyon that was selected, called Black Canyon.

Much had to be worked out. Not just with regard to surveying of the area, but negotiating between the seven US states - California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming -  that would be affected, in some manner, by the damming of the river. It was potentially tricky political issue, and the government representative at these early meetings was the secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover - who later became president from 1929 to 1933. He seems to have done a sterling job, and through no apparent will of his own, a fellow politician announced during a 1930 ceremony that the dam would be named after him, to much consternation. It would be a bit like naming the new World Trade Center "Obama Tower", or the new Forth Bridge "The Alex Salmond Superbridge" - it's a little strange to name something after the existing leader in a democracy (in a dictatorship, naturally, everythingshould be named after the existing leader). When Herbert Hoover was voted out of office in 1932, the name suddenly seemed more foolish and the Boulder Dam name was ushered back in, even though the Boulder Canyon site wasn't even chosen. Hoover didn't even attend the opening ceremony of "Boulder Dam" (as it was repeatedly called during proceedings) in 1935, and only in 1947, after years of confusion, was the Hoover Dam name made official.

The rest of the story of the construction of the Hoover Dam is a very American one. It combines the optimism of a nation that believed it could anything, the battle against nature and the elements, a villainous mega-corporation, and the hard-working gusto of the common man in search of the American dream. For this short preview, it's far too involved a story, but it can probably be summed up in a single word: arduous. For the people involved, the Hoover Dam was tough going. Seven days a week and awful conditions; the Great Pyramid, built 4500 years earlier, was easier. The workers were certainly treated better.

The Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, and thousands of people turned up in the hope of work. This very much put the power in the hands of the people in charge, the sinisterly-named "Six Companies". As their name suggests, this company comprised of six companies that had banded together to be able to afford the construction costs and provide expertise. Budget and schedule were their goals, not the safety or comfort of their workers. Between June 25th and July 26th of 1931, 14 workers died of heatstroke. The temperature in the tunnels being dug to divert the river reached 54 degrees Celsius. I've worked offshore in some pretty intense conditions - probably up to 40 degrees - and it saps the life out of you. But I'm able to stop and retreat to rooms with air-con and plenty of water whenever I need; the Hoover Dam workers didn't. During that first year, many literally lived in makeshift camps in the desert, called Ragtown, without proper shelter, sanitation or medical supplies. Wives and children died under the sun. Sure, Six Companies couldn't be held directly responsible for the thousands of people and their families that appeared near the workplace, in the hope of getting any sort of work to survive. But they didn't do much to help. During this time, they announced a wage cut for the muckers, who were the guys who loaded rocks into trucks and were already the lowest paid of the workers. When the workers decided to strike, to demand better conditions, Six Companies fired ALL of them workers, knowing there were hundreds more ready to take their place. Human life was not a priority. Officially, 96 people were killed building the dam, but there were many more not recorded. Including the associated Ragtown deaths, that number could be double.

But conditions slowly improved as worker infrastructure developed, and a new town was created - Boulder Ciy, today a town of 15,000 people. And although the Six Companies didn't exactly cover themselves in glory, they weren't unusual for their time - health and safety was still an emerging concept back then. But neither were they enlightened, as contemporary constructions such as the Golden Gate Bridge aspired to be. It was all about budget and schedule, which to be fair, they achieved.

And so, by November 1932, the four diversion tunnels had been dug and the river was diverted. Work on the dam itself could then go ahead. By June 6th 1933, with foundations ready, concrete began to pour to build the dam, and on January 31st 1935, the diversionary tunnels were all slowly closed, the river tried to resume its normal course - and was held back by the brand new dam. Water had to go via tunnel 1, which had valves in it. The Colorado River was now in man's control. President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared it open on September 30th 1935, with 20,000 people in attendance, and another 20 million listening on a radio.

221 metres high, 379 metres wide at the top and 200 metres at the bottom, the Hoover Dam was a concrete monolith. The form followed the function - by deliberate aesthetic choice. An architect called Gordon B Kaufmann, originally from England, had been brought in earlier to give the Hoover Dam a look. Recognising that it didn't need unnecessary flourishes, he removed earlier details like a parapet with two eagles with outstretched wings and minimalised the overall look. He made it monolithic and symmetrical, and look just like the vast wall of power that it is.

And I'll see for myself whether that vast wall of power looks as impressive in person. Probably, the Hoover Dam is the most famous dam in the world, and that would be through a combination of its historical importance, good old American hype, and it looking pretty good in a photo. As I've said, on a straightforward list of the world's biggest dams, it doesn't really feature, just as Tower Bridge wouldn't feature on a list of world's biggest bridges. But I'm not assembling such a list. It's not just about size, it's about star quality. The Aswan Dam was just a wall with a pool, and the Three Gorges Dam was a big, ugly machine, but I'm hoping the Hoover Dam can do the dam community a service, and if not be a Wonder of the World - I don't expect it to be - at least impress me.

And in its favour, the snappily named Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (seriously, who really thought that was a good name?) has recently been built, only around 400 metres down. And it looks pretty cool.

I'll be visiting the Hoover Dam perhaps later next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. "It's not just about size, it's about star quality" - I agree; the Hoover Dam is arguably the most famous one out there by name. If someone were to ask me to name three dams, I'd come up with this one first, followed by the Three Gorges Dam, and "That One In the Amazonian Jungle" (the fact that the name eludes me maybe says something). Having said that, in future generations that kind of perception could be different. Also I am talking from a Westerner's point of view.

    I once saw a documentary about how it was built and the working conditions did seem horrific.

    By the way I like that last photo that shows the dam and the bridge; from that angle they complement each other, forming a kind of oval shape, like a stadium. I don't know if "viewed from a particular angle by helicopter" counts as one of your criteria though!

    1. When I eventually get round to revising my criteria, "Photogenicity" will definitely be there, if in a more minor role. It's a terrific boost for any location to look instantly great in a photo, even if you need to have the power of flight to be there. The Christ statue in Rio (previewed next month) is one of the foremost examples of this - it's only a 30m tall statue, but by God it looks great in a photo. Sure, you have to be floating above it to ever see it that way, but that doesn't matter for the majority of the world who only ever see it in a tourist brochure or magazine article.