Tuesday, 2 September 2014

62. Wonder: Hoover Dam

(For the Hoover Dam preview, please click here.)

Of all my Wonders, what's the toughest? Imagine them being struck by a missile - how would they fare? Sadly, you don't need to imagine too hard for some; while the mess and war in Syria is ongoimg, heritage sites slip down the list of priorities and the Krak des Chevaliers has been hit by at least one missile. Yet, it's tough and it survives. But would it survive a nuke? Surely not - what would? Well, straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona, the Hoover Dam might. An astonishing 6.6 million tons of solid concrete - that's heavier than the Great Pyramid. It might have a bit of life in it too. Lifespan predictions, even without maintenance, run into the thousands of years. In the desolate aftermath of Armageddon, this thing might still be holding strong.

Strength and power are kind of the modus operandi for the Hoover Dam. It has to be strong to hold back the formerly wild Colorado River, now harnessed like a tamed Husky. 9.5 trillion gallons of water is held back behind it, filling out Lake Mead, created in 1935 as a result of the Dam announcing itself to the world. And this translates into power. It generates around 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power every year, or more meaningfully, enough to power homes and services for 1.3 million people. The Hoover Dam might look like a colossal slab of concrete, but it is also a machine.

For those visiting Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam is the cultural day trip, a visit to one of America's Great Depression icons, a chunk of history and engineering to break up the days of vice. It's only 36 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, a mere 45 minute drive. Oddly though, despite the Hoover Dam's vast hydroelectric output, Las Vegas barely relies upon it for its power. When the Hoover Dam was started, in 1931, Vegas was a small town of 5000 and didn't need the Dam's electricity (most goes to Southern California). By the time the Dam was complete, it had doubled in size, with over 50,000 visitors, and the ball was rolling. Nevada had legalised gambling, and made divorce for residents possible in just six weeks. Prostitution was legal (it still is in certain counties, though not longer Clark County, which contains Vegas). This appealed to the huge influx of Hoover Dam workers, plus the large overspill of people who flocked to the area in the hope of work, and the town's reputation was sealed. After the war, it became more developed as a gambling haven, and by the 1990s some of the ridiculous mega casino complexes appeared. It's one of the more unexpected side-effects of building a gigantic dam: kickstarting one of the world's most garish and notorious cities.

The Hoover Dam, by comparison, is the very opposite of garish. It is giant, but controlled. It has a very stripped-back, minimal Art Deco appeal. Originally, it was to have flourishes such as a parapet with two eagles, wings outstretched, but an architect called Gordon Kaufmann shook his head and went "Nuh." "Form follows function," was a mantra he subscribed to, and so he removed the unnecessary flourishes and focussed on making the Dam look monolithic, including giving it symmetry. This means, when visiting the Hoover Dam, your focus isn't the details, it's the whole. A whole lot of concrete. Wedge-shaped, 221 metres high, 379 metres long and 14 metres thick at the top, widening to a hefty 202 metres thick at the base, the Dam is shoved into a canyon, with a vast well of water built up behind it. Form follows function: strength and power.

As with any great American construction, it was led by personalities. Perhaps the main man was Frank Crowe, the construction superintendent on the job. Canadian-born, he was a dam builder extraordinaire and America's foremost expert, probably the world's expert - there was nobody better to oversee the enormous task ahead. Hugely respected in his field, he had a track record of being consistently on schedule and under-budget, and was well liked by both his employers and his workers. He was a workaholic: it is recorded that he hadn't taken a holiday in 20 years, and that had been for his honeymoon. During this, he had vanished from his wife for several hours, to watch a new type of dump truck pour coal down a chute. That had been to his second wife; his first had died in 1911, along with their baby, in childbirth. His next two children, with this second wife, also died as babies or toddlers. Throughout and perhaps because of these tragedies, Crowe immersed himself in his work. Dam building was his life.

The Hoover Dam was to be the seventh dam he'd built, and was the job he'd been waiting for all his life. He later recounted that, when young, he had visited the Colorado River canyons and had been told that one day a dam would be bult there. He said: "I was wild to build this dam. I had spent my life in the river bottoms, and it meant a wonderful climax - the biggest dam ever built by anyone anywhere." He was tasked with being the link between the workers and the people in charge, who went under the vaguely sinister banner of the Six Companies. They were - surprise! - comprised of six different companies, that had pooled their resources and expertise and bid for the contract, a remarkably precise $48,890,955.50 (my inflation calculator gives an appropriately precise $768,042,763.16 for today's worth). The contract was for seven years, with a penalty of $3000 a day to the Six Companies if it over-ran. No fear about that with Crowe in charge - he did it under-budget and with two years to spare. The entire cost was paid for, by selling the hydroelectric power generated, by May 31st, 1987.

Another man who stamped his identity upon the project was Elwood Mead. He was the head of the Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency in charge of water control, and considered the world's leading authority of land reclamation. Throughout his administration, which begun in 1924, he had been an influential and popular figure, constantly pushing for the Dam's construction. He died, aged 78, just months after its completion, and for his troubles had a new lake named after him. Lake Mead was created as a result of the Colorado river building up behind the Hoover Dam, eventually covering 210 square miles, which is larger than the total land area of Barbados. Most of the lake is long and thin and canyon-shaped. If you keep following it, up the Colorado River, eventually you'll get to the Grand Canyon. We didn't quite have the time for that (it would be about a hundred miles of swimming and walking) but it's quite possible to visit the spread-out part of the lake, just behind the Dam, which has become a popular place for sailing and other watersports.

Curiously, the man the Hoover Dam was named after, the 31st president of America, Herbert Hoover, was not one of them. Not to say that he didn't have a personality - I'm sure that he was a delight to have round for dinner - but more that he didn't have a leading role in building the Dam and was always an unusual choice for naming. Before being made president, Hoover was the secretary of commerce and had played a role in negotiations between the seven US states that the Dam would affect in one form or another. Back then, it was called the Boulder Canyon Project (though confusingly the site chosen for the Dam was the Black Canyon, but never mind) and he helped get Congress to agree to it. After becoming president he gave it the full official go-ahead, although at that stage any president would have given this, including surely his rival in the presidential election, a man called Alfred E. Smith, whom you might recall went on to console himself by building the Empire State Building.

It was at a pre-construction ceremony that a politician announced, to everyone's great surprise, that the Dam - which everyone assumed would be called the Boulder Dam - was now to be named after the current president. There was much muttering about it being an irregular choice, but Hoover himself seemed pretty happy about it and a Congressional Act made it official in 1931. Not that it helped him win re-election, and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was much less keen: he saw all official sources remove Hoover's name and again refer to it as the Boulder Dam. At the opening ceremony, which Hoover wasn't asked to attend, it was called the Boulder Dam. Only in 1947, after years of confusion, did another president, Harry S. Truman, step in and make Hoover official again. As Herbert Hoover lived until 1964, he had the pleasure of seeing it finally, officially, take his name. And it's stuck - although references to the Boulder Dam can still be readily found.

Part of that might be because the neighbouring town is called Boulder City, a purpose-built town for the workers of the Dam. When the job was announced, people and families flocked to Las Vegas in their thousands. They arrived from 1930, well before construction was due to begin, and before work was available. They were desperate. Hoover rushed the beginning of construction, to get people jobs quickly, but a consequence of this was that there was nowhere for the workers to actually live (there were no roads yet between the worksite and Vegas). Communities sprung up alongside the Colorado River in what became known as "Ragtown". As the name might suggest, conditions weren't ideal. Families lived in tents, in squalor, unprotected against the sun, the river their only source of life. By May 1931, 1100 men were working on site, living in Ragtown, many with their families. And they were dying. In July, temperatures soared to about 50 degrees Celcius, with an average low of 35. Three women died of heatstroke in one day in July 26th, four others died in the week before. Men, women, and children were dying during the Nevada summer of 1931 in Ragtown.

The men were dying in greatest numbers. Working in hot, brutal, claustrophobic conditions digging tunnels in the canyon, seven days a week, without medical treatment, on average a worker died every two days between June 25th to July 26th. Speed was more important than safety. The approach by Six Companies did not help: they announced a wage cut for muckers, labourers who loaded broken rocks into trucks and already the lowest paid of the Dam employees. The workers protested to Frank Crowe and went on strike, requesting safer conditions and cold drinking water - and they were sacked! All of them!

The Great Depression was in full swing, and Six Companies knew it. They knew they could exploit desperate men with hungry families, especially when thousands more men were ready to take their place. The workers had to crawl back, giving up their strike conditions, with no choice but to accept dangerous working environments. Following the strike Six Companies cracked down on anything approaching a work union. Anybody who complained was sacked and replaced. To make things worse, the trucks taking away debris from the tunnels caused carbon monoxide poisoning, and many deaths as a result. Six Companies knew this, and were later taken to court for it (settling for an undisclosed amount) but chose not to do anything because it might slow the job. Again, speed was more important than workers' lives. But working conditions did eventually improve. Cold water was supplied to workers, and in 1932 Boulder City was built, for 5000 workers and their families. It wasn't paradise, but it wasn't Ragtown either. It was supposed to just be temporary, but it soon became pretty permanent. Today 15,000 people live there.

If Six Companies sound pretty unsavoury, the Boulder City they created was no better. Only white people were allowed to live there, therefore effectively only white people were allowed to work on the Hoover Dam. Arguably, Six Companies was just a reflection of the times they were in, a time where workers were treated badly and black people treated even worse.  But they never did anything to better their times. As the Hoover Dam was a government project, President Roosevelt criticised Six Companies' racist policy, forcing them to employ black labourers. You can guess who were given the worst jobs.

112 people died building the Hoover Dam - officially. Six Companies only counted a death as being official if it took place on site. If the worker died off site, in hospital most likely, it didn't count - and the families wouldn't receive any pay-offs. All the associated deaths of workers' family members in Ragtown clearly didn't count. Therefore, the real death tally of the Hoover Dam is a lot higher, by hundreds. As the Hoover Dam tour guides reminded us during our tour, the last person to die was Patrick Tierney, who fell to his death on December 20th, 1935, exactly 13 years after the first dam-related death, on December 20th 1922, the drowning of J. G. Tierney - Patrick's father (in fact, J. G. Tierney was the second Dam-related death, but let's not have the truth get in the way of a good story). The guides were also keen to dispel the popular myth that workers are buried in the concrete - it's not true. One man was temporarily interred though, in November 8th 1933, when a panel collapsed and 100 tons of concrete was poured over him. It took 16 hours to dig his corpse out.

How do you build a dam then? Well, you find an appropriate site at first, probably a narrow canyon with strong sides. In the Hoover Dam's case, a location in Black Canyon was chosen after a great deal of surveying during the 1920s, with walls of very hard volcanic rock (andesite breccia if you're interested), strong enough to support a 6.6 million ton dam, forever. After getting all the finances and plans in place by the middle of 1930, a railway between Las Vegas and the to-be Boulder City was built, which then connected to the Hoover Dam site, for ready transporting of all materials and people. Then came the hard work - the tunnels. You can't just pour concrete into river and call it a dam, you need to get rid of the river first. Four tunnels, each around three-quarters-of-a-mile long, were blasted into the canyon walls, rerouting the Colorado River to an area further downstream, allowing a dry and river-free area to construct the Dam. This took from May 1931 to November 1932. The worksite was then sealed and the riverbed dredged and dug until hitting the bedrock, onto which the Dam could be built. From June 1933, concrete began to pour. The Dam is built from multiple stubby blocks of concrete, 5 foot high and 50 foot square, that were cooled by pipes as they were poured. This done rather than pour the Dam in one continuous go, as the sheer quantity, it was calculated, would take 125 years to cool down, and would have been more subject to stress and cracks anyway.

The Hoover Dam is a concrete arched-gravity type dam, which means it is shaped as a convex curving arch - like the back of a spoon - against the water, so that the force of the water is deflected upon the canyon walls. Simple gravity causes compression to the concrete, giving it further strength. By February 1935, it was big enough to do its job. With tunnels 2 and 3 plugged, a thousand-ton steel gate closed tunnel 4, which forced the river to go via tunnel 1. Tunnel 1 now had valves in it - for the first time in history, the Colorado River was under man's control. The massive reservoir later to be called Lake Mead began building up.

It was the biggest dam in the world. The scale was unprecedented. For the Bureau of Reclamation, it used up more concrete than their previous 50 dams combined, over their entire 29-year existence. And the irony was that the river had provided the material for its own damming. All the sand, gravel, and stone used to make the concrete was taken from a nearby site, from silt and sand deposited by the river over the years.

Visiting the Hoover Dam is a straightforward experience. You arrive, you walk across, you go to the visitor centre, and you maybe go on a slightly over-priced tour. We opted for the full Dam tour, at $30 each, as that's the only one that allows access inside the Hoover Dam. Although it's mostly solid concrete, it's not entirely solid, and when it was being built numerous service tunnels were built. These weren't drilled later - that would have been an insanely difficult task - the concrete was simply poured around wooden tubes with the wood later removed. The tour took us down to some large power generators, and then along some tunnels.


The guides were very good - relaxed, jovial, and very knowledgeable - but there's no doubt the tour was a little disappointing. The temptation with a tour of a dam is to bombard you with engineering facts and figures, and that's kind of how it went. This might suit some people, but I don't think it suits most. After a whole bunch of kilowatt-hours, gallons per second, pounds per square inch and God knows what else, I was feeling a bit numb. Especially as all these values took place with another 30 people, standing in narrow service tunnels. At the same time, simply getting to walk about in the middle of the Dam is pretty cool, knowing that 6.6 million tons of concrete are all around, and that if someone was to chuck a nuke at it, you'd probably be ok. And you get to peer out of a vent right in the middle.

While the exterior is very stripped back in its style, the interior of the Hoover Dam is surprisingly lovely, with some very attractive Art Deco decor.

The final picture is of a lift door, right on top of the Dam. It comes at the very end of the tour, and upon exiting it we found ourselves standing on top of the Hoover Dam. On a baking hot day, neither Danielle or I wanted to linger about on the somewhat exposed surface, but it certainly gives pleasant views.

You don't need to do the tour to do this, though, anybody can walk or drive across the bridge. It's open to the public, and in fact until recently US route 93 went right across. The Dam was a convenient crossing over the Colorado River, and if you were on your way to Arizona from Las Vegas (or vice versa) that was the way to go. If you choose, you can still do so. Or you can take the quicker route. The final photo of the above set is of the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, a not-very-snappy name for a very distinct bridge (Mike O'Callaghan was a former governor of Nevada, Pat Tillman was an American football who joined the army and was killed in Afghanistan). This was a five-year project, to alleviate congestion across the Dam, and was completed in 2010. Make no mistake, it adds considerably to the appeal of the Dam. It's like a younger brother to the Hoover Dam, concrete and minimal, form following function. I think it's great.

And it's not just me. There's a sense of drama to the bridge that really adds to the entire visual experience of visiting the Hoover Dam. Standing at the viewpoint on the Dam's visitor centre, people's eyes were as much on the bridge as they were on the dam. Perhaps even more. It's that impressive. Additionally, a special pedestrian walkway has been built alongside the motorway, specially to appreciate the view of the Hoover Dam (it's barriered off at the end, so the walkway is no use for actually getting to the other side). The views are slightly terrifying, but sensational. Without any doubt, they are the best you can get of the Dam, short of being in a helicopter.

I've seen a a few huge dams before, some even bigger - technically - than the Hoover Dam. No doubt, the Hoover Dam is the most impressive. It has a tangible sense of strength and power, and a pleasing minimal aesthetic. However, I can't shift the sense that its primary focus as a Wonder is as a technical achievement. That's a very valid way to assess a Wonder, but it's not the only one. The Channel Tunnel and the Langeled Pipeline are great technical achievements, but nobody would claim they're visually inspiring. The Hoover Dam certainly has good looks, but it's striking rather than beautiful. It doesn't move me in the same way that the best out there can do. Bluntly put, it's a vast slab of plain concrete, that might do some pretty incredible stuff, but doesn't quite mesmerise. It's a very worthy candidate, but never a real danger to the top of this list.

It will, at least, outlast most of the list in the event of an all-out nuclear war. Is it the toughest of all my Wonders? It's very solid, and that counts for a lot - hollow things like cathedrals and skyscrapers have no chance. Nor does anything flammable. The pyramids of Giza, 4500 years old and counting, have obviously seen a bit in their time, and might be solid enough to soak up a nuke. The Three Gorges Dam likewise: it might be ugly, but it's a solid concrete brute. And Mount Rushmore's four faces look like they could take a scrape or two. But in a millennium which has already seen Al-Qaeda destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas and the World Trade Center, I'd rather never find out.

Some criteria then.

Size: 221 metres high, 379 metres long at the top, 202 metres thick at the base thinning to just 14 metres at the top. It's a skyscraper-height wedge.
Engineering: An enormous and unprecedented feat of organising, and a great technical accomplishment.
Artistry: Minimal: plain but striking. It's no beauty.
Age: About 80 years old, but it's going to be around for a long, long time. In the year 3014, people will still be able to visit the Hoover Dam.
Fame/Iconicity: I'm pretty sure this is the world's number one dam. But it's not an intensely competitive field - dams are appreciated rather than adored.
Context: Lake Mead in the background is pretty, and the bare rocks of the Black Canyon look good too. Not everyone will like the many pylons sticking out everywhere, but they are kind of the point of the whole exercise. The bridge - let's just call it the Hoover Bridge - hugely enhances the surroundings though, both looking great and allowing great views from it.
Back Story: A pretty ruthless tale of a big corporation building a dam, to hell with the human cost.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Dams have been around for many hundreds of years, but this was the first on such a massive scale. And it still stands out - just take do a Google Image search for "dam" and see.
Wow Factor: It's impressive, but to be honest, the bridge probably draws more wows.

It's a great piece of engineering, but unless you love big energy figures, the Hoover Dam doesn't excite the senses like some places do. Although it looks pretty good, this is tempered a little when you remember that it looks pretty good - for a dam. Dams just don't do it for me, in a visual sense there's not all that much to them. But it's streets better than the other dam on my list, the Three Gorges Dam, and it certainly possesses a pleasing sense of power to it. I'd place it just below the Forbidden City, both being impressive but not necessarily being exciting, and above the enjoyable but kind of silly Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Thiepval Memorial (I'm still troubling over this one)
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom

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