fot. James Watt, flickr, CC 2.0

An engineering marvel in the desert. Hoover Dam in Nevada

The Hoover Dam was created at the most difficult time in US economic history. The worst period of the Great Depression occurred during the reign of President Herbert Hoover. Although Americans rank his presidency among the top ten worst in the country’s history, the fame of the great Hoover Dam continues unabated. Its engineering genius and art déco details make the dam one of the most important monuments of the US west. It is worth noting that until 1945 it was the largest hydroelectric power station in the world.

Developing in the 1920s. US West needed a suitable power station capable of providing electricity to a growing population. At the beginning of the century, it was investigated which river would be best suited to create a large dam. Good conditions were found north of Los Angeles. The problem was that the dam, built in 1926, was not an overly sophisticated structure. Two years after St Francis Dam opened, disaster struck the dam. As a result of a wall collapse, water killed 431 people. After this tragedy, it was decided to build a large, robust hydroelectric power station.

The construction of the new dam was approved by President Calvin Coolidge. However, it was the administration of his successor, Herbert Hoover, that started the work. A great location for the construction of a giant power plant turned out to be the area on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Thanks to the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam could generate up to 3.3 TWh of energy per year. The problem, however, was that there was no major settlement along the designated stretch. Initially, the Las Vegas city council wanted their 5,000-strong town to be the headquarters of the dam’s management. However, the Hoover administration set its sights on building a separate town near the Arizona border. This is how Boulder City came to be – a permanent settlement in the middle of the desert.

Bodies in concrete

Construction workers lived in temporary settlements along the river. At the peak of the project, 5,400 workers were working on the site. One of the settlements was Ragtown. The makeshift town was where the workers’ families lived until Boulder City was created. The workers earned the lowest national wage. Some were even paid less. The economic crisis and the scale of the investment forced management to cut costs.

The canyon where the Hoover Dam was to be built was cut off from the water with special cofferdams. These temporary sheet-metal and earth dikes allowed demolition work to begin. Excess rock was blown up using dynamite. Interestingly, the dynamite was placed between the rocks by workers hanging on ropes. The whole process took place at a height of several tens of metres. The work was carried out at temperatures ranging from 40 to even 55 degrees Celsius. There is no surviving documentation to confirm such high temperatures, but press records from 1931 mention a record 55 degrees.

Once the substrate had been cured with suitable grouts, the concrete began to be poured. The castings were grouped into columns on a rectangular plan. The materials were delivered on suspended cable cars. Almost 2.48 million cubic metres of concrete were poured. This phase of construction began 18 months ahead of schedule. The pace of construction was due to numerous penalties and management rushes. If the construction had been delayed by several months, the government agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, would have imposed severe penalties on the contractors. Haste and fear of financial or even legal consequences contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred workers. In the 1930s and 1940s, a legend circulated about the bodies of workers sunk in concrete.

Wings of the Republic

The dam was not only a functional government response to the economic crisis, but also an art déco engineering marvel. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted the building to stand out for its scale and aesthetics. George B. Kaufmann – a Los Angeles-based architect – created a design based on modernism. Larger elements such as the intake towers and the buildings on the back of the dam are characterised by geometric shapes. In addition to the overall modernist massing, it is above all the details that catch the eye. Norwegian sculptor Oskar Hansen created a series of reliefs in memory of deceased workers. Other reliefs emphasise physical strength and the persistence of man to achieve the impossible. There are also motifs of indigenous desert inhabitants.

Artist Allan Tupper True, on the other hand, tackled the design of the floors. The stone patterns allude to the elements in Navajo culture. Various animal motifs are also noticeable. Hansen further designed a terrazzo floor depicting the alignment of the stars from the opening day of the dam. What’s more, two cast bronze sculptures of the ‘Winged Figures of the Republic’ were placed next to the dam. Each figure is 9.1 m high.

photo Admitter, flickr, CC 2.0

The dedication ceremony for the dam in 1935 began with a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover’s successor was his staunch opponent, so the facility’s name was changed to Boulder Dam. After the war, the name Hoover Dam was restored by Congress. The thing is, Boulder Dam was actually the name of the project back in the 1920s. This was the name used by the local press. It wasn’t until the groundbreaking ceremony that the then Secretary of the Interior Resources referred to the project as ‘Hoover Dam’.

A miracle in the desert

Today, almost a third of the energy produced by the dam’s turbines goes to Southern California. In the 21st century, plans have been drawn up to supply energy until 2067. The construction of the 379 × 221 m dam also has environmental consequences. The Colorado River has stopped flooding, affecting the drying out of the river delta area. The fish population in the river also declined.

The Hoover Dam exemplifies the ambition, ingenuity but also the risks taken by man. Such symbolism, combined with the gigantic scale of the investment, attracts many tourists. Various visitor centres were built in later years, and a suspension bridge over the canyon was also built in 2010. The view from the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge is breathtaking. Since 1933, the dam has been the set of many films. Objects designed to resemble the Hoover Dam have also appeared in several games. For example, in the ‘Fallout: New Vegas’ universe, the dam survived a nuclear holocaust. After almost 91 years, Herbert Hoover’s presidency does not have a good reputation. By far the dam in the desert bearing his name boasts a better reputation.


Also read: Architecture | Art Deco | Monument | History | Interesting facts | United States | Concrete | whiteMAD on Instagram

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