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Damming Herbert Hoover
“This morning I came, I saw and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind,” bellowed President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 30, 1935, at the dedication of Hoover Dam. Evoking the language of Julius Caesar seemed the appropriate reference for the President to make under the shadows of what the American Society of Civil Engineers has labeled as the “Monument of the Millennium.” The transformation in some five years of “an unpeopled, forbidding desert,” he deemed, was indeed a “twentieth century marvel.” Eloquent as Roosevelt’s speech was, his grandiose assertions and swooning prose overshadowed his omission of the dam’s namesake, his predecessor Herbert Hoover, which turned a momentous opportunity for national healing into one of the greatest snubs in presidential history.The construction of Hoover Dam was unquestionably one of the most important undertakings in American history. Situated on the Arizona-Nevada border, Hoover Dam holds back the mighty Colorado River to create the largest man-made “lake” in the United States, Lake Mead. The reservoir provides water and produces electricity for over 15 million people, including those in some of the largest metropolitan areas of the country such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Tucson. Some 750,000 acres of land in California and Arizona are irrigated by Lake Mead. As a result, the Imperial and Coachella Valleys have touted the moniker of “salad bowls of the Southwest,” providing Americans with lettuce, carrots, and other crops that value upwards of $1 billion annually.
Born in the depths of the Great Depression, the sheer magnitude of Hoover Dam also gave it an enduring legacy as a symbol of American resilience and fortitude in the face of existential crisis. Its gargantuan size and overwhelming scope at a time when upwards of 23% of Americans were unemployed made it a seminal monument to the American spirit. Yet, many may wonder how this American Colossus could be named for the President that so many intrinsically linked to the anguish that engulfed American society.
The story of Hoover Dam’s naming controversy stems back to its legislative beginnings during the Warren Harding administration. In 1921, the Congress authorized a study of Boulder and Black Canyons in the Lower Colorado River Basin by the Reclamation Service, the forerunner to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Although ultimately the study would recommend construction in Black Canyon, the project would still come to be known as the Boulder Canyon Project, as it was named in legislation introduced by California Representative Phil Swing and California Senator Hiram Johnson in the 67th Congress in April 1922. Twice a year the two California Congressmen introduced the Boulder Canyon Project Act (BCPA), until finally gaining passage from the House of Representatives and Senate and signature into law by President Calvin Coolidge on December 21, 1928.
But it was Herbert Hoover who had an unsung, yet vital role in bringing the project to fruition. One of the initial roadblocks in constructing a dam of this proportion on the “Mississippi of the Southwest,” was that at least seven states could claim water distribution rights. Although the dam was to be located on the Arizona-Nevada border, fears grew that California with its political clout and burgeoning population in Los Angeles would dominate its smaller basin neighbors. Seeking to overcome the impasse, Harding appointed Hoover, who was serving as Secretary of Commerce, to be chairman of the Colorado River Commission in January 1922. The small group consisted of representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. An accomplished mining engineer himself, Hoover had developed a heroic image as a public servant for his work as head of the European relief efforts after World War One. After numerous public hearings and negotiations, he successfully guided the Commission to reach a historic water rights agreement codified in the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. He then would assist in the drafting of the BCPA’s language and play an instrumental role in promoting the legislation’s passage.
The BCPA, however, never mentioned a proposed name or title for the dam, rather lending the assumption that Boulder Dam would become the de facto name. During this time, the press also generally referred to the dam as Boulder Dam or as Boulder Canyon Dam. This, however, left open the opportunity for the first nomenclature chess piece to be moved. On September 17, 1930, now President Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, traveled to the dam site to officially inaugurate the Boulder Canyon Project by driving a silver spike into the ground marking the spot where the Union Pacific rail line would veer off towards the planned Boulder City, which would house the workers and their families. Wilbur embarrassingly missed the spike with his hammer on his first two attempts, but it was his dedication speech that would truly turn heads. Citing the precedent of naming great dams after presidents, “We have the Roosevelt Dam, the Wilson Dam, the Coolidge Dam,” Wilbur announced that the dam in Black Canyon would be named for “the great engineer whose vision and persistence, first as chairman of the Colorado River Commission in 1922, and on many occasions since, has done much to make it possible.”
To name a major federal project after a sitting president, let alone so early into his term, was unprecedented. Compounding the issue was the slight to the dam’s other founding fathers such as Johnson and Swing. Many also believed that Hoover had inflated the importance of his role and that the final product should not be tied to him, considering he opposed many elements of what would become the final design of the structure. Most of all, the cloak of the Great Depression had already begun to cover the Hoover presidency and more Americans associated his name with the shantytowns that sprung up, nicknamed Hoovervilles, than they did with any majestic marvel. Nevertheless, the name found its way into a series of appropriations bills for the dam’s construction and the water and power contracts were amended to reflect its new name, Hoover Dam.
Ickes is depicted as a miniscule figure attempting to chip away the name “Hoover Dam.” Following Roosevelt’s dedication speech, the LA Times ran the cartoon again, this time adding Roosevelt chipping away.
After Hoover’s election defeat in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt, however, the stage was set for the next slight, this time against Hoover. The new Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, was an outspoken critic of Hoover. On May 8, 1933, Ickes telegrammed Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead to inform him that the dam be referred to as Boulder Dam, its “original name.” Later when speaking at the dam’s official dedication on September 30, 1935, Ickes made it clear his intentions “to try to nail down for good and all the name Boulder Dam.” Rather than focus on the monumental achievement, Ickes’ fury at Wilbur’s transgressions dominated his remarks. “And what more characteristic and appropriate name could be chosen for this monumental enterprise than the one with which it has been christened,” he questioned. “The mind appreciates that this setting and this accomplishment…would not be worthily and fittingly named by any less bold and striking designation than that of Boulder Dam,” he answered. Although a clear politically-motivated maneuver, hardly anyone in Congress raised any issue with the emerging naming fight. Hoover’s approval rating remained at an all-time low and the blame of the Great Depression still rested, whether justly or not, completely on his shoulders. It was only the Republican-leaning newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, that strove to great lengths in its editorial cartoons to give credit to Hoover.
Besides Ickes’ personal vendetta, the dam’s official dedication became the setting for Roosevelt to open a presidential legacy war. Officially dedicating the project as Boulder Dam, Roosevelt conducted a “public defamation,” as Hoover would categorize the action in his memoirs. Roosevelt’s speech from a podium on the canyon rim high above the Colorado with the colossal structure as a backdrop was no accident. His words would echo across the country via radio and his image would be on the front page of every newspaper, stamping his name to the mighty project’s completion. In his speech, Roosevelt sought to appropriate the project, envisioned and championed by previous Republican administrations, as a symbol for his own New Deal economic recovery initiatives. The dam innately fit into New Deal propaganda by creating jobs, hydroelectric power, irrigation, and flood control for a rural region under the guise of the federal government. By bringing thousands of men to work to tame a wild river in a remote desert canyon of the American West, the dam instilled the power of collectivism, of government taking a vested role in improving the livelihoods of citizens. Roosevelt thus consciously understood that he had an opportunity to control the dam’s legacy and sought to take Americans’ wonder at this engineering marvel and harness it into support for his own vision for America’s path forward.
Consequently, for all the dedicated attention Roosevelt paid to the speech, he failed to mention Hoover at all. He lent credit to just about every person and group involved with the project except his predecessor. His resentment palpable into his later life, Hoover recollected, “Roosevelt dedicated the dam under the name Boulder Dam, never mentioning that I had been especially responsible for the enterprise.” Perhaps in the greatest insult, whether done intentionally or not, Roosevelt even borrowed wording from the remarks that Hoover had made three years earlier during a clandestine visit to the dam’s construction site, following his defeat to Roosevelt. Hoover stated that, “The waters of this great river, instead of being wasted in the sea, will now be brought into use by man.” Roosevelt echoed Hoover by boasting, “The mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea. Today we translate them into a great national possession.” The difference was that Hoover saw the dam as purely a reclamation of land, while the image-conscious Roosevelt saw it also as a reclamation of the American spirit. In usurping the moment, he wanted to control the historical narrative, juxtaposing the failures of his predecessor against the progress and optimism of his administration.
So it was the Roosevelt administration, which had ridded the Hoover name physically and symbolically from the dam, that now had a stranglehold on American memory of the project and its legacy. Only a year after Hoover Dam’s dedication, construction began on the comparably gargantuan Bonneville, Grand Coulee, and Shasta dams. Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which led to the creation of twenty-nine hydroelectric dams. With the creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, more infrastructure projects blossomed and some of the country’s enduring architectural and engineering feats were completed, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Moreover, hydropower became inextricably linked to the generation of electricity for powering Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II. Roosevelt was creating a dam nation, while casting Hoover’s legacy into damnation.
In 1947, thanks to a combination of factors including the healing power of time, the first Republican-controlled Congress since 1933, and President Harry Truman’s friendship with Hoover, the dam would officially be renamed Hoover Dam. Hoover further rehabilitated his image by once again leading humanitarian efforts in Europe after World War Two. Nevertheless, the enduring association with the dam ironically rests with Franklin Roosevelt despite it bearing Hoover’s name. We must look to revisionist history to reclaim the positive legacy of his public service to this country. Roosevelt’s usurpation of Hoover Dam memory was so great that Hoover has been cast aside as a player in the American story of the 20th Century. In a 2004 University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election survey, only 43 percent of adults could correctly identify Hoover, with only four percent linking him to the Hoover Dam. It is a travesty of American politics. The dam’s dedication was a chance to begin the process of rehabilitating Hoover’s image by giving him credit for playing an instrumental role in the launching of America’s great era of public works. Instead, Roosevelt chose to further debase him into obscurity. And that is a damn shame.
Cannot get enough Roosevelt? Check out these other articles for some other takes on the 32nd President here and here.
Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century. New York: Free Press, 2010.
Today: How many bodies are buried in the Hoover Dam?
Built during the Great Depression, between 1931 and 1936, the Hoover Dam—then known as the Boulder Dam—was one of the biggest construction projects of the era. An enormous concrete arched structure, measuring over 725 feet high and 1,244 feet long, the dam cost 49 million dollars to complete and was responsible for over 100 deaths.
The high number of fatalities is the source of many of the stories of workmen being buried/entombed within the Hoover Dam. Deaths were unusually high, even for a project of this magnitude, and so it took hold of the American collective imagination—that the bodies of workers would just be tossed into the concrete mix, never to be seen again.
Comprised of nearly 4.5 million cubic yards of concrete, the Hoover Dam is broken up into sections containing thousands of yards of concrete apiece. Each one of the slabs had to be allowed to set before the next one could be poured. Between the pouring of the concrete and the setting, it would often take hours before a section would be finished. Giving a not-so-sure-footed worker, plenty of time to get themselves out of an eternity of holding back the Colorado River.
But, even if that’s not convincing enough, engineers would do their best to keep a body—dead or alive—from being set in the Dam’s concrete. The human body is comprised of degradable organic material, unlike steel rebars typically used in large concrete projects. That decayable material causes quite the issue for a large block of concrete. A decaying body would eventually form an air pocket within the concrete, decreasing the stability of the block over time. The weight of the surrounding concrete, coupled with the force of the restrained river could eventually compromise the structural integrity of the dam.
The completed dam photographed by Ansel Adams.
Another possible explanation for the urban legend comes by way of another large dam project being built around the same time: Montana’s Fort Peck Dam. At the time the world’s largest earth filled dam—as opposed to Hoover’s concrete kind—eight workers were buried alive. On September 22, 1936, a section of the dam broke loose and slid into the man-made Fort Peck Lake. Of the eight workers, only two were ever recovered from the accident, and while Fort Peck, Montana, is a bit of a stretch from the Nevada/Arizona border, it’s easy to understand how the accident location might have gotten confused way back in 1936.
Still, one thing’s for certain: There’s no dam way any bodies are buried in the Hoover Dam.
Hoover Dam reservoir at historic low water level
Bleached-white embankments all around the dam, an engineering marvel that symbolized the American ascendance of the 20th Century, show how far the water level has dropped from its usual level.
Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States. It is crucial to the water supply of 25 million people including in the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. Hoover Dam generates hydroelectric power to serve 1.3 million people in the states of Nevada, Arizona and California.
Patti Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Lower Colorado Region, said: "The lake was about 95 percent full in year 2000, and now we're at thirty five percent."
John Lingenfelter, 63, visiting the dam from Phoenix, Arizona, remembers a time when the water level was much higher and says it makes him "very concerned about the future of the Earth itself."
37-year-old Carlos Farias, a recreational fisherman at Lake Mead, said: "Five months ago, the water level used to be right above this flat land right here about five months ago. "
The Hoover Dam reservoir is at an all-time low
A general view of Lake Mead, a human-made lake that lies on the Colorado River, about 24 miles southeast of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the states of Nevada and Arizona, on December 21st, 2019, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. Formed by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States and serves water to the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as some of Mexico, providing sustenance to nearly 20 million people and large areas of farmland. Photo by Paul Rovere / Getty Images
Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, that feeds water to 25 million people across Western states, is historically low. On June 9th, the water level dipped to 1,071.57 feet above sea level, narrowly beating a record low last set in 2016.
The lake surface has dropped 140 feet since 2000, leaving the reservoir just 37 percent full. With such a dramatic drop, officials expect to declare an official water shortage for the first time ever. That could affect water and energy that Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam deliver to Arizona, California, and Nevada.
Water levels at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US, are expected to keep dropping throughout the year. The drought tugging at the lake’s water levels is affecting other states in the region, too. “Please join me and Utahns, regardless of religious affiliation, in a weekend of humble prayer for rain,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a video plea last week. He declared a state of emergency in March as Utah, like much of the West, plunged deep into drought.
Amid dangerous drought conditions, we’re inviting all Utahns — regardless of religious affiliation — to join us this weekend in collective and humble prayer for rain.
The West is ablaze in deep red and burgundy on drought maps for the US, signaling “extreme” to “exceptional drought.” Farmers, who are already abandoning crops for lack of water, are feeling the strain the most.
A snapshot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Drought Monitor on June 1st, 2021. NOAA
It didn’t help that a sweltering spring heatwave hit much of the continental US this past weekend. Las Vegas, some 30 miles from Lake Mead, reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit and could see even higher temperatures next week. Altogether, the drought and heat are scary omens for this year’s fire season. An above-normal risk of fire is forecasted for the Southwest through June, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In July, the Southwest’s monsoon season is expected to kick in and provide some relief — at least temporarily. Climate change has brought on higher spring and summer temperatures, more severe wildfires, less snow (which much of the West relies on for water), and more intense dry seasons.
Construction of the Dam
In 1931, the first phase of the project initiated by blasting of the canyon rock walls to construct hydraulic tunnels that would be used to temporarily divert the flow of the Colorado River until the dam was completed. The project's timeline was strict and laborers had to work under extreme conditions (high temperatures and hazardous concentrations of carbon monoxide as no proper ventilation was provided) to complete the tunnel excavations. The situation led to a 6-day strike in August 1931.
To create a permanent diversion, 4 tunnels (two at the side of Nevada and two in Arizona) were excavated. The Colorado River was re-directed in November 1932 by using the two tunnels on the Arizona side while the other 2 served as reserve structures in case of a flood. This was made possible by the establishment of a smaller, temporary cofferdam constructed using the rock debris deriving from the excavation of the tunnels.
Figure 2: Excavating tunnels through the Black Canyon (Source: Bechtel)
To protect the equipment and the people working on-site from floods, another cofferdam was constructed. Once the area was drained, works on the foundation of the dam initiated. The facility would be founded on solid volcanic rock, therefore, the contractors had to remove the upper, loose layers of soil material. The foundation of the dam was reinforced with a fluid that is utilized in construction projects to fill cavities known as grout.
Concrete production plants were established at the construction site. Pouring of concrete began on the summer of 1933. A major problem associated with the enormity of the dam arose. It was found out that if the concrete was poured in one stage, the results would be catastrophic for the dam. As concrete cures, its temperature tends to increase leading to contraction. If this process proceeds unevenly throughout the dam's concrete mass, it would result in crack initiation and propagation. Engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that, in such a scenario, the curing process could last more than 100 years.
Therefore, the structure was built incrementally in segments using interlocking concrete blocks. The curing process was accelerated with the installation of water pipes through the concrete blocks which were later filled with grout.
Figure 3: Construction works in Hoover Dam (Source: Bechtel)
The works were completed in spring 1935, after about 2,5 million m 3 of concrete were poured.
In 1931 during The Great Depression, thousands of men from all over America traveled to southern Nevada’ Boulder Canyon area in hopes of finding work building a great dam on the Colorado River. They knew plans were in place to construct a dam to regulate flooding and control the mighty Colorado. As a secondary benefit, the dam was to supply electrical power first to its headquarters in Boulder City, then to California, and eventually Nevada and Arizona. For the first part of the project, the Colorado River water had to be transferred into tunnels drilled through the side of the canyon walls so construction of the dam could begin.
Over the next five years, over 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete and 88 million pounds of plated steel were used. And with the removal of loose rock from the canyon walls, the dam quickly became the largest of its time. Construction of the Dam and all its unique artistic and architectural features were completed in 1936. Boulder Dam, later renamed Hoover Dam, was crowned in later years by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.
Currently a National Historic Landmark, the Hoover Dam continues to provide water and electricity while maintaining its original beauty and glimpses into this amazing feat of engineering and construction with the incredibly hard work by thousands of men. It’s a truly unique glimpse into history’s past.
Aerial of Davis Dam and power plant.
Deconstructing History: Hoover Dam - HISTORY
When looking at the history of the Hoover Dam, one must admire the incredible planning that went into its creation. The foresight of the project’s engineers and overseers to create a massive construction project that has stood the test of time is truly remarkable.
The need for the Hoover Dam stems from the vast history of the Colorado River and its unpredictable flood patterns. The development of the American Southwest also played a key and important role in the push for a method to control the river.
Throughout history the Colorado River ebbed and flowed, bringing water from high up in the Rocky Mountains and distributing it amongst its basin across seven US states and Mexico. While the river brought a reliable source of water along its pathway, it was also prone to devastating floods that could wipe out all in its path.
As the United States began development of the American Southwest, in particular southern California, the Colorado River was seen as a potential source of irrigation water. This water could be used to spur agricultural development and encourage more investment and population growth in the region.
As usage and demand of the Colorado River water increased, it was obvious that an agreement to share the water between states was needed. The seven affected states came together in 1922 to form the Colorado River Compact outlining the details of water distribution. Mexico’s water rights were addressed in a later agreement.
With the outline in place a large dam was needed to store and distribute this water more effectively. The end result would be the creation of the Hoover Dam.
Hoover Dam's Lake Mead at historic low water level
Lake Mead has sunk to its lowest ever level, underscoring the gravity of the extreme drought across the U.S. West.
The reservoir created by Hoover Dam is crucial to the water supply of 25 million people
including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas.
Here are some facts about it.
The Hoover Dam reservoir is an engineering marvel that symbolized the American ascendance of the 20th century.
It was formed in the 1930s from the damming of the Colorado River at the Nevada-Arizona border.
As of June 9th, the lake surface has fallen to just over 1,000 feet (on screen 1,071 feet) above sea level
dipping below the previous record low in July 2016.
It has fallen 140 feet since 2000 -
that's nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty from torch to base,
exposing a bathtub ring of bleached-white embankments.
Bruce Nelson is the director of operations of Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) BRUCE NELSON, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS LAS VEGAS BOAT HARBOR AND LAKE MEAD MARINA, SAYING:"Here at Lake Mead, we're experiencing obviously low, low water levels that we haven't experienced since the dam was built. It's been this level before but it's when the water was rising. We've been close to this level last like five or six years ago, but we're going to a new historic low."
The drought that has brought Lake Mead low has gripped the U.S. West.
Farmers are abandoning crops,
Nevada has introduced lawn watering restrictions in the Las Vegas area,
and the governor of Utah is literally asking people to pray for rain.
Firefighters are facing worsening conditions this summer,
after nearly 10,000 fires in California alone during the last wildfire season burned 4.2 million acres of land.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water resources in the Western states, is likely to declare Lake Mead's most extreme shortage condition for the first time ever.
That would cut water supplies to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, says the Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Patti Aaron.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) PATTI AARON, SPOKESPERSON THE BUREAU OF RECLAMATION LOWER COLORADO REGION, SAYING:"Lake Mead and Hoover Dam serve about twenty-five million people in the lower basin. We have a decrease of about twenty five percent of our capacity in producing power because of the lower lake levels."
While droughts are a recurring natural hazard,
they've been made worse recently by an accumulation of extremely dry years for most of this century.
Scientists say human-influenced climate change has exacerbated the situation.
Water levels at Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, have hit their lowest levels in history, adding to concerns about water supply as the western United States remains in the grips of a megadrought.
Lake Mead was created on the Colorado River along the Arizona-Nevada border when the Hoover Dam was built in the early 1930s, and supplies water to millions of people across Arizona, Nevada, California and parts of Mexico. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation confirmed on Thursday that the reservoir's water level hit a historic low elevation of 1,071.53 feet above sea level.
"This is the lowest that the reservoir has been since it filled in 1937," Patricia Aaron, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, told NBC News.
She added that Lake Mead's elevation will likely continue to drop until November, when the agricultural season ends.
The reservoir's capacity is variable, but Lake Mead is defined as "full" when the water line reaches an elevation of 1,221.4 feet above sea level, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. At its current elevation, Lake Mead is at roughly 36 percent capacity.
The reservoir's declining water levels are the result of ongoing drought conditions and increased water demands across the southwestern United States. Seventy-five percent of the western U.S. is experiencing "severe" drought, with almost 55 percent of the region classified as being under "extreme" drought conditions, according to the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Much of the western U.S. has been under near-continuous drought conditions for the past 20 years. Scientists have said that human-caused climate change is exacerbating the situation by increasing temperatures, reducing the volume of snowpack and altering precipitation patterns.
Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam provide critical water supplies and electricity to southwestern states. Officials are closely monitoring the situation to determine if states will need to implement additional water conservation measures, Aaron said.
"In August, we'll make a determination on whether to declare a shortage in the lower basin," she said, adding that such a declaration is likely. "That would be for the year 2022. It would mean reduced water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and the republic of Mexico."
Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.