My trip to Hoover Dam was a short stop on my way back north to my home state of Washington. I had wanted to see the dam for years and was so intrigued by this engineering marvel and one really never understands the immensity of something like this until you’re standing on the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which rises 880 feet above the Colorado River and 280 feet above the top of Hoover Dam.
The dam construction began in 1931 during the great depression and a structure of this magnitude had never been built before. Imagine there is no framework to build something like this, only an idea, plans on paper and some really smart engineers and tireless workers to bring it all together. Building the dam took over 5,000 employees at its peak in 1934 and the conditions were less than ideal, especially early on when the workers merely lived in tents and in the months during the summer. Temperatures would soar above 100 degrees for well over a month. There was even a report of one day where the temperature was over 140 degrees and a local Doctor recalled when the outdoor thermometer, that could only read 120 degrees, broke in the midday heat.
The amount of concrete used to create the dam was over 3,250,000 cubic yards of cement and was the first single structure to contain more masonry than the Great Pyramids of Giza. One could pave a two-lane road from San Francisco to New York and the dam is 660 feet thick (over two football fields laid end to end) at the base and 45 feet thick at the top. Amazingly enough, the dam only took a period of 5 years to construct and was completed two years ahead of schedule on March 1st, 1935 with a total cost of $165 million.
Visitors are able to walk on the top of the dam and even drive across. Check out my video linked below, to see when I drove across and was on top of the dam (around the 11:05 mark).
People came from all over the United States to work on the dam and the wages during that time was actually pretty good, averaging .625 cents an hour for a daily wage of about $5.00 per day. Contrast this with the average hourly wage of about .50 an hour nationwide, people were pretty happy to be working there. If you were really skilled like a shovel operator or much machine operator, you could make well over $1.00 per hour.
Building something as massive as this was not without danger, well over 100 people died during the construction of the dam and you might ask, “well how many people are entombed in the Hoover Dam?” There are none. The way the dam was built, using interlocking blocks about five feet high, this was not going to occur. For some reason, I remember hearing that 6 people had fallen in as they poured the concrete for the dam, but this is just not true. I only learned this after I visited Hoover Dam and when I was there on top of it, I was thinking of the poor souls who had given up their lives and were encased in concrete. Funny how rumors and modern folklore can give rise to “facts” and well it’s just a “Dam” lie. Many of the deaths were caused by drowning, blasting, truck accidents and likely heat exhaustion as well.
Hoover Dam is pretty close to Las Vegas, less than 40 miles, and I did see a few tour buses that likely came from Vegas when I was there. So if you are going to Vegas or want to grab a rental car, it’s a relatively quick drive there. And make sure you go on the bridge overlooking the dam as well. It’s a bit of a walk up the pathway but well worth the vantage point. I will say this, if you are afraid of heights, you might want to skip that one.
One last note, when I was at the gift shop that is on the road before Hoover Dam, I picked up a really good book titled “Building Hoover Dam”, by Andrew J. Dunar/Dennis McBride. The book is a first-person look and oral history from those that actually built the dam. It’s a nice read and gives you an idea of the challenges that were faced by the workers and their families.
The one other note is that if you are on a road trip, stay at Boulder City, a city that was built specifically to house the workers of the dam. When I was there I kept telling myself, “I could really live here” Lots of great restaurants and I highly recommend staying at the El Rancho Boulder Motel in Boulder City.