Las Vegas Sun - History

September 27, 2023

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Eighth Wonder of the World’

Workers suffered hardships, death to build historic Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam - Completed

A tranquil view of Hoover Dam at night. Each year about 10 million people visit Hoover Dam. It's maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and became a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Launch slideshow »

Each year, about 10 million people visit Hoover Dam.

Although most are awed by its sweeping architectural design and impressive size, not many are aware of the hardships endured by those who, from 1931 to 1935, built what was then the nation’s highest dam and costliest water project.

Whether scaling down the sides of the canyon to remove loose rocks with dynamite or breathing in carbon monoxide from clouds that built up in the diversion tunnels, it was miserable, dangerous, hard labor, often in 100-degree-plus temperatures and for wages of about 50 cents an hour.

Although officially 96 people died at the construction site building the wondrous structure 30 miles south of Las Vegas on the Nevada/ Arizona border, untold hundreds more had their lives shortened by exposure to work-related elements.

Others endured those horrific conditions and went on to live long lives. Among them was truck flagger and jackhammer operator Tommy Nelson.

In 1995, at age 83, Nelson shared with the Sun how he dealt with the misery of the blistering heat.

“It was so hot we used to soak sheets and crawl inside them to try and get a little sleep,” said Nelson, a trumpeter who played in the Hoover Dam workers’ band and for several decades played taps at the funerals of dam workers.

“It was not unusual to have to get up two or three times and resoak the sheets because the heat had dried them out.”

Nelson worked eight-hour shifts seven days a week.

“The work continued ‘round the clock,” Nelson said. “There were only two optional days off a year — the Fourth of July and Christmas — and they were without pay.”


The Dam Builders

Here are some key figures involved in the construction of the Hoover Dam:

FRANK CROWE — Hard-driving project superintendent for the Six Companies, who pushed crews to maintain a furious work pace for four years, which resulted in the dam being completed two years ahead of schedule.

OSKAR HANSEN — Norwegian-born sculptor who created two 30-foot bronze statues of the winged-figure of the republic and the bronze plaque honoring the 96 men who died while building the dam.

GORDON KAUFMANN — London-born architect who simplified the dam’s original design and replaced plans for gaudy ornaments with modern flowing lines and Art Deco designs.

MARTINA BROS. — Italian immigrants (Joseph and John) who used their Old World skills to install terrazzo tile (marble chips in cement) floors at the dam.

ELWOOD MEAD — Engineer who headed up the Bureau of Reclamation from 1924 until his death in 1936 at age 78. Oversaw construction of Hoover Dam and two other dams. Lake Mead is named for him.

J.G. TIERNEY — First of the official 114 deaths related to construction of the dam. A surveyor, he drowned while looking for the best location to build the dam. His son, Patrick, also died working on the dam.

ALLEN TRUE — Denver artist who created the colorful Southwestern Indian patterns on the floors of the dam as well as other internal designs located throughout the facility.

The result of Nelson’s and hundreds of others work was a modern concrete gravity-arch dam and the world’s largest power plant of its time.

The project provided the Southwest with protection from flood damage, generated electricity at reduced rates and guaranteed a water supply to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland.

Construction on Hoover Dam, first known as Boulder Dam, began on April 20, 1931, and was completed on March 1, 1936, at a cost of $49 million. (Multiply that number by 13 or 14 and that’s about what it would cost in today’s dollars.)

The dam stands 726.4 feet tall from foundation rock to its crest — second highest in the country to the Oroville Dam — and spans 1,244 feet. It is 660 feet thick at its base and 45 feet thick at the top.

If placed on a scale it would weigh about 6.6 million tons.

More than 4 million cubic yards of concrete were used to build Hoover Dam. And the concrete was poured in sheets just six inches thick and cooled with tubes that cycled refrigerated water from the Colorado River.

Because of that process, stories of workers buried alive within the structure are just urban legends.

However, one worker fell into the river and was dragged to the bottom. His body later was found stuck in a cofferdam (a temporary structure). Technically, he was the only worker ever to have been buried in the dam, albeit for just a short time.

The turbines from the 17 power generating units produce 2,080 megawatts of electrical power — enough to meet the needs of 1 million to 1.5 million people for one year.

California gets 56 percent of that power, including 15 percent for Los Angeles. Nevada gets 25 percent of the power generated by the dam, although Las Vegas gets just 4 percent. Arizona gets the remaining 19 percent.

Lake Mead is the dam’s reservoir, encompassing 157,900 acres or 247 square miles. It has been shrinking significantly in recent years because of the region’s record drought.

The dam is operated by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. In 1981 the dam was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and four years later it was designated a National Historic Landmark.


Hoover Dam - Construction

Boulder Dam's framework shown from the downstream side as its construction gets underway. The Hoover Dam project is awarded to Six Companies Inc. The chief executive of the company develops many of the techniques used to build the dam. Due to the furious pace the workers were subjected to, the project is finished two years ahead of schedule in 1935. Launch slideshow »

The total dam project cost was $165 million, including the $71 million to build the power plant.

Because of today’s tougher federal occupational safety standards, soaring land costs and significantly higher wages and benefits it might be cost-prohibitive now to build a project similar to Hoover Dam.

In 1995 dam construction experts and Bureau of Reclamation officials told the Sun that if the Hoover Dam did not exist $4 billion (their conservative estimate) would be needed to build it. And that figure does not account for the environmental impact statements that routinely accompany such major projects today.

Essential jobs such as high-scaling — use of ropes to descend from the top of the canyon to do construction work or blasting — would be frowned upon, if not outlawed, by the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.

Construction materials aren’t cheap, either. The terrazzo tiles on the floor of the dam facility cost about 50 cents a square foot in the mid-1930s. Today, they cost more than $20 a square foot.

And then there are the unknown, unexpected, unseen costs that seem to creep up in nearly every major project built in modern times. For example, in 1983 dam officials estimated it would cost $32 million to build the dam’s visitor center. It eventually cost $120 million to finish that facility.

Dam workers in the 1930s earned $4 to $6 a day. That wouldn’t cover an hourly wage even for the lowest-paying dam construction job today.

Work conditions also would be more closely monitored.

For example, in the 1930s a dam mess hall worker wore a coat into a walk-in refrigerator that had been set to 40 degrees. He later walked out into the kitchen, where coal-burning stoves had pushed the mercury up to 120 degrees. He suffered a heart attack and dropped dead from the shock of the sudden temperature change.

As a side note, Las Vegas Hospital at Eighth Street and Ogden Avenue kept bathtubs full of ice at the ready to treat heat prostration cases that came from the dam on a daily basis. In a statistical oddity, dam workers who died at the hospital were counted among the official dead, but those who died en route were not counted as official dam deaths.

Also, another difference between now and then is that today housing in Boulder City would have to be built to higher quality standards — and there would have to be much more of it.

The housing units built in the early 1930s for dam workers were poor in quality and not enough to meet the demand.

Because Boulder City was not built in time to house the dam’s builders, many employees and their families were forced to live in a nearby tent settlement called Ragtown in the early 1930s.

By 1932, however, the tent camp emptied out as workers and their families moved into their new homes in Boulder City, which initially outlawed drinking and gambling — the only Nevada city to do so. (In the late 1960s, Boulder City approved alcohol sales, but gambling is still not allowed.)


Hoover Dam - Plans

Henry Jo Kaiser signs a contract on March 11, 1931 for the federal government to start building the Hoover Dam with the help of contractor Six Companies Inc. Six Companies Inc. was a joint venture between Bechtel Corporation, Kaiser Industries, and several smaller construction companies across the West. The project started on April 20, 1931 and finished on March 1, 1936. It cost $49 million and is the second highest dam in the country. Launch slideshow »

The Boulder Dam Project began in 1922 when a commission was formed with representatives from each of the seven Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California) and a member of the federal government, in this case Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, the future president and dam’s namesake.

On Nov. 24, 1922, the group approved the Colorado River Compact, deciding how to divide the water among them.

In December 1928, Congress approved the dam plans and sent them to President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the Boulder Canyon Project bill four days before Christmas.

Early plans called for the dam to be built in Boulder Canyon, so the project was known as the Boulder Canyon Project. But after the St. Francis Dam burst in Southern California in March 1928, killing 400 people, Boulder Dam officials were under much pressure to prevent a similar tragedy. They took a closer look at Boulder Canyon, found it unsuitable and moved the project to nearby Black Canyon. They did not bother to change the project’s working name.

At the start of construction, things did not go as smoothly as planned.

There was unrest over poor living conditions at Ragtown and substandard working conditions at the jobsite. A strike began in early August 1931. The Six Companies (a joint venture of construction companies formed to build Hoover Dam) sent in armed strike-breakers and put an end to the labor dispute.


Thousands gathered at the dam on Sept. 30, 1935, for its dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt. Tommy Nelson played in the band that day.

“This is an engineering victory of the first order,” Roosevelt said. “(It’s) another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination.”

(After the ceremony, Roosevelt got a first-hand view of a road to Mount Charleston that had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt and his entourage, in long limousines, drove up the mountain and, to their chagrin, soon learned that the road ended abruptly. Roosevelt sat on a rock and watched his people and Las Vegas leaders debate how to turn the caravan of large vehicles around.)

There has long been confusion over whether to call it Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam.

In September 1930, Interior Secretary Ray Wilbur announced that the new dam would be named Hoover Dam to honor the president.

It was tradition to name major dams after presidents who were in office when they were built. Similar honors had been afforded Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge.

On Feb. 14, 1931, Congress passed a bill to make the Hoover Dam name official.

But Hoover’s popularity had plummeted since the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. As a result, in 1932, he lost his reelection bid to Roosevelt.

Harold Ickes, who served as interior secretary under Roosevelt, sent a May 8, 1933, memo to the Bureau of Reclamation saying the site should be referred to as “Boulder Dam” in future conversations and literature.

In 1947, a House resolution was approved calling for restoration of Hoover’s name on the dam and President Harry Truman signed it.

But the damage had been done and confusion remained for many years. Hoover died in 1964 at a time when many folks still called it Boulder Dam.


Today, the large volume of visitors to Hoover Dam helps make the Lake Mead National Recreation Area one of the nation’s busiest national parks.

The Federal Highway Administration estimates that as many as 17,000 people cross the dam in vehicles on U.S. 93 each day.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security measures were tightened. All vehicles approaching the dam were required to stop for inspection a few miles from the dam and that no tractor-trailers could cross it.

Also, to ease traffic on the dam, the $240 million Hoover Dam Bypass project, including construction of the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, is being built 1,600 feet south of the dam. Completion is expected in 2010.


After the dam was completed in 1935, many workers left Southern Nevada for their homes elsewhere or for the next major construction job.

Tommy Nelson was among the scores of workers who decided to stay and make Southern Nevada their home.

He served as a Navy Seabee first-class electrician’s mate during World War II. He later was an electrician for Hoover Dam and for Basic Management Inc. industrial complex.

A longtime member of the local musicians union, he also worked in the orchestras of the Frontier and El Rancho Vegas hotels. In 1956, he was working in the orchestra for Liberace’s opening at the Riviera.

Nelson, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, also served a term on the Boulder City Council.

He appeared in several documentaries and was often quoted in newspaper stories about his experiences as a dam builder, which he held with great reverence and pride.

“I can hardly visit the dam today without wanting to put my hand over my heart,” he told the Sun in 1995 for a story on the 60th anniversary of the completion of the Hoover Dam.

Tommy Nelson died in 2003 at age 90.

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