hoover dam



The construction of Hoover Dam is considered to be one of America’s finest
engineering achievements. However the dam that rose from the floor of Black Canyon
was not only a structural accomplishment, it was a proposition firmly rooted in
practicalities. The necessity of such a dam had been obvious for more than two
decades. The Colorado River’s cycles of drought and flood in the American southwest
incapacitated the growth of the agricultural industry. It was felt that a dam that could
control the river would also provide hydroelectric power, eventually rendering the dam
self-financing. The growth of Las Vegas and Southern California as major metropolitan
centers also depended, to a large extent, on the availability of water and power. Almost
from the beginning of its construction, the dam possessed an epic quality that
stimulated the national imagination. It was apparent that the meaning of the dam itself
was beyond even that of a structure that equaled the vast landscape it inhabited. The
dam, and the people who built it , began controlling nature in a new and powerful way.
Although construction actually began on the Hoover Dam in 1931, site testing
for the project had begun early in the 1920’s. In 1927 the Swing-Johnson bill was
passed by Congress and President Coolidge, which gave the go ahead on Hoover Dam
project. So many construction companies around the country began to evaluate the
proposals. Most agreed that the plan was too ambitious, too difficult, the landscape
was too unforgiving, and the technology was not advanced enough to build a dam of
that size. But on March 11, 1931; Six Companies Incorporated, a conglomeration of
six smaller construction companies, won the job with a bid of $48,890,955. (The Story
of Hoover Dam)
Since this dam site was so remote , the first task was to lay roads and railroad
lines, so that all the materials would be easily accessible. The Colorado River , most
importantly, had to be diverted. Four diversion tunnels were cut over a period of a year
through the bedrock of Black Canyon. A temporary dam was constructed which
diverted the water into the diversion tunnels. Meanwhile, the loose rock had to be
removed from the canyon walls. Special men were required for the job, they were
called “high-scalers.” They had to climb down the canyon walls tied to ropes. The
high-scalers used jackhammers and dynamite to strip away the rock. The men who
chose to do this work came from many backgrounds. Some were former sailors, some
circus acrobats, others were American Indians. All of them had to be agile men,
unafraid to swing out over the canyon hanging by a rope. It was hard and dangerous
work, perhaps the most physically demanding work on the entire project. They scaled
the walls with a forty-four pound jack hammer chipping away at the rock and then
placing dynamite around boulders too large to demolish by hand. The scaler’s had to do
all this while moving about, avoiding live air hoses and electrical lines, it was not
considered the easy job.
For all men on the job the danger of being hit from falling rocks and dropped
tools was the most common cause of death during the building of the dam. Ninety- six
men were killed in industrial accidents while building the dam. So for their own
protection the men started making improvised hard hats for themselves by coating cloth
hats with coal tar. These “hard-boiled hats,” were extremely effective when being hit
by falling objects. The Six Companies eventually distributed commercially made hard
hats and issued one to every man on the project.
The risk and high visibility of the job gave it a certain status which appealed to
some types of men. When the formen were not looking, these men would often swing
out from the cliffs and attempt stunts, in competition with other scalers. One standout
scaler used these acrobatic skills for a useful service. Louis “The Human Pendulum”
Fagan transported a crew of shifters around a projecting boulder on the Arizona side.
The man to be transferred would wrap his legs around Fagan’s waist, grasp the rope,
and with a mighty leap, the would sail out into the air and swing around the boulder.
Fagan then returned for the next man in the crew. But perhaps the most famous feat of
the high scaler was performing a daring midair rescue. Burl R. Rutledge, a Bureau of
Reclamation engineer fell from the canyon rim, only to be caught by a scaler,
twenty-five feet below. The scaler was Oliver Cowan, who had heard