The hulking Hoover Dam has been holding back the Colorado River and generating power since 1936, but you may be surprised to learn just how eventful its construction and naming were.
1. The construction of the Hoover Dam forced Las Vegas to clean up its act.
Once the public caught wind of the plans to build a dam in Nevada’s Black Canyon, surrounding cities appreciated the potential economic windfall such an undertaking would bring. Las Vegas became especially eager to house the project’s headquarters, even going so far as to sacrifice its “party city” reputation to appear worthy of the honor. When Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a major player in the project, came to town for a 1929 visit, local authorities in Las Vegas shut down a slew of its speakeasies and brothels for the day in an attempt to seem classier.
2. An entire city sprang up to support construction of the Hoover Dam.
Sin City’s efforts were ultimately futile, and a planned community went up to house the 5000-person workforce. Miles of paved streets and railroad tracks connected the canyonside village to the project site and neighboring Las Vegas. The community, known as Boulder City, is still standing. However, delays in its development forced a good number of early workers to reside in the nearby Ragtown, which lived up to its name with extremely humble living conditions.
3. The Hoover Dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the United States.
The Bureau of Reclamation—the department subsidizing the project—supplied a whopping 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete for the dam itself, plus another 1.11 million cubic yards for the power plant and additional facilities. This quantity of concrete would be enough to build 3000 miles of road—a full-sized highway from one end of the United States to the other. Additionally, the dam required about 5 million barrels of cement, nearly equaling the total quantity of cement the Bureau used in its previous 27 years of existence.
4. The world’s largest refrigerator cooled all the concrete used for the Hoover Dam.
As you may guess, all this concrete posed some challenges. Without engineers’ intervention, it would have taken the massive blocks of poured concrete 125 years to cool, and this gradual drying would have left the pieces susceptible to breaking. To speed up the process, an engineering team designed a mammoth refrigeration machine. The supersized fridge dispensed upwards of 1000 tons of ice every day, speeding up the cooling and lopping decades off the project’s timeline.
5. The first summer of construction on the Hoover Dam had record-breaking heat.
The giant fridge had its work cut out for it. Work on the Hoover Dam kicked off in April 1931, not long before Nevada’s Clark County weathered some of its hottest temperatures on record. The month of June delivered an average daily high of 119°F, prompting a wave of heatstroke among workers.
6. The Hoover Dam’s laborers were terrific showmen.
Despite the punishing temperatures, construction attracted curious and enthralled spectators from across the country. Even more entertaining than the technological feats of the project were the death-defying antics of the “high scalers,” who rappelled down the Black Canyon to remove loose rock from the gorge’s walls. While one might expect such a job to be handled with extreme caution, the high scalers became famous for their playful, albeit ill-conceived, stunts.
Spectators were particularly fond of the antics of daredevil Louis Fagan, nicknamed “The Human Pendulum” and “One-Rope Fagan.” When teams worked on outcroppings in the canyon walls, they would move from one area to another by locking their arms and legs around Fagan and having him swing them to their next spot.
7. One heroic high scaler saved his boss’s life during construction on the Hoover Dam.
Fagan was impressive, but Oliver Cowan trumped his fellow high scalers when he snatched his falling supervisor right out of the sky. When Bureau of Reclamation engineer Burl R. Rutledge lost his hold on a safety line at the top of the canyon, he would have plummeted to his demise had Cowan, who was working 25 feet blow, not grabbed his leg as he fell. Shortly after the episode, the city of Las Vegas lobbied for a Carnegie Medal in recognition of the local man’s bravery.
8. The Hoover Dam’s chief engineer badmouthed his workers to the local press.
Not everyone was as impressed with the workforce. The hazards of the construction site and poor conditions in Ragtown contributed to the labor force’s decision to strike in 1931. A committee formed to express the workers’ demands, to which the project’s chief engineer and superintendent, Francis Trenholm Crowe, was defiantly unsympathetic. In fact, Crowe contested each of the team’s qualms with the suggestion of eagerness to have the workforce replaced. Print interviews in local news publications quoted Crowe as calling his men “malcontents” who he “would be glad to get rid of.” The hard line gambit worked, and eventually the laborers returned to work.
9. Nobody really wanted to name the dam after Herbert Hoover.
In retrospect, it seems strange that one of the country’s most impressive feats is named after one of its least beloved presidents. In fact, Hoover is understood to have only earned the honor through a political publicity stunt. In 1930, Secretary of the Interior Wilbur traveled to the site to mark the dam project’s official opening. He took advantage of the pageantry to declare, “I have the honor and privilege of giving a name to this new structure. In Black Canyon, under the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it shall be called the Hoover Dam.”
In other words, Wilbur named the dam after his boss. As Hoover was already widely maligned for his part in kicking off the Great Depression, the name was hotly contested. Wilbur’s successor, Harold L. Ickes, was a particularly vocal critic, and in 1933 he switched the in-progress structure’s name to “Boulder Dam.”
10. Herbert Hoover wasn’t even invited to the dam’s dedication.
Ickes was hardly alone in his low opinion of Hoover. His own boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t think much of Hoover’s presidential acumen, either. When FDR oversaw the dedication of the still nebulously named dam in 1935, he declined to invite his predecessor and even refused to give Hoover the expected nod in his ceremonial speech.
11. The Hoover Dam didn’t officially take its name until 1947.
The dam spent the 14 years following Ickes’s proclamation without an official name. Ultimately, on April 30, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed a law authorizing the original Hoover handle, recognizing the 31st president’s hand in bringing the dam to life in the first place.
12. Nazis attempted to blow up the Hoover Dam.
In 1939, the United States government learned of a pair of German Nazi agents’ scheme to bomb the Hoover Dam and its power facilities. Destruction of the dam itself was not the central goal, but hampering its energy production was a key piece of the agents’ plan to undercut California’s aviation manufacturing industry. To ward off aerial attacks, authorities considered camouflaging the Hoover Dam with a paint job or even building a decoy dam downstream from the real thing. Ultimately, the Germans only managed to get as far as conducting onsite investigative work before their ploy was quashed, thanks to an increase in military security around the dam.
13. Today, the Hoover Dam helps power three states.
The dam’s energy helps keep the lights on for customers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. It creates enough power for 1.3 million people.
14. The Hoover Dam was once the world’s tallest dam.
When it was finished in 1936, the Hoover Dam was remarkable not only for having completed construction a full two years ahead of schedule, but also for its unprecedented stature. The Black Canyon structure stretched 726 feet from base to top, practically soaring above the old record holder, Oregon’s 420-foot-tall Owyhee Dam. After holding the height title for two decades, Hoover was at last outdone by Switzerland’s 820-foot-tall Mauvoisin Dam in 1957. Eleven years later, it lost its domestic title to California’s 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.