A Machiavellian West: The Construction of the Hoover Dam

The west of mid-nineteenth century America is described as “some of the most desolate territory on earth” by Joseph Stevens in his work Hoover Dam: An American Adventure . The thoughts of a man named Oliver Wozencraft as he was hallucinating in the desert to bring water and lush vegetation to his sparse surroundings brought the idea of an irrigation system to the west. With the conduction of the Fall-Davis Report in 1922, which surveyed plausible sites for the construction of such a system, the idea for a dam “at or near Boulder Canyon” began to breathe life. With the construction of an American architectural masterpiece in the middle of the unruly and sinful area of Las Vegas, the west was introduced to the federal government, that was many times negligent, in full force for the first time.

Stevens describes pre-Hoover Dam West as an “economic colony of the East” and as such, early after settlement, there was no punitive rule felt by the people from the federal government. Towns, such as Las Vegas, had the connotation of being lawless and full of gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes. And to an extent, this was true. Las Vegas was the antithesis of a community that Six Companies, the compilation of businesses funding the project, and the government wanted to set up for the workers who worked on the dam. Boulder City would be a city of strong moral values, but that was mainly so that the work did not slow. To stick to wholesome ethics, the citizens of the created Boulder City were subject to a dictatorial rule by their overseers, employees of Six Companies. Although the rules were made and enforced by Six Companies, the federal government never stepped in and gave these people many rights. In the rush to start construction, many of the workers did not even have proper housing, which shows the lack of concern by the federal government to the harsh weather and work conditions felt by the workers.

A family in the harsh environment of Ragtown, a makeshift city for early dam workers

A family in the harsh environment of Ragtown, a makeshift city for early dam workers

The newly found negligent federal presence in the west can also be seen through the court cases regarding carbon monoxide poisoning brought against Six Companies.   In these cases, men claimed to have been harmed in the making of the diversion tunnels when using trucks in enclosed areas of the canyon. While some of these cases seem to hold their ground, the judge turned a blind eye to their struggles. Federal presence can also be sensed in the cases brought against Six Companies in regards to the forcing of workers to work overtime on a regular basis. Henry Kaiser, chairman of Six Companies executive committee, claimed that the whole process of building the dam was a state of emergency, and therefore the workers could work more than eight hours per day, the maximum time limit for a days work. This is not exactly true. While the work on Hoover Dam was immensely dangerous, the work was not at all times in a state of emergency, and therefore the work should have stopped at eight hours per day per man.

It is clear that the Great Depression caused the negative effects seen on the Hoover Dam construction site. The federal government was content with the fact that there was now a job created not just to serve its purpose of irrigating parts of the west, but there was work for a multitude of people that had recently been unemployed. The government saw that there were corrupt activities going on in Boulder City, but instead of penalizing the men in charge of the project, they let it go on not only because it pumped money back into the economy, but it also gave thousands of people a livelihood again. In a time of immense struggle, this one project was a savior to thousands, no matter their treatment. To the newly present federal government, the ends justified the means.


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