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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Hoover Dam

Airs Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Photo of a dam crew. The Hoover Dam, known as the Boulder Dam when completed in 1936, was the world’s largest concrete structure and the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity.

Rising more than 700 feet above the raging waters of the Colorado River, it was called one of the greatest engineering works in history. Hoover Dam, built during the Great Depression, drew men desperate for work to a remote and rugged canyon near Las Vegas.

Winding through California’s richly fertile Imperial Valley, the Colorado River was wildly unpredictable—flooding in the spring, drying up in the summer. The only way to harness this indispensable resource was to build a dam, which in turn would provide badly needed electricity to the western states. It was a brilliantly conceived scheme, uniting public works and private enterprise. A giant construction company was formed by six previously smalltime contractors.

Of all the jobs required to build Hoover Dam, none was more dramatic and dangerous than that of the high scalers — men who swung from ropes 800 feet up, armed with dynamite and jackhammers, to blast and clean the canyon's walls and prepare them to take the dam's concrete.
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Above: Of all the jobs required to build Hoover Dam, none was more dramatic and dangerous than that of the high scalers — men who swung from ropes 800 feet up, armed with dynamite and jackhammers, to blast and clean the canyon's walls and prepare them to take the dam's concrete.

The Men Who Built The Dam

Rising more than 700 feet above the raging waters of the Colorado River, Hoover Dam was called one of the greatest engineering works in history. 5,000 working men and their families came to live in the Nevada desert, all in search of a paycheck. The work was extremely dangerous, and done mostly without modern safety precautions. View the photo gallery

The engineering problems were stupendous, the solutions ingenious. Before work could start, the river had to be diverted. Four tunnels, each 50 feet in diameter (which today could accommodate a 747 without the wings), were drilled through the solid rock walls of the Black Canyon. Men called “high-scalers,” lowered in bosun’s chairs, stripped the canyon walls of loose rock.

For two years, workers poured concrete 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Working conditions were dangerous, pay was low, housing inadequate. But it was the Depression, and many were grateful to have work. Five thousand men and their families settled in the Nevada desert. There were two mess halls, each seating 600; the dishwasher was sixteen feet long.

There they struggled against heat, choking dust and perilous heights to build a colossus of concrete that brought electricity and water to millions and transformed the American Southwest.

In 1935 the job was finished under budget and ahead of schedule. But Hoover Dam also raised policy questions about the economic and environmental impact of large scale irrigation throughout the West. Peter Coyote narrates this program.

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Video

American Experience: Hoover Dam

Above: During the Great Depression, Americans built the Hoover Dam, overcoming technical challenges to erect one of the greatest engineering works in history.