Left in its natural state, the American West would have been very different from what it is now. Instead of fertile farmland, barren desert would dominate the landscape; prosperous cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas would not exist. Breaking up the long dry spells would be the occasional and often disastrous flood, caused by wildly fluctuating water levels of the Colorado River of the Grand Canyon. In the midst of the Great Depression, blueprints were drawn up for a massive engineering project that would change the landscape, the economy and the very destiny of the Southwest U.S.: Hoover Dam.
Originally named “Boulder Dam,” construction of the dam was green-lighted by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Its primary purpose: to harness the waters of the mercurial Colorado River and create a man-made lake, providing reliable water sources for farmers, and hydroelectric power to the growing population centers of the American West. Its secondary purpose: to provide much-needed jobs during a time of national destitution.
By the time funds were allocated to the Bureau of Reclamation for the actual construction in 1930, the dam site had been moved upstream from its original location near the Black Canyon, in search of more stable bedrock. Herbert Hoover had also been elected President, and renamed the dam after himself in what was regarded then as “an obvious political move.”
The first concrete was poured in 1933; upon completion, Hoover Dam would hold an amount of concrete equivalent to a two-lane highway extending from San Francisco to New York. It was calculated that that much concrete, if left to cure naturally, would take over one hundred years to solidify – that posed a major problem when the Bureau of Reclamation hoped to have this dam up and running in 7 years! As a result, new and innovative techniques were utilized not only to pour the concrete, but to accelerate the rate at which it hardened: each section was embedded with thin steel coils through which cold water from the Colorado River was circulated, then cooled further with water pumped from a nearby refrigeration plant.
Revolutionary too were the aesthetic qualities of the dam and adjoining facilities. Blending the elegance of the then-popular art-deco style with the earthiness of Native American inspired motifs, Hoover Dam would stand as proof that artistry and functionality can exist harmoniously.
Today, Hoover Dam is a popular stop for many Las Vegas Grand Canyon visitors, whether visiting Grand Canyon South Rim (the National Park) or Grand Canyon West Rim on the Hualapai Indian Nation and site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Hoover Dam is also a highlight of most Grand Canyon helicopter tours. The Colorado River Bridge, a high-tech (and high up!) bypass bridge slated for completion in late 2010, promises to alleviate Hoover Dam traffic problems, but will take the dam out of the view of drivers passing over it. Those wishing to see Hoover Dam will have access to a specially designated pedestrian walkway and overlook. Visitors who still prefer to see Hoover Dam from up close will need to back track a short distance off the Colorado River Bridge, or should consider a Hoover Dam tour from Las Vegas.