The Hoover Dam: an important cultural landmark

Published: 17th October 2006
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Herbert Hoover has the sad misfortune of being remembered as the President in office at the time of the Wall Street Crash, and the ensuing onset of the Great Depression. However, he has achieved a lasting legacy in the Hoover Dam; also known as the Boulder Dam, the Hoover Dam is often called "a modern civil engineering wonder" and is still one of the most exciting attractions for tourists to visit in America. Located on the edge of Nevada and Arizona, the Hoover Dam was first commissioned in 1922, when Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding, but construction only began in 1931, and by then it was integral to Hoover's scheme to create more jobs during the depression. Building continued under President Roosevelt from 1933, and the Hoover Dam was finally completed in 1936, 2 years ahead of schedule, and cost $47 million ($676 million today) to build.

The issues that arose during the construction of the Hoover Dam seem to be somehow symptomatic of popular trends in American cultural history, in that it had two main themes running through it: that is the role of the worker, and the treatment of African Americans. Working at the Hoover Dam was dangerous work, with dam workers often working 7 days a week and at risk from all forms of hazards, including carbon monoxide poisoning, dehydration, heat prostration, and possible electrocution from misplaced electrical lines.

Tensions between the workers and the dam's construction company - Six Companies - reached a breaking point in 1931 when several workers were forced to accept pay cuts. Within hours of this announcement, the entire workforce declared a strike; among their demands, they listed the provision of clean, flushing toilets and the ready availability of iced water. When the workers eventually returned to the dam site, defeated, there were efforts made by the company to improve lighting and water provision, and no more pay cuts were made for the duration of construction: a minor victory, despite the failure of the strike.

Similarly, the construction of the Hoover Dam exposed the pressures on unemployed African American workers during the depression. When none of the first 1000 workers placed on the Six Companies payroll in 1931 were African American, the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas issued a complaint. As pressure mounted, Six Companies President W.A. Bechtel promised an increase in black workers hired, but by 1933, only 24 dam workers were African American. Additionally, African American workers were made to work in the toughest conditions, while being made to travel on segregated buses and drink from separate water buckets.

The significance of the Hoover Dam in American cultural history, therefore, does not just lie in its spectacular views and the power it harnessed for the benefit of American citizens; it is also important to remember the history of its construction and its status as an example of the plight of workers, both white and black Americans, during the depression years. Today, the Hoover Dam attracts 8 to 10 million visitors a year and, with many comfortable hotels located nearby as well as the thrilling sights and sounds of Las Vegas, there is no reason not to visit such a major site in American history.

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