Boulder City, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is famous as the company town that housed the 7,000 men who built nearby Hoover Dam in the early 1930s. One of those men is immortalized by an eight-foot tall bronze statue on Wyoming Street and Nevada Way that welcomes visitors to the city’s old town district. He’s carrying a broom, like a rifle, across one shoulder and has a bandolier of 15 rolls of toilet paper draped around his neck. On a construction site full of draftsmen and designers, he called himself a “sanitary engineer.”
He’s “Alabam,” one of the unsung workers of Hoover Dam. The city has about 20 statues around town. Many memorialize the dam workers. It says something about this town that it chose its first statue in 2007 to honor the guy who cleaned the outhouses. Bravo, I say.
We, of course, had to visit the dam while we are this way. The electrical power it provides and the water from Lake Meade that it created make the neon lights and flowing fountains of modern Las Vegas possible. Los Angeles, a couple of hours away, would also be very different if not for Hoover Dam. Most of the Southwest for that matter.
We first visited the small museum on the second floor of a historic Boulder City hotel that tells the story of the town rose out of the harsh desert. Nearby Black Canyon was chosen in 1930 as the site of the great dam that would finally tame the unruly Colorado River. Desperate men in search of work began showing up in tiny Las Vegas or built a collection ramshackle huts along the river known as “Ragtown.”
The federal government and the company chosen to build the dam needed permanent housing for these and the thousands of other workers who would build the dam. It would be a place where clean living would encourage good work habits. Finishing the dam on time was the goal.
So, no alcohol and gambling. A grainy black-and-white photograph in the museum shows the guard gate that everyone entering the town had to pass. The road leading to the gate, the caption explains, was littered with the broken remnants of the booze bottles of returning workers who had enjoyed a brief respite to Vegas.
Even today, Boulder City remains one of only two towns in the state where gambling is still illegal.
To lessen temptation, no women were allowed in either unless they were part of workers’ families.
Sims Ely, a no-nonsense sort judging from the unsmiling photo of him, was given dictatorial powers as the town manager. He decided what businesses were allowed and who could stay. If Ely considered a resident unsavory, the offender was shown the gate and told never to return. There was no appeal.
It all worked. Construction on the single, largest civil works project on U.S. soil started in 1931 and continued non-stop, 24-hours-a-day until the dam was completed four years later, two years ahead of schedule.
A short ride down U.S. 93 brings you to the gleaming, white concrete that curves gracefully between the canyon walls. The elevators aren’t working – Sims Ely would be very displeased. So, we couldn’t tour the inside of the massive structure.
Standing atop it, though, gave me a deep appreciation of what the men of Boulder City did. More than 100 died in the process working under grim and dangerous conditions. One survivor noted many years later that OSHA, had it existed at the time, would have stopped the work in 24 hours.
Hoover Dam remains and enduring testament to human ingenuity and grit. It will serve as a counterpoint to the rest of this trip.
From here, we move on to the great canyons of the Colorado Plateau, nature’s ongoing engineering projects.