Hoover Dam: Human Ingenuity and Grit

The statue of “Alabam” honors one of the unsung workers who built Hoover Dam.

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.” 

Hoover Dam is a testament to human ingenuity and grit.

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. 

Lake Meade is one of the most important lakes in America because it changed the Southwest.

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. 

Vegas Sort of Grows on You

The north end of The Strip

I didn’t expect to like Las Vegas, but the place sort of sneaks up on you.

Though more than 40 million people come through here each year, the city is immaculately clean. Police presence is muted and panhandlers non-existent.

Gambling, of course, is what draws all those visitors.  Casinos line Las Vegas Boulevard for miles. The famed Strip, with its fake Eiffel Tower and New York skyscrapers and its gondolas and Chinese gardens, is certainly over the top, but strangely it’s not tacky and gaudy like the Canadian side of Niagra Falls.

Inside the loud, cavernous casinos, you can wager a bet on the turn of a card at the blackjack and poker tables, on the roll of dice, the spin of roulette wheels, the push of buttons on slot machines. You can even bet on the outcome of a soccer game in Greece or on the winner of the American League pennant – the Yankees are 9-6 favorites.

The casino at the Golden Nugget in “old” Vegas.

The casinos, though, weren’t crowded – many of the card tables were empty or attracted just one or two gamblers. I was able to nurse $20 through three nights of light betting on the poker slots at Planet Hollywood. About an hour a time was all I could muster before getting bored. I eventually lost it all – the machine wins 60 percent of the time, I’m told – but I had several enjoyable hours of pushing buttons, watching the casino night life and drinking freely of the its gin and scotch.

The food can be superb – I had the best prime rib of my life at Binion’s steakhouse – and the entertainment top notch. Elton John, Cher and Janet Lopez performed within a couple of blocks of each other during our time there. They were too rich for our budget, though. We opted instead for Cirque du Soleil’s breathtaking “O” show at the Bellagio. It’s a stunning mixture of the athleticism of high-flying trapeze artists, the beauty and grace of synchronized swimming and the mayhem of the Marx Brothers.

The old section of Vegas along Fremont Avenue retains some of the naughtiness of a bygone era. There, under the roof of a pedestrian mall that connects some of the oldest casinos in town, fortune tellers will read your palm, guys stand naked except for a jockstrap playing bad electrical guitar and girls dressed as nuns flash their breasts with cops standing not 10 feet away.

“That’s just wrong,” Doris said.

I found it exhilarating. No, not the fake nuns’ bare breasts, but the fact that they were out there baring them. I wish New York had preserved the some of the seediness of the Times Square that I remember as a kid instead of allowing all it to be sanitized and Disneyfied.

But three days is enough. We leave tomorrow for the canyons of Zion and Bryce and, of course, the grandest of all.