Man vs. Nature in a Brutal Desert Canyon

June 24, 2010

It’s 1931 and the federal government has an opportunity for you. It involves backbreaking labor. You’ll work in an indescribably hot and dry place. The lodging, if you’re lucky enough to secure a roof over your head, will be lousy. There will be snakes and scorpions to dodge. Be prepared for foul air and lots of explosions. And if you get sidelined by an injury or illness, hundreds will be thrilled to take your job.

The feds want you to help build Hoover Dam. Michael Hiltzik, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, tells the story of the men who answered the call in Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century.

The dam, many of Sin City’s regulars will be interested to learn, wasn’t built to light up Las Vegas. Agriculture in California’s Imperial Valley, not casinos in southern Nevada, inspired the effort to soothe the unpredictable waters of the Colorado River.

While the Imperial Valley’s annual rainfall is ridiculously hostile to agriculture, its sunshine is not. Neither is its dirt, which began to draw attention in the second half of the 19th century. “The territory may not have been overlaid with topsoil like the loamy earth cherished by farmers back east,” Hiltzik writes, “but that was because the entire valley was topsoil.” An irrigation-district publication described the region as “a 500,000-acre bowl filled with a conglomeration of soils transported here by the Colorado River … not the usual six to ten inches deep, but a full mile or more.”

When the private sector built the first canal westward from the Colorado, settlers began to arrive. But a devastating period of flooding -- an extended deluge so brutal it created the Salton Sea -- struck in 1905. It was clear that much more hydrological infrastructure was needed for farms to thrive in the valley. Opportunistic politicians and reclamation bureaucrats took over.

Endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, negotiated by Herbert Hoover, and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge, (Republicans all), the Boulder Canyon Project Act appropriated the $165 million it would take to erect the dam.

If Colossus has a protagonist, it’s Frank Crowe, the dam-builder par excellence picked to lead an army of laborers that would peak, in July 1934, at 5,251. Crowe’s personal life was scarred by the deaths of his first wife and two children born to his second. “With every loss he seemed to become more focused on his work and more aloof from his loved ones,” Hiltzik writes in the book’s best passage, “as though determined to bond with the structures that could never be taken from him and to keep a safe emotional distance from the humans who could.”

Maniacally driven yet generous and loyal to his travelling band of subordinates (think a kinder, gentler Daniel Plainview), Crowe was a born manager. He brought the mega-project in well ahead of schedule, went on to build more dams, and retired to a California ranch. (Crowe declined Washington’s request to head up engineering for the reconstruction of postwar Germany.)

Colossus is filled with tales of more colorful characters. “River rat” Murl Emery, raised on the Colorado, spent “fifteen years ferrying workers and VIPs to the construction site and [provisioned] workers’ families from a general store he operated largely on the principle of personal trust.” Sims Ely, a septuagenarian, Tennessee-born puritan, ran the federal city founded to house dam laborers as if it were a theocracy, not a municipality. The dam’s unofficial mascot -- given a name so racially insensitive it can’t be repeated here -- was a “part-Labrador stray.” When the mutt died under the wheels of a truck in 1941, a newspaper reported that “rock-hard men wept openly and unashamed.”

As a committed liberal, Hiltzik can’t avoid the temptation to make the historical political. The trite talking points pile up. (“Public” power is preferable to investor-owned utilities. The Republicans of the 1920s “were yoked to a conception of federal power that the Depression had rendered irredeemably outdated.” Unions good, corporations bad.) Of course, what’s to be expected from the author of the 2005 screed The Plot Against Social Security: How the Bush Plan Is Endangering Our Financial Future?

Hoover Dam’s story needs to be told by a real historian, not a left-wing columnist. (It’s painful to imagine how ideology-free Colossus would be if penned by Thomas Fleming or Walter A. McDougall.) But read the book anyway. In an era of NIMBYism and environmental impact statements, it’s a reminder that Americans once celebrated their mastery of nature.

D. Dowd Muska ( is a writer, commentator and lecturer. He lives in Connecticut.

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