Located in the Colorado River’s Black Canyon along the border between Nevada and Arizona in the United States, Hoover Dam, originally called Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch gravity dam constructed during the American Great Depression. The origins of Hoover Dam stretch back to the end of the 19th century with early attempts to divert the Colorado River’s waters for the purposes of flood control, irrigation, and power production. The operation of the Alamo Canal starting in the 1890s was fraught with financial difficulties, catastrophic breaches, and landowner disputes, prompting consideration of using the Lower Colorado as a hydroelectric power source.
Surveys throughout the early part of the 20th century suggested the creation of a dam, including a survey conducted by the Reclamation Service, which is now known as the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Though the Reclamation Service rejected initial dam proposals suggesting the use of dynamite to collapse Boulder Canyon’s walls, a 1922 report by the agency, known as the Fall-Davis report, officially recommended development of a dam in the area, around 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
Authorization for the project was approved by the United States Congress in 1928 and granted to the Six Companies, Inc. consortium. $165 million in funds was designated for the dam as part of the Boulder Canyon Project Act, and a design for a concrete arch-gravity dam, overseen by Bureau engineer John L. Savage, was chosen as the official plan for construction. Though the city of Las Vegas lobbied heavily to be used as headquarters for dam construction, a model city, forming the basis of modern-day Boulder City, Nevada, was constructed for the project instead. More than 5,000 workers contributed to the construction of the dam between 1931 and 1936, with 112 dying throughout the construction process due to dangerous working conditions and high local summertime heat.
By the time of its completion two years ahead of the originally presented schedule, more than 3,250,000 cubic yards of concrete had been used in the construction of the dam, with another 1,110,000 cubic yards used in construction of the facility’s power plant, enough to otherwise pave a two-lane highway stretching from New York to San Francisco. A formal dedication ceremony for the dam with a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt took place on September 30, 1935, drawing a crowd of 10,000, though work on the dam was not officially completed until March of 1936.
During surveying and construction, the dam was referred to as the Boulder Dam or the Boulder Canyon Dam, although no official name was mentioned in initial legislation. The name “Hoover Dam” was coined by Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur in a 1930 address to Las Vegas commencing the building of a railway between Las Vegas and Boulder City for the dam’s construction, citing a supposed tradition of naming dams after American presidents, though no such tradition existed on record. Controversy over the dam’s name ensued over the next several years, precipitated by the election defeat of President Herbert Hoover in 1932 and spearheaded by lobbying efforts by incoming Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who preferred the name “Boulder Dam.” The Boulder Dam name failed to take hold with the American media, however, and in 1947, Congress officially restored the Hoover Dam naming.
Permanent Structures and Attractions
Today, the dam is designated as a National Historic Landmark and remains one of the most renowned architectural achievements in modern history, listed as one of the Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders of America by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The dam impounds the Lake Mead reservoir, capturing the entire Colorado River flow and generating power through its series of turbines and generators. Annual net power generation at the facility varies between two and 10 terawatt hours, though concerns in the 2010s over falling water levels at Lake Mead due to increased drought have called the long-term future of dam operations into question. Water from Lake Mead is also used for municipal and irrigation purposes, serving more than 18 million people across the southwestern United States and supplying water for more than a million acres of farmland.
The dam is designed in an Art Deco style with sculpted turrets along its face, elements applied to its construction plans by Los Angeles architect Gordon B. Kaufmann. Decoration for the interior of the dam facility was overseen by Denver artist Allen Tupper True, who incorporated Native American tribal and natural motifs and a color-coding system for the facility’s pipes and machinery. Sculptures adorning the dam and its surrounding grounds were created by Norwegian-born sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, including a memorial for the 112 fallen dam workers. A terrazzo floor on the base of the monument contains an astrological map depicting the sky of the Northern Hemisphere at the time of the dam’s dedication.
The dam facility is one of the country’s leading tourist attractions, drawing more than a million annual visitors to its tours, which have been presented by the Bureau of Reclamation since 1937. Two tour packages are offered, a 30-minute power plant tour and an hourlong dam tour. The power plant tour combines guide presentations with multimedia exhibits, while the full dam tour offers a docent-led exploration of the facility’s power plant and passageways, highlighting historical anecdotes and information about lesser-known parts of the facility. All tours include admission to the facility’s Visitor Center, which features exhibits about the dam’s history and operations, and food concession and gift shop facilities are available near the dam’s parking garage. Educational tours for school groups and organizations are offered by appointment, and private event rental may be arranged to use the facility for weddings, conferences, and other special events.
P.O. Box 60400, Boulder City, NV 89005, Phone: 702-494-2302