A Bridge Over Troubled Water

The Hoover Dam at 75, the Hoover Dam Bypass at 0.

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What is it about autumn and the dedication of major engineering projects in the American Southwest? Seventy-five years ago, on September 30, 1935, Franklin Roosevelt traveled to the Colorado River just south of Las Vegas to dedicate the Boulder Dam, better known as the Hoover Dam. On October 16, 2010, dignitaries and public spectators will gather 1,500 feet downstream to dedicate the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, better known as the Hoover Dam Bypass.

  • Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik. 512 pages. Free Press. $30.

The Bypass dedication ceremony is going by the name Bridging America. Its website warns attendees to expect high temperatures, dry and windy weather, little shade, minimal refreshments, long waits, and “walking on dirt.” One hopes that with such adverse conditions, spectators don’t fail to note the irony of marking the 75th anniversary of an engineering icon with the opening of a new, $240-million way to get around it.

If you’ve never been to the Hoover Dam, you probably don’t understand why it needs to be bypassed. When I visited this summer, I was driving from the Grand Canyon and asked a park ranger there how long the trip would take. “You’re driving to the dam? On a Sunday?” he asked. “You’re dead meat. You’ll be lucky if you even see the dam.”

I did see it, but traffic was indeed a nightmare. At the dam, Highway 93 — the most direct route between Phoenix and Las Vegas, and a part of the National Highway System’s CANAMEX Corridor, which spans the West from Mexico to Canada — descends both the Arizona and Nevada sides of the Black Canyon with hairpin turns. All traffic then passes directly over the dam in just two lanes. Truck inspections on either side of the canyon, cars’ slowing for pictures on top of the dam, and tourists’ crossing back and forth across the road create a level of gridlock you don’t often get in a major city, let alone the middle of the desert.

The bypass will change all that. It is an impressive structure, to be sure. At 900 feet high, it towers over the Hoover Dam. Visitors on the site now look down and up; the dam, bridge, and electric transmission towers that climb out and over the rim work together to establish the entire canyon as a landscape of modernity. With an arch span of 1,060 feet and a total length of 1,900 feet, the new structure is the longest concrete arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Federal Highway Administration. “It’s an engineering marvel,” then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year.

But when it comes to epic public works projects, the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge is no Hoover Dam. The dam was built for epic purposes. It was meant to end the deadly flooding of the Colorado River, which threatened population and economic growth downstream;  it would provide a steady supply of water to California’s agriculturally rich Imperial Valley and numerous Southwestern cities and towns; it would generate electricity to pay off its own construction costs. The O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge may give some truckers a smoother ride. But Hoover Dam gave us Los Angeles and Las Vegas and iceberg lettuce in winter.

The nature of the dam alone makes it a more dramatic structure. A dam stops. It contains. It dominates. Roosevelt spoke of it as such at Hoover Dam’s dedication. “The mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea,” he said. “Today we translate them into a great national possession.”

Of course the age of thinking of nature as possessable — or at least of presidents publicly speaking of it as such —  has fallen out of fashion. Which is why speakers at the Bypass dedication are unlikely to talk of the bridge as conquering the canyon, and instead will focus on the great cooperation of completely unromantic government agencies including the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Nevada Department of Transportation, and the Western Area Power Administration. This isn’t totally incongruous with the nature of the structure being dedicated. A bridge strikes one as more conciliatory than a dam. It brings things together. It connects. It feels like the engineering equivalent of a compromise.

Such an impressionistic contrast between the two structures only heightens the drama of Hoover Dam. But even without the bridge, the dam has become an increasingly dramatic place. This summer saw the release of Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael A. Hiltzik. Hoover Dam, it turns out, has a more complicated history than the Bureau of Reclamation folks reveal on their tours.

Hiltzik appreciates the dam as an engineering wonder. Construction involved novel problem-solving, such as how to cool its concrete, which gives off heat as it hardens. Built as a single mass, the dam would have needed 100 years to cool; it was instead built as 30,000 blocks in 230 columns with a interior network of cooling pipes. Building the dam required a mastery of logistics, including the establishment of a network of on-site plants, railroads, and cable systems to keep materials flowing and work continuing for 24 hours a day.

More broadly, Hiltzik credits Hoover Dam — the largest such project undertaken by the federal government to that point — with shaping not just the parched American Southwest, but an entire national mentality:

The United States became in that post-dam era a country very different from the United States that built it. It was transformed from a society that glorified individualism into one that cherished shared enterprise and communal social support. To be sure, that change was not all the making of the dam itself; Social Security, the Works Project Administration, and other New Deal programs forged in the crucible of the Depression played their essential role, as did the years of war. But the dam was the physical embodiment of the initial transformation, a remote regional construction project reconfigured into a symbol of national pride.

But such a transformation came at a cost. Ironically, a shift to the communal spirit embodied by the dam came at the expense of many individuals. Constructing a dam in a steep gorge in the middle of a desert is clearly dangerous work. But Hiltzik claims that the frenzied pace of work pushed by its builder — a consortium of several individual corporations that united for the project under the name Six Companies  — made working conditions especially unsafe (the dam was completed two years ahead of schedule). He argues that the company hospital often attributed deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning to pneumonia to both avoid paying death benefits and to avoid inspection from the government, which would have required the company to ditch its gasoline-powered tunnel equipment for safer electric machines. Those who didn’t die faced the prospect of sudden drops in wages, or payment in the form of scrip that could only be used at company stores. Employees worked grueling schedules seven days a week, all year long, except on Christmas and the Fourth of July.

Adding to Hoover Dam’s image problem is its uncertain future. The New York Times reported last month that the water level in Lake Mead, behind the dam, is falling to historic lows as an 11-year drought continues. The government estimates that in October, the lake will hit its lowest level since 1937, when it was still rising. The problem is that the original water allocation among the seven states in the Colorado River basin — Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California — and Mexico was based on river flow during some of the basin’s wettest years. Lake Mead now releases more water each year than it takes in, a deficit that will grow should temperatures continue to rise, both increasing evaporation and reducing the upriver snows that supply much of the basin’s water. But rather than appearing simply not up for the job, Hoover Dam is increasingly looking like a culprit — spurring explosive growth across the region by making promises it couldn’t keep. “Hoover Dam made a new West,” Hiltzik writes, “but also confined it in a straightjacket.”

Dams in general have taken on a character of destruction, even when they provide the benefits of flood control, irrigation water, and electricity. This can take many forms. Damming of the Colorado River at multiple sites has tamed the river’s turbidity, reduced its silt content, and affected water temperature, harming several species of fish, including the Humpback chub. Dams along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest are referred to as “fish killers” for their impact on upriver salmon migration. China’s Three Gorges Dam required the relocation of more than one million people.

And yet for all the abuse of labor behind its construction, for all its unmet expectations, for all the destruction done by dams overall, I find it difficult not to romanticize Hoover Dam. I think this is in part because the dam sells itself very well. The modern aesthetic — from its intake towers and powerhouses to its artistic embellishments — suggest a more progressive hand behind the dam than Hiltzik’s history reveals. The dam also integrated tourism from the beginning. Its roadway top was designed to include public bathrooms; in the powerhouses, visitors can view the long row of generators from an overlook with marble floors inlaid with Native American-inspired designs. That people would want to look at Hoover Dam has always been a given; visitors flooded the area before it was even completed. The dam’s embrace of this fact gives it an enlightened air; it reinforces the idea that the dam is something worth seeing, an object worthy of pride. How many other infrastructure projects include tourism in their design?

Armed with this knowledge, I feel a bit guilty to be as smitten with the Hoover Dam as I am, especially when I see the more progressive Hoover Dam Bypass overhead. The Bypass represents more reasoned planning and methodical construction and reflects a less man-against-the-natural-world mentality. The dam is killing the Humpback chub, while the bypass route was chosen from several possibilities because it would have the least impact on peregrine falcons, desert bighorn sheep, and desert tortoises. The builders of Hoover Dam rushed worked and finished two years early; the builders of the Hoover Dam Bypass took their time and are coming in two years late. Hoover Dam was named for one man. The Hoover Dam Bypass spread the honor across two. Hoover Dam says, “Look at me!” The Hoover Dam Bypass includes a sidewalk that says, “Don’t look at me — look at Hoover Dam!”

The Bypass is the safer, more responsible achievement of the two. And if it has an image problem, that’s it. Hoover Dam feels dangerous; this makes it undeniably attractive. The brute physicality of the dam — its mass, its sheer face, the volume of water it’s holding back — and the setting’s harsh physicality — the crushing heat; the steep cliffs; the depth of the gorge; the treeless, red rocks — create a visceral experience not easily tempered by any of the dam’s past or present problems.

We live in a Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge world — and I like that world. But the Hoover Dam stirs a deep, fleeting desire to break away from that, to do what you want, when you want, and how you want, and to do it big. In a world of reasoned planning and methodical construction and cooperative attitudes, something as forceful as the Hoover Dam is always going to be sexy, even if it’s not always right. • 13 September 2010

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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