The Hoover Dam (above) has been called “the American Pyramid”. It is a huge colossus of concrete and steel built in the middle of what was once arid desert country, every bit as rough and unforgiving as that which hosted the great Pyramids thousands of years ago. It was built by men who were as rough hewn as the desert in which they worked for a few dollars a day, in a great depression which was changing the face of America, just as they were changing the face of the west. Anywhere between 96 and 112 men died during the construction of the Hoover Dam, depending on whose figures you go with. And depending on whose account you go with, two of these deaths provided a pair of strange bookends to this remarkable piece of American Engineering.
Surveyor Fatalities on the Hoover Dam
The mighty Colorado River curled it’s way through canyons it had etched in the desert over millions of years. But as magnificent as these canyons were, they brought little use to the arid desert lands around them. If only this wild, muddy river could be used to irrigate the lands around it, or if it could be dammed in order to bring power to these areas, real economic development could occur in Nevada and in
California nearby. So with this idea in mind survey teams arrived to find a site that was suitable for such work (above). It was on just such a survey expedition on today’s date December 20, 1922, that J.G. Tierney, a Bureau of Reclamation employee engaged in a geological survey fell off of a barge in the Colorado River river and was drowned. Another man, Harold Connely, had also drowned in the same way on May 15 of the same year. But Connely was surveying an area up river from that in which the Dam was eventually built, whereas Mr. Tierney did die near the actual site, so strictly speaking, Tierney could indeed be called the first death during the construction of the Dam, although actual construction would not commence until 1931.
Construction of the Mighty Hoover Dam
This was truly a mammoth achievement for the time in which it occurred. Out of a workforce of down and out men, a crew had to be assembled from thousands of applicants, all of whom had risked everything to come to this hot, miserable, sun-baked location just for the steady work in those hard times in the middle of the Great Depression. First, the muddy, silt filled Colorado River had to be diverted around the construction site at bleak Black Canyon. Under the
commanding presence of 6 ft. 3 inch tall Frank Crowe (above), the master Dam Builder who had left the Bureau of Reclamation to take on this job, that work begun. There were four such tunnels needed, two on either side of the river, and work crews had to dig and blast three quarters of a mile through the canyon wall to manage this. The tunnels were 53 ft. in diameter and were lined with three feet of concrete. Crowe’s leadership lead the way through this hot, carbon monoxide-choke job, working in three shifts. When a strike broke out over unsafe working conditions in August of 1931, he took it as a personal betrayal, and authoritarian that he was, he broke the strike and banished the leaders. But ultimately the tunnels were finished ahead of schedule, and the Colorado was diverted on November 13, 1932.
The Huge Concrete Face
“High Scalers” worked hanging from ropes hundreds of feet in the air armed with dynamite and jack hammers blasted and cleaned the canyon walls to take the concrete in what was clearly the most dangerous job on the site. And on June 6, 1933, workers poured the first bucket of concrete. With 5,000 men working on the face of the Dam, Crowe designed an elaborate network of arial cable ways that delivered a 20 tone concrete bucket every 78 seconds. These formed
blocks that were 5 feet deep which were then stacked into inter-locking columns. If they had tired to pour one continuous concrete wall, it would have required 125 years to cool. By February 6, 1935, when the last bucket of concrete was poured, the face of the damn was over 726 feet high. Then with the steel doors closed on the diversion tunnels, the rivet began to fill up the reservoir, Lake Meade, 115 miles long, and 500 feet deep. On September 30, 1935, a crowd of 20,000 people came to watch President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicate this Dam which would eventually, by an act of Congress in 1947 be officially called “The Hoover Dam” , which had been completed two years ahead of schedule.
And on December 20, 1935, a Bureau of Reclamation employee named Patrick Tierney fell from one of the intake towers at the back of the Dam into Lake Meade, and drowned. Patrick Tierney was the son of J.G. Tierney, who had been “the first” person killed (strictly speaking) in the construction of the Dam on that exact date, December 20, thirteen years earlier, in 1922. Between them, these two dates provide a pair of very strange bookends to the construction of this magnificent work of engineering.
“The Hoover Dam” from “the American Experience” on PBS, dir. by John Heuss, 2005.