The marvel that is Hoover Dam

“Hoover Dam became, even during construction days, a great source of pride among the workers.”
Updated: Jun. 25, 2022 at 10:39 PM MST
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ON THE ARIZONA-NEVADA BORDER (Arizona Highways TV) - Just like with the ancient pyramids, one look at the Hoover Dam and you stand in awe in the shadow of its sheer magnitude.

“We’re on the roof of the power plant looking up at the dam. We have a 500-foot lake on the other side, that’s called pressure, obviously. I think it’s 45,000 pounds per square foot,” explained Pete Mayes. He’s retired dam employee and knows the concrete wonder inside and out. He recently took us places no tourist has seen since 9/11.

“It was poured in blocks, 5 foot tall,” Mayes explained. “They were from 25 feet square up to 60 feet square, all interlocked. So, it was like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Concrete blocks for the dam were poured one by one, row by row. Remember, each of those blocks was only 5 feet high, so that dispels the popular myth about workers falling to their deaths into concrete.

There are nine generators in the Arizona wing of the power plant. Eight were running when we were there, so it was loud. “Each generator is seven stories tall; you’re looking at the top 30 feet on the generator right here,” Mayes said.

The generators inside the dam mean power for the southwestern region, and you might be surprised at which state gets the most. It’s not Arizona. It’s our neighbor to the west.

The building of the dam was a marvel of its own, with men taking on the task of taming the Colorado River. It had to be diverted around the dam site through four 50-foot diameter tunnels, two on each side of the river, drilled through canyon walls. There are tunnels everywhere.

“They put in over 2 miles of tunnels inside the dam for maintenance, inspection, and air ventilation,” Mayes explained. “And in those tunnels, they also put in gauges -- like 930 gauges in the concrete to measure temperature, stress, and strain.”

If you notice, the wall of the dam is arched, not straight across.

“The arch puts all the pressure on the canyon walls,” Maye said. “The keyway makes each block interlocked, and takes all the pressure again. The more pressure you put on it, the stronger it becomes.”

Back inside, there are mazes and mazes of long hallways. Mayes took us along the old tour route. “They knew before they built the dam they were gonna walk people through the dam,” Mayes said. The tour started on the Nevada side and ended on the Arizona side.

The dam’s construction was not just about cement and power. There is, surprisingly, lots of art within the structure.

“They just didn’t want some concrete and a bunch of machinery,” Mayes explained. “They wanted, and this is unusual for the government, to put in art deco.”

“So, they decided they were gonna walk people through it in the first place; they knew that when they were building it,” he continued. “So, they decided to put in what they call chirazo flooring, They put in 120,000 square feet, charged them $60,000. Today it’d cost you about $8 million. That’s not just a coating; that’s 3-1/2 inches of marble.”

Norwegian-born, Oskar JW Hansen created the winged figures of the republic statue that stands guard on each side of the flag along the street at the top of the dam. Hansen gave them angel wings to represent America’s construction skills, daring, and readiness to defend its institutions.”

“Hoover Dam became, even during construction days, a great source of pride among the workers,” author and historian Dennis McBride said. “They early on realized that what they were building was something far more important than just another construction project, which many of them had been on before.”

“I think it also has come to symbolize a period and an attitude and a mindset that we don’t have anymore,” he continued. “People look at that dam and say, ‘How could anybody ever build something like that?’ But I’ve interviewed workers over the years, and they looked at it and said, ‘We’re gonna build this.’”

Despite what the workers were going through with the Depression and the incredible feat they were about to undertake, it was never about if the project was going to get done. It was always about when.