By Judy Berman
What would drive a man to take his family across the country and set up in a squatters’ camp in the desert where the average temperature was 116 degrees?
The three D’s: Desperation, the “Dust Bowl” and the (Great) Depression. During the 1930s, thousands fled to whatever Promised Land offered a job.
A drought turned their land into a “Dust Bowl” and rendered it useless to grow crops and to make a living. This forced thousands to leave their homes in a five-state region of the Great Plains in search of work.
“On October 29, 1929 – Black Tuesday – the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. By 1933, one out of every three Americans was living in poverty. Thousands lined up to apply for a handful of available jobs,” Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum Permanent Exhibit. (Exhibit 2: Welcome to Hard Times)
Two years before construction began on Hoover Dam in 1931, the area near Las Vegas was flooded with job-seekers.
They lived in Ragtown, a makeshift shantytown on the floor of the Black Canyon next to the Colorado River. Their “homes” were made of tents, cardboard boxes, tin scraps and anything that amounted to shelter from the scorching heat.
“When somebody … became overcome with the heat, we dashed out there with these ice buckets and we’d pack them in ice. If their heart took it and they survived, OK. But if their heart stopped, that was it. We sent for the undertaker,” Bob Parker. (museum’s Exhibit 4: A Deadly Desert Place)
Six Companies Inc., a “supercompany” made up of six construction firms, agreed to build the dam for just under $49 million. The Boulder Canyon Project authorized Hoover Dam for flood control, improved navigation and regulation of the Colorado River.
Temporary housing was built in Boulder City for those who would work on the dam.
The homes – 658 of them – were called “dingbat” houses because of the quick and shoddy way they were constructed. The boxy homes had a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom.
Two men could throw one together in about 12 hours.
They looked so much alike that it wasn’t uncommon to wake up and find a stranger sleeping on the couch. When he was awakened, he’d look around bewildered, get up and head for home.
“The dingbat houses were a great improvement over the squatters’ camp, but the ragged construction style created hazards of its own. Dust blew in thru the cracks in the walls and doorways, piling up against the houses, creating small dunes throughout the neighborhood,” according to “Boulder City,” a PBS documentary.
Despite the hardships at home and the hazards of dynamite blasts at work, the workers at Six Companies completed Hoover Dam two years ahead of schedule and well under budget, says U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Restoration.
Their work created an engineering marvel that draws millions of tourists a year. Some staggering facts (U.S. Department of Interior Department of Reclamation):
- Hoover Dam is 726 feet tall. That’s 171 feet taller than the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
- At its base, Hoover Dam is as thick (660 feet) as two footballs fields measured end-to-end.
- Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the USA, contains enough water to flood the entire state of New York with 1 foot of water (26 million acre feet).
- Between 1931 and 1936 when the dam was built, 96 men were killed in industrial accidents. None were buried in the concrete.
- The construction worker’s mascot dog and favorite pet during the building of the dam was buried at Hoover Dam. The grave is near the Hoover Dam Tour Center and can be visited. There is no name on the plaque. This story explains why: http://www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past/nobodys-dog-and-everybodys-dog-while-building-hoover-dam/
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Source: Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum – http://www.bcmha.org/
Source: Hoover Dam, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
Source: Boulder City – PBS. http://www.pbs.org/bouldercity/script.htm
1. Main Photo: Hoover Dam Tour Center, Nevada – mural of construction workers – June 5, 2014, by Judy Berman
2. Photo: Boulder City – cottages built by Six Companies Inc.: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation. Engineering and Research Center – April 1, 1932 http://research.archives.gov/description/293623
3. Photo: Boulder City – bus to transport workers to Hoover Dam, capacity 150 men:Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation. Engineering and Research Center – July 27, 1933 http://research.archives.gov/description/293924
4. Photo: Hoover Dam – June 5, 2014, by Judy Berman
5. Photo: Hoover Dam – mascot – memorial to dog beloved by the construction workers at Hoover Dam. Taken – April 13, 2012. Filed in wikimedia.org. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/73/Hoover_Dam%2C_Wikiexp_21.jpg/640px-Hoover_Dam%2C_Wikiexp_21.jpg Used with permission by photographer: Adam Kliczek, http://zatrzymujeczas.pl (CC-BY-SA-3.0)