Hoover Dam, Ragtown and Dingbat Houses

Hoover Dam - June 2014   (9)

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)

Boulder City - cottages built by Six Companies, Inc. - save

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.

Boulder City - bus to transport workers to Hoover Dam - save

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 - June 2014   (7)

  • 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.

Hoover Dam - mascot

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider, earth-rider.com, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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)

    1. Thank you for your comments. It was fun finding out the story behind the construction of the dam.

      I love the new look and name of your blog, “Apple Pie and Napalm.” 😉

  1. What a fascinating story this one was. As a Canadian I knew only bits and pieces of the Hoover Dam history but you have woven the full tapestry. Thank you.

    1. My work here is done then, timethief. There was quite a bit that was unknown to me as well and my folks lived in Boulder City for several years. Thank you. I’m glad you liked my story. 😉

  2. Interesting story about a site I visited years ago.

    Some observations: According to your description, the dingbat houses lacked a kitchen. Now I know why the word dingbat is such a disparaging epithet – something ‘s missing! And, who knew the undertaker would be the busiest man in town. Your post proves the back-story is always more interesting than what we read in history books. Thanks, Judy!

    1. Marian, you make a convincing case for the origin of dingbat. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice the lack of a kitchen in the homes. Now I wonder where they cooked or if that was just an omission. When I think of “dingbat,” I always think of Edith Bunker (played by Jean Stapleton) in “All in the Family.”

      This is the part of history I love most – the part that’s not in the history books. Thank you. 😉

  3. I love the sentimental touch of the dog tribute. Under such grueling conditions, I’m sure that canine provided much-needed cheer.

    1. I saw the memorial to the dog and can understand why he’d be everyone’s dog. I’m sure he did provide much-needed cheer and comfort to all who were so far from home. 😉

  4. My grandmother’s foster sister was born in a dingbat house, Judy. And her foster father allowed them to keep a dog to bark and warn the women and children (and new baby) to be on the watch while the men were off working. My grandmother said they fed the dog leftovers, but since there weren’t many leftovers, they made a little extra oatmeal or cream of wheat, and the dog ate that.
    Great post. Your pictures rounded out the few my grandmother had in her memory album.

    1. Our tour bus drove thru Boulder City on our way to Hoover Dam. I wish I had my folks’ address when they lived there and had a chance to look at the home they rented. The area is an historic site now – not sure how long this has been the case though.

      Marilyn, from the descriptions I read, they went thru hard times. It was not easy living there then, but those dingbat houses were shelter. I’m sure the dog was a great comfort, especially with so many strangers in the area.

      Thank you for your comments. 😉

  5. We need public works projects like this now. One figure has 40,000 bridges in disrepair some even crumbling. But they spend millions a day on stupid wars that have not made anything better in the slightest. One I would do is plant millions of trees putting thousands to work on federal lands – The Reforestation of North America Project.

    1. Thank you, Thom. Some I heard at my folks’ knees. Others I learned much later. The Boulder City Hoover Dam Museum is a treasure, filled with stories during this time. 😉

  6. A dust bowl and a depression. Would people have the stamina and resilience to survive that today? I hope the next time I’m tempted to whine about some minor inconvenience in my life, I think of this post. Thanks, Judy.

    1. The folks in the 1930s were a hardy lot and many weathered the storm. My Mom’s Dad passed during the early part of the Depression, leaving his wife with nine kids. They got thru it by working together.

      Charles, I hope that we will find that we’re tough enough to get thru the hurdles in life long before a situation like this arises.

  7. Fascinating history earthrider! We stopped in Boulder City, Nevada once and thought what a nice little town it is now. The dam has had some magnificent and amazing upgrades too.

    1. Dor … Thank you. It was fun learning about the beginnings of Boulder City and Hoover Dam. From what I just looked up online, it appears that the Boulder City Historic District was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. At that time, the district included 514 buildings and structures, most of which were constructed between 1931 and 1942.

      My folks rented a home there – doubt it was one of the historic sites – in the late 1960s. Then they moved to Vegas. 😉

  8. Whenever I read historical stories like this I always think how tremendously tough mentally and physically those people must have been in those days! That Dingbat housing estate makes me think of a concentration camp – not because of it’s purpose but just something about the style of little wooden houses all in rows. But despite all that dust blowing in, it must have been some relief from a rough camp, that must have been dreadful. And snakes, there must have been snakes! 😐

    It’s good to think on these times and the people who built those roads and wonderful old buildings that we really take for granted most of the time, and give some thought to the sweat and tears that went into it all. My Dad was a carpenter most of his life, and worked hard on all kinds of construction sites and roads from the 40’s to the 70’s, so I guess I relate to these men of history as they were somebody’s father, or son, and they mattered! 🙂

    There are a lot of ancient buildings where I live and some are nearly a 1000 years old now, I’m not keen on a lot of the heavy religiousness that our city cathedral has, but I take a look at those intricate patterns in the ceilings sometimes and try to look at it as art and appreciate all the hard work that went into those many years it took to build that huge ornate building.

    That poor dog!!! I bet the driver of that truck was popular after he rolled the wheels over that beloved dog – that must have been terrible day!

    1. Actually the Dingbat housing estate, to me, looks like many of the housing sites they cram in together now. Not very appealing. Yes, snakes and many other critters you wouldn’t want to entertain in your home.

      But the Hoover Dam that they worked on is an engineering marvel and many died to make that site happen. Those who worked there definitely mattered. I think of them in the same vein as those who built the pyramids. Amazing work that was built to last.

      Suzy … I agree. What a sad, terrible ending for that dog. I also feel bad for the driver of the truck that rolled over their mascot. That man must have felt terrible. It sounds like the dog was a true companion to all those who worked there.

  9. Great post, Judy. I remember the first time I visited the dam being overwhelmed at the magnitude of the thing. The story of the dog is so touching. Can you imagine being the guy that rolled over him? Interesting backstory about the dog’s name too. Yes, the most interesting history never seems to reside in the textbooks. Thanks for this marvelous post.

    1. Barbara, I know I’d be heart sick if I was the guy whose truck rolled over that dog. I’m sure he was, too.

      When I was a kid, I read columnist Jim Bishop and I was fascinated how he made history come alive in his writing. I thought then, and still do, that history would be a lot more exciting and relevant to students – and the rest of us – if those stories were part of the lesson. Some history teachers do a great job of bringing those backstories in. Bless them. 😉

      1. I was very lucky to have a few history teachers like that. One in particular who brought Ancient Rome to life and ignited a fierce interest in history which is with me still. I’ve never understood people who say “Oh, that was before my time…” and dismiss it as if it weren’t relevant to life right now. Of course every moment of history is relevant to our current lives. That’s what good history teachers manage to get across.

        comment from earthrider to Silver in the Barn:
        I know what you mean Barbara. I had a few history teachers that inspired me to want to know more. My Mom’s keen interest in history certainly added to that quest. When I started teaching English Language Arts, I asked to sit in on lessons that the history teacher on my team was expanding on about the Holocaust. It’s a required subject in the state of Florida, but the history book had only a few scant paragraphs about it. She brought the subject to life by having the kids role play and do activities related to it – such as making butterflies in connection with the book, “I never saw another butterfly,” which is a collection of children’s drawings and poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-44.

  10. Thank you for that very informative post Judy. Few of us spare a thought to the sacrifices of those that worked to make these architectural feats possible.

    1. The workers’ efforts made these architectural marvels possible. Many died so that it could be completed. Like those who built the pyramids or bridges, they should not be forgotten. Glad you liked the post, Madhu.

  11. Truly an inspiring story of human triumph against all odds and hardship. It is humbling experience to read the story of Great Depression. Today, so many complain and whine about the economy and all yet as compared to the 1930’s way of life, so many live like there’s no tomorrow. How can someone say they are poor when they have the latest smartphone, an expensive car, a full grocery of food and eat in buffet restaurants? How can they complain about jobs nowadays but don’t try to find one. Set aside those who really try all they can do to make something of themselves and help their families, work odd jobs and labor with blood, swear and tears, so many who say they are in poverty today’s time doesn’t know what that really means. The Great Depression is a clear example of a nation truly in crisis but also showed a nation working together in the most difficult of circumstances as one heart with one common goal, a better life for all. The past has so much to teach us. May we all learn from it. A great nation will remain great for as long as it’s people strive to overcome hardship as one and look pass beyond color, cultural and socioeconomic diversity. There is hope…

    1. Beautifully stated, Island Traveler. I heard many stories about the Great Depression from my folks when I was growing up. My Mom’s Dad died about 1934, leaving his wife and nine children. I know it was a struggle for them. Times when there was little to eat. Times when they all pulled together to overcome the hurdles. I hope you’re right. I hope that people will learn from this experience. This maxim is true: If we do not learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it.

  12. You’ve done a very difficult thing here, my friend: you’ve made history come alive, and given it a very human face. Your research and writing skills are on full display here. These are the kinds of stories that really instill a love of history.

    I knew next to nothing about Hoover Dam. To call it a fascinating story would be an understatement. Your choice of photos was perfect– they enhanced your text beautifully. Many thanks, Judy, for a truly wonderful post!

    P.S. Loved your Vegas post, and the one that sketched out your blogging history as well. Sorry I was a little too late to leave comments on them!!

    1. I’m truly delighted by your comments, Mark. For me, history was always more enjoyable and understandable when I could “see” the people who lived at that time. Thank you for the compliments on my research, writing skills and photos. I’m the one blushing in the corner. 😉

      Vegas was a hoot. It’s always a good time when we get together with my brother. Your comments are never too late when you throw laurels at me. Thanks again. 😉

Comments are closed.