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The Behemoth of Black Canyon : HOOVER DAM An American Adventure by Joseph E. Stevens (University of Oklahoma Press: $24.95; 326 pp., illustrated)

May 01, 1988|Charles Bowden | Bowden edits City Magazine in Tucsn, Ariz. His most recent book is "Frog Mountain Blues" (univrsity of Arizona Press, 1987)

I know an old man who regrets to this day that as a young knockabout in his 20s, he didn't get a job on the gangs building Hoover Dam. Joseph Stevens' excellent new history helps baby-boomers like me understand why. And to be startled at the immense distance Americans, as a people, have traveled since 5,000 men plugged the Colorado River in the inferno of Black Canyon. This book captures the barbarity of the work and the pride of a younger nation that was still conquering nature with no regrets.

The story begins with contractor William Wattis dying of cancer in San Francisco and helping to spin from his deathbed the consortium that became Six Companies, that nursery of modern giants such as Kaiser, Bechtel and Utah International. It ends with the dam built and in place, a job accomplished 2 years, 1 month, 28 days ahead of schedule and under budget. In between these two moments lie a lot of ingenuity, hard work and death.

Four major characters stalk the pages: the management, the laborers, the river and the dam itself. For the engineers and contractors, this was the challenge of a lifetime. As Wattis argued, "Now this dam is just a dam but it's a damn big dam."

The Colorado River, the reason for a damn big dam, carried enough silt each year to cover 214 square miles a foot deep in mud and offered wildly swinging flows that dismayed those who, like the developers of the Imperial Valley, liked farms, towns and steady returns on their investments. For the workers, the project was often a widow-maker--in one month of 1931, 14 men died from the heat, the fevered victims arriving at Las Vegas hospitals with body temperatures of 112.

Stevens focuses on the work, the brutal labor of men digging 24 hours a day in diversion tunnels where the summer temperatures hit 140 degrees and the nerve-jangling gambles of the engineers creating the then-biggest dam on Earth with techniques and equipment they made up as they went along.

Because President Herbert Hoover wanted jobs created instantly, thousands came to the canyon for work before there was any housing. They lived in cardboard shanties or under cars in dumps like Ragtown.

"Some of the men," Stevens explains, "were even losing their sanity in the inferno of Black Canyon and on the baking sands of the river flat. Marshal Claude Williams was summoned to Ragtown one especially hot afternoon to investigate a report . . . Williams found the boys staked out, naked, in the burning sunlight, their deranged father sitting nearby."

Unlike the traditional bachelor construction camps, Hoover was built by men who brought their wives and children, and the families suffered much that first summer. The thermometer would idle between 115 and 120 degrees.

"Like many other women, Erma Godbey had been working valiantly to make the Ragtown encampment as decent a home as possible for her husband and children, but she was approaching the limits of her endurance. She had been sunburned very badly, and the dry desert air and hours spent stooping over a smoldering cook fire had blistered and cracked her face. . . . On July 26, she finally reached her breaking point. That day, three Ragtown women died of heat prostration. Two of the corpses were taken to a mortuary in Las Vegas, but no vehicle was available to transport the third, and it lay for several hours in the afternoon sun, bloating horribly. . . . When Tom Godbey got home from work, he found his wife in a state of panic."

Stevens writes the kind of narrative all but destroyed by the academic voodoo of the modern university, one where living people manage to make the page even while the text carefully explains corporate politics, federal maneuvers, technological innovations, and the big forces we sometimes call history.

He effortlessly interweaves his story of the men and the work with problems in concrete pouring (construction breakthroughs at Hoover prevented the dam from taking more than 125 years to cool), union busting by the Six Companies (they faced a last gasp of World War I), racism (until Roosevelt won, the dam was a whites-only project), greed overruling decency (Stevens makes a strong case that Six Companies saved money by knowingly letting the men be poisoned by carbon monoxide), urban planning for Boulder City, and the history of the Colorado River and the Imperial Valley.

He also destroys a few favored myths (there are no men buried in the concrete of Hoover Dam, much to my surprise). The book reminds one of the force and detail of David McCullough's wonderful work, "The Great Bridge."

The dam itself stalks the story as a dream slowly coming into being, a slab of concrete 726.4 feet high, 660 feet wide at the bottom and 45 feet wide at the top. Anyone who has ever crossed the desert and had the white enormity (it's as high as a 60-story building) flare up into view against the dark rock knows Hoover means more than the numbers. It is the finest piece of public art ever created in the Southwest, a perfect form that perfectly functions.

We no longer worship dams, nor hate wild rivers. There are T-shirts suggesting the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover's giant upstream neighbor. But the thing men created in Black Canyon during the height of the Depression seems immune to this change in our national attitudes. To see it is to love it, regardless of one's environmental beliefs.

Stevens helps us understand how this monument came into being. And the blood price paid by the thousands of people who helped build it.

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