Union organizers did turn up to agitate, and there were two strikes that halted work. But by and large, the men who worked seven days a week, ten hours a day on Hoover Dam proved union-resistant. They fought heat stroke, dust storms, falling rocks, poisonous snakes and Gila monsters, and a constant lack of clean water in temperatures that rose to 120 degrees in summer and plunged to 20 degrees in winter, and all for an average of 75 cents an hour.
But they sensed that Kaiser and the Six Companies had given them more than a paycheck at a time when one out of every five Americans were out of work. They had given them a sense of pride and accomplishment — not to mention steel safety helmets, making Hoover Dam the nation’s first “hard hat” construction job.
When the epic job was finished ahead of schedule, and some $4 million under budget, one of the workers wrote:
Abe Lincoln freed the Negroes
And old Nero he burned Rome,
But the Big Six helped depression
When they gave the stiff a home.
When President Roosevelt came to the dedication on Sept. 30, 1935, he said, “This morning I came, I saw, and I was conquered, as everyone will be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind.”
Except it wasn’t. Hoover Dam was the great feat of American business. If President Obama is looking for the imagination and ambition that will get this country moving again, that’s where he’ll find it, rather than in Washington.
— Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.