Hoover Dam has become something of a liberal icon these days. President Obama points to it as an example of the sort of federally funded projects that once “unleashed all the potential in this country” — potential that his next round of stimulus will unleash again. MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow has pointed to the 726-foot-high, 660-foot-wide dam as proof that some projects are just too big for private enterprise. “You can’t be the guy that built this,” she tells the TV screen. Only government can, is the implication.
Well, that would come as a surprise to the guy who did build it – or, rather, the guys who did, with their private companies. In the five-year process they discovered, even back then, that the biggest obstacle they faced in Black Canyon wasn’t nature or the Great Depression, but New Deal Washington.
The truth was, construction on the scale of Hoover Dam lay far beyond the powers of the federal government — in 1931 or even later. Four and a half million cubic yards of concrete — enough to build a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York — and 19 million pounds of reinforcing steel somehow had to be moved into the middle of the Nevada wilderness to construct both the dam and a 1.2-million-horsepower electric plant. Thousands of tons of loose rock then had to be scraped by hand from the surface of Black Canyon, before massive tunnels could be dug to divert the Colorado River to power the plant and then fill a reservoir 115 miles long with a 550-mile shoreline.
The heads of the consortium of six private construction firms that won the $48 million contract, which came to be known as “the Big Six,” weren’t the kind of business leaders who would appear on a presidential jobs commission today. Idaho builders Harry Morrison and Morris Knudsen (of Morrison-Knudsen), Utah Construction’s Bill Wattis, and California road-makers Henry Kaiser and Warren Bechtel (whose company later became the bête noire of the American Left) had all left school early to do manual labor. Kaiser had quit at 14; as a teenager, Bill Wattis had pounded rail spikes for the Union Pacific Railroad; Pacific Bridge’s Charlie Shea smoked foul-smelling cigars and dressed like one of his workmen. Only the heads of the venerable San Francisco construction firm Kahn and MacDonald had ever attended college, and Alan MacDonald had been such a misfit that he was fired from 15 different jobs before partnering with Felix Kahn.
Indeed, in 1931, only Morrison and his architect Frank Crowe knew much about building dams (at one point Kahn and MacDonald had tried their hand at it and failed).
But what they all did have was experience in big construction projects and mines, and a dedicated knack for doing the impossible. They and their workers and engineers built not only the dam, but also all the roads, railways, and other infrastructure necessary to bring in their equipment and materials. Kaiser and his partners even built an entire town (today’s Boulder City) to house their 5,200-strong work force.
And through it all the Six Companies had a running battle with Washington and the Interior Department.
Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had seen the dam as essentially a federal make-work project for the unemployed. Kaiser and his colleagues had to point out that they needed men with genuine skills, not just people willing to turn up for a paycheck. Ickes wanted the door open to union organizing; the builders convinced him the key to happy workers was paying them well, not giving them a union card. Ickes wanted every federal health and safety regulation to be rigorously enforced, and counted no fewer than 70,000 violations of the letter of the contract. They patiently showed him that applying those standards would mean the dam would never be finished on time, let alone on budget.
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.