Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Colossus by Michael Hiltzik

colossusOn December the 20th 1922 a survey barge belonging to the Bureau of Reclamation was caught in a violent squall on the Colorado River in Boulder Canyon and one of the men on board, a driller by the name of J Gregory Tierney, was killed. His was the first life to be claimed by the Boulder Canyon Project, which would eventually result in the construction of what we now know as the Hoover Dam. The first – but far from the last. By the time the completed dam was officially handed over to the US Government on the 1st of March 1935, over 200 construction workers, site crew and civilians had died – including 16 from heat exhaustion and 42 from what is still officially listed as ‘pneumonia’ in the Bureau’s records, but was almost certainly carbon monoxide poisoning.

Over the centuries, the native tribespeople of the Colorado’s drainage basin had learned to live with the river’s capricious moods. Although not the longest, nor the widest nor the busiest river in the US, it was by far the most violently unpredictable, changing from an unremarkable country waterway to an churning, frenzied torrent within a matter of hours and with precious little warning. But while those first inhabitants accepted the river’s many  unpredictable personalities and structured their lives around its seasonal variations, the white settlers had domination in mind, almost from the outset. They saw the river – and indeed nature itself – as an opponent to be mastered and controlled, and the story of how they set about trying to tame the Colorado is a fascinating one.

Over the years there were several attempts to channel the river and use its waters for irrigation purposes – California’s Imperial Valley is a direct result of those early attempts – but so is the Salton Sea, created by a catastrophic breach of the Imperial Canal in 1905.

Around the same time, the nascent Edison Electric Company of Los Angeles, alive to the potential of the river as a generator of hydro-electricity, started to explore Boulder Canyon with a view to building a dam – but the furthest electricity could be transmitted at the beginning of the 20th Century was around 80 miles, and there were too few potential customers within that radius to make the scheme economically viable. It therefore allowed all of its land options in the area to lapse – including the option on the future site of the Hoover Dam.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Bureau of Reclamation started to look seriously at the Colorado, specifically where it flowed through the steep-sided Boulder Canyon, as a potential source of water and electricity for the dry south-western states. When a geological survey revealed a fault bissecting one of the chosen locations in the canyon, and other potential sites proved too narrow, the Bureau’s attention turned to nearby Black Canyon – and it was there in 1931, after years of bureaucratic wrangling, that the construction of one of the most iconic man-made structures in the world finally began.

By then, America was in the grip of the Great Depression and as a result, when news of the construction jobs to be had in Black Canyon got out, an estimated 10,000  to 15,000 people descended on the area. The brunt of of the invasion was borne by Las Vegas – then no more than a railroad depot of some 5,000 inhabitants – but it could only accommodate a very limited number of  the desperate job-seekers and most of them ended up pitching camp in the desert. One of the largest of such camps was on Hemenway Wash, an alluvial incline at the bend of the Colorado just as it entered Black Canyon. The young government ranger put in charge of policing the 1500 people who accumulated there – Claude Williams – rather whimsically (or possibly egocentrically) called the encampment Williamsville. But the inhabitants had another name for it. They called it Ragtown.

In that dreadful summer of 1931 temperatures regularly reached 120 degrees for 12 hour at a time, and occasionally touched 130 degrees. With almost nothing save blankets and sheets and whatever else they could scratch together to protect them from the heat,16 workers and their family members died from heat prostration. The need for permanent shelter was paramount, but the man tasked with building the workers’ accommodation – that would eventually blossom into Boulder City – had other priorities.

That man was Frank Crowe – and he built dams.

The son of an English woollen mill owner and his Brooklyn-born wife, Crowe followed his elder brother into engineering and joined the US Reclamation Service (shortly to become the Bureau of Reclamation) straight from college in 1905. He was to stay with them for 20 years eventually rising to the rank of Chief Engineer, but in 1925 he accepted a job with the construction firm of Morrison-Knudsen. The move was partly due to frustration with the bureaucracy – and concomitant paperwork –  of working for a government department, but largely because he got wind of the fact that Morrison-Knudsen had joined forces with Utah Construction to put in a bid for the Hoover Dam.

Eventually, it would require the combined forces of six companies – MacDonald and Kahn, Kaiser-Bechtel, Utah Construction, Morrison-Knudsen, Pacific Bridge Company and J F Shea – to muster sufficient up-front capital to put them in the running for the job. Styling themselves – accurately but a little unimaginatively – Six Companies, they tasked Crowe with preparing the bid, which turned out to be a masterpiece of the art of estimation. He came within five-hundredths of one percent of the Bureau of Reclamation’s own estimate.

Frank Crowe is the great enigma at the heart of the Hoover Dam. Although there are hundreds of anecdotes about him from those who worked for him and with him, those who knew him and those who loved him, not one of those stories really tells you anything about the man himself. He threw up a protective screen around himself that it seems not even his family could penetrate. Marion Allen – a construction worker who laboured on Crowe worksites for a quarter of a century – summed it up best when he said, laconically:

I only knew him for 20 or 25 years, and I didn’t know him.

Crowe’s workforce were fiercely loyal to him, following him from job to job, and his ‘way’ with the roughnecks on the construction sites was legendary … but his reputation was partly built on carefully avoiding getting his hands dirty in labour disputes. He let other people take the flak. One of those people was the humane and long-suffering Walker ‘Brig’ Young –  the Bureau of Reclamation’s Construction Engineer on the Hoover Dam, whom Crowe had known and worked with for many years. It was Young’s thankless task to rein in Crowe’s headlong and impetuous rush to get the job done well ahead of schedule. It was also Young who had to cope with the industrial unrest amongst the construction workers, stirred up by the IWW, from which Crowe carefully distanced himself.

The truth was that Crowe apparently cared very little for the welfare of those who worked for him. Walker Young virtually had to put him in an armlock to get him to complete the workers’ accommodation in Boulder City – nor did he seem unduly perturbed by the mounting death toll on the construction site: high scalers on the canyon sides falling to their death or being brained by falling rock, men trapped under concrete,  men caught in explosions as rock was blasted apart, men crushed by vehicles and – most contentiously – dying , literally like flies, during the digging of the four massive diversion tunnels intended to take the Colorado around the dam site while the concrete was being poured. The tunnels were thick with exhaust fumes from the trucks toing and froing with the rubble hewn from the tunnels walls by the army of workers with pneumatic drills. According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s records, 42 construction workers died from ‘pneumonia’ – but there were no recorded cases of pneumonia amongst either the support workers or any of the families in the area. The ‘pneumonia’ only struck down the men who worked in the tunnels. Those workers who took their cases to court found themselves the victims of completely ruthless character assasination – mostly the handiwork of the notorious Glenn ‘Bud’ Bodell – the swaggering and deeply unpleasant chief ranger on the ‘reservation’ who frequently took law enforcement quite literally into his own hands.

The reason for the duplicity was simple. If they were deemed to have died from natural causes, Six Companies didn’t have to pay compensation.

We can never be sure what caused Crowe’s lack of empathy with his fellow human beings … he knew how to handle them, he knew how to get the best out of them … but he exploited them ruthlessly. Hiltzik posits the early death of his first wife, from a pregnancy-related infection that also killed their unborn child, followed by the subsequent deaths of two more children of his second marriage as possible causes of his detachment from the human race, but whatever the roots of it, he was seldom found ‘siding’ with the working men. Wages were driven right down to rock bottom because Crowe and  Six Companies knew that they were the only game in town. Similarly, until fairly late on in construction, the workers could only buy food in the company store.  The bottom line was profit. Six Companies was raking in bonuses for early completion of the various stages in construction, and Crowe himself was in line for a substantial chunk of those profits, but still they paid their workers – the men who were making them rich in the middle of the Depression – as little as they could get away with.

The dam was eventually completed more than two years ahead of schedule, and Crowe walked away with a bonus of $350,000 – equivalent in today’s money to about $5,000,000 (£3,250,000).

But that wasn’t the end of the story. No-one had ever built a dam the size of the Hoover Dam before and a lot of its construction was down to educated guesswork. As early as 1937, the strain began to show. Water – notoriously efficient at seeking out imperfections and weaknesses – started seeping into the dam.  Although the geology of Black Canyon was deemed to be stable, the building excavation works revealed hitherto unsuspected faults and trenches. The grout curtain designed to increase the water-tightness wasn’t working properly and had to be reinstalled – a process that took longer to complete than the building of the dam itself. Nor did anyone foresee that the 41.5 billion tons of water backed up in Lake Mead would deform the earth’s crust sufficiently to caused earthquakes – which persisted well into the 1960s. The spillways were another problem. Designed to take the overflow in times of flood, their first experimental use resulted in the them being reduced to rubble. Remedial works were carried out but the problem recurred the next time they were used in the 1980s. They were repaired again – but haven’t been tried since, so nobody knows if the fault has been overcome. That’s because the level of Lake Mead is dropping dramatically. In the heat of the canyonlands, the evaporation rate is colossal. Lake Mead loses about 7.5 feet per year – and that volume is not being replaced by the water flowing into the lake. There is a real danger of it drying up.

Michael Hiltzik’s account of the above does a quite remarkable job of making a complex story both understandable and compulsively readable, even  for a comparative layman like me. It’s a warts and all account: admiring of the extraordinary achievement – the determination and courage of the men  who actually built the dam, the pure grit of their utterly amazing women and of the flawed genius that was Frank Crowe – but cleared eyed about the callousness, the gross iniquities, the brutality and – to modern eyes – the sheer inadvisability of the undertaking.

It is highly unlikely that the Hoover Dam would be built today. Then, the Colorado – and indeed the environment in general – was seen as a resource for exploitation, something to be tamed. President Roosevelt viewed it as his New Deal made manifest. No-one worried about the effects on the environment, the loss of habitat, the flora and fauna lost beneath Lake Mead – or even, incredible as it now seems to us, the  unbroken line of ancient villages, dating back to 500AD which were lost in the inundation. In that respect, at least, the world has moved on.

The Hoover Dam claimed its final construction victim in 1935 – shortly before it was handed over to the US Government. On the 20th of December, Patrick Tierney, a 23 year old Reclamation electrician, fell to his death from one of the four intake towers – exactly 13 years to the day after his father drowned in Boulder Canyon.

Free Press. A division of Simon and Schuster. 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4165-3216-3. 496pp.

3 comments on “Colossus by Michael Hiltzik

  1. Jackie
    June 28, 2013

    Wow, what an excellent and clear review of a book with such a vast amount of information. I do like how it, and you, point out the human cost of such a project, something that usually gets lost when contemplating an accomplishment like this. The environmental impact also was bad too. This looks like a really objective overview of not just a pivotal project, but also the attitudes and personalities involved.

  2. Jay Benedict
    July 2, 2013

    Interesting reading. Having played Frank Crowe in an award winning Drama Doc some 10 years ago for the BBC the one thing I’d say is that if you’ve spent 27 years on river bottoms building dams you ARE going to be a little remote and maybe even weird ….Much like a distant cousin of mine who was a famous U-Boat commander during the war and had spent the entire time under water he couldn’t quite get his head round the death camps and was in denial over it right until his death. I think Frank Crowe was a practical man and got the job done ahead of schedule and was greatly rewarded for it. He was a driven man with tunnel vision. Incidentally he paid the high scalers a dollar more ‘cos they were higher up and a lot of native Americans took up those posts as they had no fear of heights!! There was no environment out there-It was desert. What he did was open the mid-west and provide most of southern California with it’s electricity, still today! MH is right about the drying up of the dam though and that is worrying but the idea of making walls 56ft in diameter to re-route the mighty Colorado took some chutzpah. He also lost 30lbs in weight as soon as he arrived on account of the 3 piece woollen suits they wore back then and no air conditioning as yet. I’m not completely sticking up for him but he did have a lot of redeeming features.

  3. Jackie
    July 3, 2013

    Er, the desert is certainly “an environment”, a viable ecosystem with plants and animals. Just because it’s not a welcoming place for humans doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist as a habitat.

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