Roadside America

Hoover Dam on the Colorado River

The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel, truly one of the great monuments to American ingenuity and strength. Like Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I couldn’t help being struck by the sheer size of the dam. It was a massive project on an unprecedented scale, like the ancient pyramids. An entire city was built to house the thousands of workers.

The Hoover Dam spans the Black Canyon on the Colorado River, between Nevada and Arizona. U.S. Route 93 used to cross the dam, but a bypass was opened in 2010 to divert traffic away from the structure. The steel and concrete bridge, called the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, is impressive in itself. The bridge is 1,900 feet long and 900 feet above the Colorado River.

The dam was built between 1931 and 1936 and cost $49 million ($700 million today). It was originally called the Boulder Dam, but Congress changed its name in 1947 in honor of former President Herbert Hoover. It rises 726.4 feet and spans 1,244 feet.

Between 3,000 and 5,250 workers toiled in hot, dry conditions and lived in shanty towns or nearby Boulder City. It’s estimated 112 people died constructing the dam, but this doesn’t include those who succumbed to pneumonia (perhaps carbon monoxide poisoning) and heat stroke. They used 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete to finish the project.

Like many buildings and structures from the 1930s, its chief architect, Gordon B. Kaufmann, designed it in Art Deco style. Norwegian-born sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen designed the famous sculpture of two bronze, winged figures. Beneath them he placed a map depicting the exact position of the stars in the Northern Hemisphere the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam.

On my way to Las Vegas, I arrived at the dam before the visitor center opened, and on the way back I got there just after it closed, so I never had a chance to take a proper tour. The visitor center is open from 9am to 5pm. There are some free parking lots, but it’s quite a hike across the dam to reach the visitor center. It costs $10 to use the nearby parking garage. The view is breathtaking, if not a little a too high for my tastes, and this national monument is not to be missed.

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