A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75 When the Hoover Dam was finished in 1935, it was three times larger than any other dam on the planet. Journalist Michael Hiltzik examines the humongous engineering achievement — including how the Hoover Dam was conceived, designed and built — in a new book, Colossus.
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A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75

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A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75

A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75

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The American West would look very different today without Hoover Dam. By harnessing the Colorado River, the dam brought water and hydroelectricity to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and San Diego. But cities that owe their evolution to the dam have also become its prisoners, writes Michael Hiltzik in his new book, "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century."

He says as astonishing and durable as the dam has proven to be, a modern perspective requires us to ask dark questions, including whether it was right to even build the dam. His book examines the architecture, politics and environmental impact of Hoover Dam. Hiltzik is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has written for the LA Times for more than 20 years.

Michael Hiltzik, welcome to FRESH AIR. When I went to see the Hoover Dam, I was expecting to not be very interested. I was nearby, so I figured I'd stop by and take a look, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It was amazing. It was just so architecturally amazing. I just found it overwhelming. Do you want to describe for our listeners who haven't seen the Hoover Dam what the experience is like and what it looks like?

Mr. HILTZIK: Sure. It's this beautiful smooth wedge of alabaster concrete set in the middle of this harsh gorge and in the most unforgiving landscape you can imagine. And it's got this machine beauty. It's a great exemplar of a style of architecture that became very popular in the '20s and '30s - machine age architecture. So it projects this great bulk and this great power and at the same time, it's got a tremendous elegance. And that was the product of its architect - its exterior architect - a man name Gordon Kaufmann who was brought in to do that. And Kaufmann looked at the original plans for the dam, which were full of all sorts of decoration and architectural gingerbread and he stripped that all away and what he left is this sort of svelte, elegant product that really is striking in this harsh rough-hewn environment.

GROSS: So, in looking at the Hoover Dam, what did Herbert Hoover actually have to do with the creation of the Hoover Dam?

Mr. HILTZIK: Herbert Hoover's role in creating the dam is really equivocal and so equivocal that when his name was placed on the dam by his own Interior secretary, it was a very controversial step. But he did have a very important role very early in the dam project, and that was when the seven states had to come together and reach an interstate compact - an interstate treaty. They sat down - these were seven states that had been squabbling over water rights on the river for 20 years.

Hoover was Commerce secretary at the time. He was appointed by his president, Warren Harding, to serve as sort of adult supervision of these negotiations. And he arranged - he really managed the negotiations so that they got a compact in 1922. Now without that, Congress would never have approved the dam, so it was really crucial. So his role can't be minimized. But in later years, he overstated his role because he understood that this was such a magnificent project and such an important project that he wanted to make sure that his role was well understood.

GROSS: Hoover Dam was built in spite of the public utility companies. The Federal Trade Commission exposed that the utilities tried to prevent the dam from being built back in the 1920s. What was the utilities' campaign to prevent the dam from being built?

Mr. HILTZIK: The utilities at the time that the dam was being conceived had already been engaged in a 10- or 20-year campaign against public power. Now, Los Angeles had really drawn a line in the sand against the private utilities by seizing the power grid of the Edison Company and operating it as a municipal utility. And the private utilities were very concerned that once a dam like Hoover Dam was built, because it would be producing so much hydroelectricity, that the power it produced would become a benchmark for their pricing and their rates and their methods of distribution, and that's one thing they really did not want to happen.

But there was a very powerful campaign for public power at the same time. And over the years the utilities and the public power advocates fought tooth and nail to gain advantage over each other.

Now, the utilities, they spent millions upon millions of dollars to defeat not only Hoover Dam, but the Muscle Shoals Project in the East, which became part of the TVA. They paid for textbooks to be written to promote the advantages of private power. They paid off college professors. They bribed lawmakers in state Houses and in Congress with thousands upon thousands of dollars, and they did this all sub-rosa. They created all sorts of front organizations that had to be investigated before you understood that these were really utility fronts. And as you say, it was the Federal Trade Commission, much to everybody's surprise, because the FTC was not known as an aggressive regulator, that finally exposed all this.

GROSS: So what happened after it was exposed?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, it was such an embarrassment for lawmakers to be exposed as having taken bribes from the private utilities that that exposure actually helped the dam get approved by Congress. It was touch and go right up to the point that all of these disclosures came out. And these disclosures really tipped the scales.

GROSS: The building of Hoover Dam, and this is the largest federal contract ever, coincides with the Great Depression, so what impact did the Depression have on the building of the dam?

Mr. HILTZIK: It's important to understand that the dam was not originally conceived as a Depression-era project. Its conception goes all the way back to 1905, when Southern California was subjected to terrible floods from the Colorado River. And then the efforts to get it approved by Congress really started back in the early '20s.

But when the Depression started and Hebert Hoover was president, one of the programs that he did believe in in terms of fighting unemployment was to build up public works. He urged states and municipalities to step up their construction and he was willing to put federal money behind federal projects.

Now at the time, federal construction budget was tiny. It was $150 million a year. Hoover Dam or the Boulder Canyon Dam Project, as it was known at the time, was going to cost 165 million all by itself. But when Hoover wanted to jumpstart a public works program, he looked around and because the federal budget was so small, there weren't a lot of shovel-ready projects, to use a current term, but there was this dam project which had been approved by Congress. The project had been signed into law by Calvin Coolidge. The engineering had all been done, so he cleared the way. The dam wasnt going to be started until sometimes in the mid-30's but Hoover ordered it started early in 1930.

GROSS: Hoover Dam has an incredible amount of concrete and its just amazingly and beautifully poured and designed and its almost hallucinatory when you gaze down from on top of the dam and you see the slope of the concrete and the symmetry of it. As remarkable as Hoover Dam is as a work of design and architecture, part of it actually really didnt work. And this is like the grout curtain, and you'll have to describe what the grout curtain is. But this part had to be rebuilt and you say it was rebuilt kind of secretly because they didnt want the public to know that there was such a massive problem.

Mr. HILTZIK: That's true and this something that still doesnt get talked about very much. It's well-known to the engineering community and its well-known to anybody who looks at the technical records of the dam because it was necessary to document what they were doing. But, essentially, when you build a dam there's a phenomenon that dam builders understand called uplift. And what happens is that as water seeps under the dam, under the foundations and around the sides, it presses up on the bulk of the dam and it reduces the dam's effective weight and effectiveness.

Now, that was a phenomenon that was very well understood but what wasnt understood was what the geology really was like underneath the foundations of Hoover Dam. So what happened was that the designers designed what's known as a grout curtain, and that means that they drilled bore holes into the foundations under the dam before the concrete was actually poured, some of them 150 feet deep into the bedrock. And then the idea was to pressure fill them with grout, which is essentially cemented water, so that the grout would penetrate the faults and the cracks and the flaws in the underlying geology and keep water from seeping under the dam and keep uplift from happening.

Now, this was such a new technique and this was such a big dam that they didnt get the grout curtain right. Workers didnt really understand how important their job was in building and filling the bore holes, so if they ran into problems, if they ran into a void that was taking just too much grout they would stop. If they ran into a hot spring and the grout quickset they would stop and they would move on to the next bore hole. So instead of this even line of filled holes, you had what I described as sort of a mouth with a lot of teeth missing.

Now, this wasnt a problem until Lake Mead started filling behind the dam and the pressure of all that water forced water under the dam and out to the sides and the dam sprung a leak. It was leaking from the cliff sides, water was pouring into the galleries inside the dam. They were taking hundreds of buckets out every day. And then when they started measuring the uplift, they really got alarmed because the dam was threatened. The uplift was so bad and the seepage was so great that they feared for the dam's stability.

GROSS: So they had to redo it?

Mr. HILTZIK: They had to redo it. They had to go in, they had to re-bore all those holes. They bore them three, sometimes four times as deep as they did originally. They made sure that all of the grout got absorbed into the bedrock. And they had to do it, of course - now the dam is built, they had to do it from the interior galleries. And weve got photographs in the book of some of the workers sharing this tiny space with their pumps and their drills to get that grout curtain done right. But eventually they did and they were able to reduce the uplift to below the original specifications. But that did take nine years. It took longer to fix than it took to build the original dam.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Michael Hiltzik. We're talking about his new book "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Michael Hiltzik and he's the author of the new book "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century."

So, after Hoover Dam is completed in 1936, you also have this big manmade lake - Lake Mead - that's created as a result of the dam and it's the world's largest manmade body of water. You say that the creation of Lake Mead actually affected climate and the weather.

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, Lake Mead affected more than climate and the weather. Lake Mead - the weight of the water in Lake Mead is so great and, of course, it's focused in such a small part of the topography that Lake Mead created earthquakes in that region. So it's not only the climate but its the seismic conditions of that region that are affected by Lake Mead.

GROSS: You say the weight of Lake Mead, you say it's 41.5 billion tons of water.

Mr. HILTZIK: Yes, 41 billion tons of water on a very small patch of land, so, yes, it deforms the crust of the Earth underneath.

GROSS: So is there proof that that's what caused this big 1939 earthquake across the desert floor between Boulder City and Vegas?

Mr. HILTZIK: I think that's well understood. Seismic experts, yes, theyve determined that it wasnt really the size of Lake Mead but it was the process of filling it, draining it, filling it and draining it, that's what created the earthquakes. Now, after some upstream dams were completed and Lake Mead, the filling and draining slowed down, they got a lot fewer earthquakes.

GROSS: FDR did the dedication when Hoover Dam was opened. He presided over the final part of the dam construction. What was his role in the building of the dam?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, he had very little role. The dam was in fact conceived by Theodore Roosevelt. It was enacted and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge and then it was launched by Herbert Hoover - all Republican presidents. One of the ironies of the story is that during the 1932 presidential campaign, Roosevelt attacked Hoover for his public works spending. This was all deficit spending. In one famous speech during the campaign, Roosevelt really took off after Hoover for overspending the federal budget.

Now, of course, once Roosevelt came into office and this was his project, he took full ownership of it. He came out to dedicate it on September 30, 1935, and it was well noticed by Republicans, certainly at the time, that when he dedicated it, the name of Herbert Hoover was never mentioned in a full day of ceremonies.

It's important to remember also that within a couple of months after taking office, the Roosevelt administration took Hoover's name off the dam and for 14 years the dam was known as Boulder Dam.

GROSS: And how did Hoover's name get back on it?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, Hoover's name got back on it in 1947, when there was a Republican Congress in Washington for the first time in 14 years. Now, at that point, the memories of the Depression had begun to dim and Hoover himself had - his reputation had improved somewhat. He had resumed his role as the chief of war relief, which was the sort of thing that had brought him to national attention during the First World War. So he had much more of a humanitarian reputation by 1947. So the Republican Congress moved to put his name back on the dam and Harry Truman, who was president at the time, and happened to be a friend of Hoover, decided to get out of the way. So his name was restored and it's been on that dam ever since.

GROSS: The building of dams has fallen out of fashion. What are some of the problems that environmentalists now say are created by dams?

Mr. HILTZIK: Well, this is one of the issues that was never considered when Hoover Dam was being built, but when you dam a river, basically, you reduce the flow downstream. That's going to affect wildlife habitats. In certain rivers youre going to destroy the spawning grounds for fish like salmon. Youre going to destroy wetlands. Youre really interfering with a lot of ecological balance when you build a dam.

That's not the only reason that dams have sort of fallen out of favor. Dams are very expensive and the water that they provide for users is very expensive water because of the capital expense of building a dam. These days, it's much wiser - it's seen as much wiser to look for other sources of water supply, including conservation and reclamation. And this is what we try to do now because it's much cheaper, much more efficient and much more ecologically friendly.

GROSS: Well, Michael Hiltzik, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. HILTZIK: My pleasure.

GROSS: Michael Hiltzik is the author of "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century." You can read a chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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