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A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75

When construction was completed in 1936, the Hoover Dam was not only the world's largest concrete structure and the world's largest hydroelectric power-generating station; it was also the largest dam on Earth -- and tripled the size of all existing dams.

But the process to design and build the dam was not an easy one.

New construction and excavation equipment had to be designed and trucked into the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. Thousands of workers suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning and poor working conditions. And flaws in the initial construction made the Hoover Dam preciously vulnerable to tipping over until repairs were made years later.

In his new book, Colossus, journalist Michael Hiltzik follows the construction of the Hoover Dam, from initial political battles waged in Washington to the engineering projects designed for the project on the Colorado River.

In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hiltzik describes the way the Hoover Dam transformed the American West -- and why utility companies didn't want it to be built in the first place.

"The private utilities were very concerned that once a dam like the 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 methods of distribution. And that's really one thing they didn't want to happen," he explains. "But there was a very powerful campaign for public power at the same time and over the years, the utilities and the power advocates fought tooth and nail to gain advantage over each other."

Hiltzik covered business, technology and national affairs for the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. He is also the author of The Plot Against Social Security, Dealers of Lightning and A Death in Kenya.

Interview Highlights

On what the Hoover Dam looks like

"It's this beautiful smooth wedge of alabaster concrete set in the middle of this harsh gorge set in the middle of 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 1920s and 1930s -- machine-age architecture -- so it projects this great bulk and this great power. And at the same time, it's got this tremendous elegance."

On Herbert Hoover's role in the construction of the Hoover Dam

"Herbert Hoover's role in creating the dam is equivocal -- and really, 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 treaty (these were seven states that had been squabbling over water rights on the river for 20 years), Hoover -- who was commerce secretary at the time -- was appointed by his president, Warren Harding, to serve as adult supervisor for these negotiations. And he really managed the negotiations so that they got a compact in 1922. Without that, Congress would have never approved the dam. So it was crucial. His role can't be minimized. But in later years, he overstated his role because he understood this was such a magnificent project and such an important project, that he wanted to make sure his role was well understood."

On testing concrete samples

"This wasn't only the biggest dam in the world at the time; it was more than three times the size of the biggest dam that had ever been built. And it was such a quantum leap ahead in [terms of] engineering demand, that builders were literally inventing the necessary building and construction techniques as they went along. They had to invent new formulations of concrete because mass concrete had never been subjected to the stresses and strains that the concrete of this dam was going to have to withstand. ... The federal government created two labs for the concrete to be tested; they enlisted the University of California [and] the University of Colorado to test other formulations. And they even built a test dam in a California river valley -- they built it so it could be destroyed, so they could see what kinds of stresses and strains this dam would undergo."

On some of the problems cited by environmentalists against dam construction

"When you dam a river, basically you reduce the flow downstream. That's going to affect wildlife habitats. In certain rivers, you're going to destroy the spawning grounds for fish like salmon, you're going to destroy wetlands -- you're really interfering with a lot of the ecological balance when you build a dam. That's not the only reason dams have 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. It's wiser today 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, more efficient and ecologically friendly."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.