Katie and I were in Las Vegas for a long weekend. Having never been to the Hoover Dam I was hoping for an opportunity to check it out knowing that it was less than an hour away. One afternoon we jumped into the car and headed toward the border of Nevada and Arizona where the world re-owned structure was built and still stands today.
The Hoover Dam sits along the Colorado River. Above it is the man-made Lake Mead, below it lies the Hoover Dam Powerplant. The dam was built during the depression and took less than 5 years to finish. It is a National Historic Landmark and has been rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.
Before the Depression water would flow down the Colorado River unhindered. Depending on the season and the amount of runoff from above, the cities below would be saved or destroyed by the relentless waters. The Hoover Dam was built to tame the river and protect the cities below from anymore harm that might come to them.
As we arrived at the Hoover Dam I got my first glimpse of what everyone had been talking about. However, for some reason I was a little unimpressed by it’s size. Maybe it was due to the bridge they built right nearby which seemed much more amazing to me or maybe I just needed to get a little closer to grasp the immensity. We followed the signs and next thing we knew we had drove over the top on a narrow two way road only about 45 feet wide. Realizing that the Visitor Center was on the Nevada side we back tracked to find a spot to park.
Inside the center we walked through a metal detector and had our stuff checked. Apparently they are very worried someone might harm the Hoover Dam and the Powerplant. We walked up to the ticket sales counter and asked about the tours for the day. The only tour that had open spaces left was the Powerplant Tour so we got two tickets, at $15 each, and made our way to the front of the line. Along the way we took a picture at a green screen, received a ticket to view it later, and sat down on the bench as we waited for the next tour to begin.
While we waited we read up on some Hoover Dam facts. The Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall from the foundation rock to the roadway on the crest of the dam. It is only 45 feet thick at the crest, but 660 feet thick at the foundation. It is 1244 feet long spanning across the Colorado River, weighs 6,600,000 tons and contains 3,250,000 cubic yards of concrete.
Our tour finally started where we were guided into a small theater to watch a short film about the construction of the Hoover Dam. It was really interesting to see the old black and white film of how they diverted the river, built small dams, and filled the square boxes inches at a time to finally create the enormous structure we see today.
After the film was over we took an elevator down into the dam. Here our guide spoke to us about how the Colorado River was diverted through 4 tunnels around the dam that still sit there today, one of which we were currently standing in, and how the workers also built two smaller dams, one to stop the water from reaching the dam construction site from above and another to stop the water from backing up onto the powerplant below. After the tunnels and dams were finished they opened the tunnels and allowed the water to flow through and around the dam site. When the dam was finished they closed three of the four tunnels, allowing the water levels to slowly rise before closing the final tunnel for good.
As they built the dam, inches at a time, but 2 years faster than anticipated there were over 100 deaths. Rumor has it that some of these bodies were buried within the dam, but it is highly unlikely. The rate at which the dam was built, literally inches at a time, allowed anyone that accidentally fell into the concrete to basically just step back out easily. Plus, if that was the case and someone was buried within it would cause serious structural damage that would weaken the dam. There were however 96 deaths identified as official “industrial fatalities”, which allowed the deceased’s family to obtain compensation. There were also another 96 are individuals who died from from pneumonia, what is now believed to be a cover which allowed the Six Companies to prevent payment of death benefits to those families.
As the dam’s construction neared it’s end there were 2 spillways built, one on each side. These would aid in sending the water safely around the power plant if the waters ever got too high hopefully prevent the water from going over the top of the dam and landing directly on top of the power plant below. These have only been used twice in all of the Hoover Dam’s life. Once for testing purposes and once in 1983 when water levels rose allowing more than 2 feet of water to flow over and through the spillways.
Our tour took the elevator again, but this time moved onto the powerplant. We walked down a hallway and into a huge room the size of two football fields that was very echoey and loud. As our guide spoke I could barely hear him even though he was using a microphone. He spoke about the generators, how they work and how the water is used to cool them down. There were three generators running while we were there. We could tell by the light on top of them. He also spoke about the huge crane that could lift heavy the center pieces out of the generators if there was ever a need for repairs.
We headed back to the elevator and to the main floor. Our tour guide finished with a little bit about how the dam is actually 36% below water capacity right now and how there only has to be 260 ft in the dam to reach the water intakes. I asked him what happens if the water gets too low and he only responded with a slight I hope that never happens, but also almost as if it was impossible to happen.
Our tour ended there and we headed to the overlook which was soon closing at 4:30pm. We got an amazing view of the dam there and could hear on the speakers a little bit about the cable cars that run along the far side. We then headed to walk over the dam where we could see just how low the water levels really were. There were clear lines of pure white rock with darker rock above it and I wondered if that was were the water level was when the dam was first created or if the line was created by something else. Without any more guides around I could only guess.
We walked and took pictures over the dam and that is when I finally realized how magnificent it truly is. I just needed to get up close and personal to understand the what everyone was talking about. As I peered over the edges and down to the water below the sheer size had finally sunk in and I now knew why everyone is so impressed. We stopped on the border between the two states and I stood straddling the line, in two places at one time. I was glad I had finally made it to the Hoover Dam, a place were almost every Californian has visited at one time in their life.