Hoover Dam (1999)

Hoover Dam (1999) Even in a decade known for its monumental engineering projects—the Empire State Building, the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges—Hoover Dam was a remarkable achievement. A 700-foot-high barrier thrown across the biggest river in the American West, it was the greatest construction project since the Panama Canal: a concrete structure of unprecedented size built in one of the most remote, inhospitable regions of the United States. Begun in 1931 and built by a consortium of six major construction companies at a cost of $165 million, the dam was completed in 1936—two years ahead of schedule. Building it literally put Boulder City, Nevada, on the map, and began the transformation of Las Vegas (thirty miles away) from a sleepy railroad town to a major city. When completed, the dam tamed the once-destructive seasonal floods along the lower reaches of the Colorado, made possible a vast expansion of irrigated agriculture in surrounding states, and supplied vast quantities of electrical power. It was instrumental in creating the conviction—some would say the illusion—that the Southwest was capable of supporting virtually limitless growth.

Especially on film, the stories of great engineering projects are often presented as the stories of great engineers and financiers. The railroad barons who linked St. Louis and San Francisco in the 1860s thus tend to overshadow the Irish and Chinese work gangs who built the roadbed and laid the rails. John Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, eclipses the sandhogs who dug foundations for its towers and the riggers who wove a web of cables between them. General George Goethals, who brought the Panama Canal to completion, becomes the hero of the story, while the thousands of laborers under his command slip into the background.

Hoover Dam breaks this pattern, with gratifying results. Project superintendent Frank Crowe gets his share of attention, but he remains a secondary figure. The real heroes of the film are the 5,000 men who worked under him: Men who, in the depths of the Great Depression, were willing to risk their lives for the promise of a steady paycheck, a place to live, and three bountiful meals a day. The faces of those men—hard, lean, dusty and determined—are the visual signature of Hoover Dam. They get more screen time than Crowe, more than the giant cranes and steam shovels, and more than the finished dam itself. Virtually all of the photographs and all of the movie footage are of groups, not individuals. Though this doubtless reflects the availability of material, it also underlines a key element of the film’s narrative strategy: Hoover Dam is about the shared experiences that united the men who worked on the project.

Veterans of the project—former workers, a worker’s daughter, a river guide, the secretary from the project’s hiring office—share individual memories, but the clear implication is that they speak for the group. Some memories recur in interview after interview: the endless headlong rush, the near-total lack of safety regulations, the ever-present heat, dust, and noise. The filmmakers also, however, have an eye for the telling detail: housing going up so fast that disoriented workers routinely come “home” to the wrong building, a worker at the all-you can-eat canteen rounding up ten sandwiches and two pieces of pie for lunch, or the boom that bars, brothels, and gambling halls in Las Vegas enjoyed after each bi-weekly payday at the dam site. All these details add up, over the course of the film, to an unusually rich worker’s-eye view of the project.

Even when the Hoover Dam pulls back for a broader, contextual view, its focus remains on groups rather than individuals. The idea of damming the Colorado begins, in its version of the story, with Californians who want a cheap, reliable source for water for their growing farms and cities. Federal funding for the dam is opposed by (unspecified) eastern legislators who dislike the idea of spending so much money in the West. Some of the bosses of the Six Companies—the consortium that built the dam—have names, but none of them have individual identities. When they reject the workers’ demands for more pay and better conditions, and ruthlessly break the strike that results, it is a contest of wills between Bosses and Workers, not individuals. Individuals who do figure into the contextual sections of the story do so as representatives of groups.

Frank Crowe, stalking around the job site and urging greater speed, stands for the Bosses. Harold Ickes, ordering the hiring of African-American workers and the renaming of the project from Hoover Dam to Boulder Dam, stands (as of 1933) for the incoming Roosevelt administration. Gordon Kauffman, the architect who gave the dam its breathtaking art deco style, stands for the larger community of architects and artists who demanded beauty as well as function in the “eighth wonder of the world.”

This approach highlights the sheer size of the project, with the groups of workers providing both a sense of scale and a reminder that the damming of the Colorado was not only the work of a massive, complex organization. It also highlights the fact that large engineering projects tend to be collaborations between diverse groups with distinct, often conflicting, agendas. The film is, on both counts, an important corrective to less reflective documentaries about such projects, in which everyone involved rallies behind a visionary leader and embraces a shared goal of finishing the project.

For a film about a cutting-edge engineering project, Hoover Dam says surprisingly little about the engineering. The design of the dam, the function of the intake towers, and the relation of both to the spillway and powerhouse is left unexplained. The intricacies of concrete—the fact that it hardens by “curing” and giving off heat, rather than drying—are also left out, along with the ingenious use of portable refrigeration to hasten the process. Frank Crowe is given due credit for a truck-mounted scaffold that allowed blasters to drill many holes in a rock face simultaneously, but his use of cable-cars to deliver men and supplies to the work site barely rates a passing mention. The logistics of delivering massive quantities of wood, steel, and cement to the worksite are overlooked entirely. The legend that workers fell to their deaths in the wet concrete, entombed because the concrete pouring could not be stopped, is brushed aside (along with all that it reveals about the project) in half a sentence.

These omissions may surprise—and frustrate—viewers whose principal interest in the dam and the film is the nuts-and-bolts side of the project. They are consistent, however, with the filmmakers’ decision to place the workers in the foreground. The men who built the dam were, for the most part, not concerned with the shape of the dam, the physics of concrete curing, or the number of railroad cars needed to deliver supplies to the job site. The project was defined, for them, by more practical concerns: noise and dust, food and water, the danger of poison gas in the tunnels and falling rocks in the canyon, and the promise of a paycheck every two weeks. It is hard to imagine their story being told better than it is in Hoover Dam.
Bowdoin Van Riper Southern Polytechnic State University bvanriper@bellsouth.net

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