Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hoover Dam & A Las Vegas Childhood

"We could be standing on dead bodies" might not normally be a bit of conversation you remember from your childhood. But if you grew up in Las Vegas when I did, it was a staple line for field trips to Hoover Dam. Popular myth said that some dam workers were entombed in the cement of the immense structure, and it made a great story for elementary kids to tell each other. It's not true, by the way. Men did die while building Boulder Dam (it became Hoover later), but they didn't leave the bodies in the concrete.

I was writing about Hoover Dam recently for NileGuide, and I couldn't help but remember what the tours were like before the new visitor center and a post-9/11 world. No fancy escalator, parking garage or ticket counter--you parked on top of the spillways and got your tickets from the glass booth on top of the dam, the now-empty one that faces the road. You stood in a line that snaked back along the sidewalk, and while people waited they leaned over the side of the wall and looked down the dam's 726 foot face. Beyond that, the Colorado River gurgled into Black Canyon. Admittance was something like $5. You went into the structure from one of the elevators in the middle of the dam, the ones screaming Art Deco, and as you dropped down at some astronomical rate, the tour guide explained just how fast you were moving. Poof, you were at the bottom. We got to walk past the generators, outside onto the bottom of the dam to look up, and we were guided through rough-hewn caves weeping Colorado River water. On one trip, we went into a room where we could stand on top of platforms under which river water flowed through pipes, the force of it strong enough that you could feel it under your feet.

The tours aren't the only thing that has changed at Hoover Dam. I remember when Lake Mead overflowed into the spillways and created twin waterfalls on the intake side of the dam, one on the Nevada side, one one the Arizona side. The mist could be seen as you approached, and standing on the side of the spillway for long left you drenched. Now, rocky beach leads up to the spillways.

One thing that never changes is the majesty of Hoover Dam. It's an architectural marvel, a piece of living history, and surprisingly beautiful.
Picture courtesy of Richard Wasserman at

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