The Dam Rises

A photo of Hoover Dam construction taken ca. 1933-1934 during the early to mid stages of construction.

Creating the diversion tunnels had required a great amount of creativity and long hours for the dam workers. However, the excavation of the riverbed was to involve nothing but muscle. The dam was to be poured on solid bedrock but for this to be accomplished the workers had to dig through thousands of years of accumulated silt. In a continual stream, tons of sediment from the river bottom was loaded into trucks. Workers began wondering if they would ever see the bottom of the riverbed.

On June 6, 1933, the first bucket of concrete was poured into what would gradually become the Hoover Dam. There was no way the dam could be poured continuously; it would have to be done in separate interlocking blocks. Mammoth buckets of concrete suspended on highways of wires suspended high above the dam site delivered tons of concrete. Gradually, columns of cement slowly began to rise and construction crews became so familiar with the process that the pouring began to take on an artistic flow.

As concrete dries it gives off heat. To combat this, dam designers developed a system that would allow water to be piped through different parts of the growing dam. Water from the river was refrigerated and then circulated through the pipes. Once a block was completed, the cooling pipes were filled with grout and work moved on to a new section.

In the 1930s racism and segregation were still prevalent throughout the United States. The Boulder Canyon project was no exception. Although commissioned by the federal government, Hoover Dam was a privately run job subject to the vagaries of the owners and foremen.

"There weren't hardly any Negroes in this area anyhow until they started Basic Magnesium. Then they brought a lot of Negroes to work at Basic Magnesium. There were a few over in West Las Vegas, but not many. And of course, we hadn't started all the hotels and all those things, so there wasn't any reason for them to be here." Erma Godbey

In hiring workers, Six Companies agreed to give preference to veterans of the Spanish American and First World Wars. In addition, only American citizens would be eligible for hire and the hiring documentation expressly restricted the hiring of "Chinamen."

Many blacks made their way to Boulder Canyon with hopes of finding a good job only to be turned away. Government jobs on the dam were highly desirable to all workers making them the hardest to get. Although mandated by the federal government to hire more black workers, Six Companies only made a token effort and probably no more than 30 blacks total worked on construction of the dam. Blacks worked on jobs that most whites saw as demeaning such as hauling away debris. To make matters worse, blacks weren’t allowed to live in Boulder City and had to commute every day from Las Vegas.

"A man by the name of Charlie Rose had a black crew, a black man crew . . . he was an individual [who was] very strong, and his black men were just powerful men." Richard "Curley" Francis

The few Native Americans that worked on the job were very lucky or unfortunate, depending on point of view. All of the Native Americans worked as high scalers – clearing the canyon face of rock and debris in anticipation for the pouring of the dam. As the most dangerous job on the project, high scalers were the highest paid general laborers. In addition, the Native American workers were allowed to live in Boulder City.