Ragtown

This photograph shows menu waiting to work on the dam

The sleepy town of Las Vegas (population 5,000) was about to be awakened. Spurred by news of possible work at Black Canyon, thousands of unemployed men and their families flooded into the town and surrounding areas.

After reading a newspaper article detailing the government construction of a massive dam at Boulder Canyon, Joe Kine bought a Model T for $10 and started for Nevada. On July 13th, he pulled his dusty car to a stop as he reached the town of Las Vegas, Nevada. Like thousands of others affected by the Great Depression, he hoped to find a well-paying and steady job.

Because of the Depression, the government strongly suggested that Six Companies begin construction on the dam six months early. This left no time for barracks or family housing to be built. As a result, the first people to arrive at the dam site either had to find housing in Las Vegas or make do in Black Canyon. Since most people equated being close to the construction site with the success of getting a job, many decided to live at Black Canyon.

Perhaps the most infamous community to develop because of dam construction was Ragtown. Located on the floor of Black Canyon near the construction site, Ragtown consisted of tents, cardboard boxes, and anything else families could get their hands on. Ragtown provided very dismal living conditions. While temperatures in the Las Vegas Valley were in the mild 90s, temperatures on the floor of Black Canyon soared to well over 120 degrees. As men flooded the construction site to work or to find jobs, wives and children coped with the harsh comforts of Ragtown.

 

"You were really just existing." Helen Holmes

Because of the closeness of the Colorado, there was plenty of water. Although sufficient for bathing, the water caused health problems.

"You would go down to get a pail of water, and then it would settle, and there would be sediment in the bottom so it would be clear . . . That is why there was quite a lot of dysentery. Everyone was busy lining up to go to the Maggie and Jigs [outside toilets] at that time." Helen Holmes

The women of Ragtown had to be creative to provide for their families. Placing an ironing board over two crates created a bench. For women with babies, diapers were cleaned by boiling them in bleach over campfires. Foremost on most mothers' minds was the care of their children.

In an attempt to keep her baby cool, Erma Godbey draped wet sheets over the cradle. Storage caches dug into the earth offered no protection from the heat, so essentials like fresh milk were not an option. Instead, canned food had to be purchased. Lunches packed for husbands often spoiled because of the heat.

Murl Emery

Relief came, not from Six Companies or the government, but from Murl Emery, a Colorado River ferryman. Murl and his family opened a store for the residents of Ragtown, trucking in food and supplies from Las Vegas. Instead of charging high prices for the much-needed goods, Murl Emery allowed people to pay the prices they were used to. If a woman had paid 60 cents for a can of peaches in Kansas, that was what she would pay. If another paid 20 cents for the same can in Colorado, she would pay Emery 20 cents.

"They’d come with their kids. They came with everything on their backs. And their cars had broke down before they got here, and they walked. No one helped them. I was the only person they could come to. The only person they had access too. The government would have nothing to do with them. . . So we began to feed these people. Some of them had no money. Truckloads of provisions every day and coming out feeding these people. I kept a lousy set of books. Everything was on honor. It worked." Murl Emery

 

Murl Emery’s system of store credit may have seemed like a bad plan to many people, but in the end, only one person failed to pay his debt. And that was because the customer had died.