Hoover Dam: Construction, Purpose, and History

Hoover Dam and the War

As Hitler’s aggression accelerated in Europe and Japan marched across the Pacific, Reclamation officials were especially sensitive to enemy threats to Hoover Dam. Wild rumors of possible sabotage ratcheted up paranoia.

An FBI study concluded with thirty-eight security recommendations to protect the dam and power plant. The bureau would need resources that it could not spare, however.

What is Hoover Dam?

The dam straddles the Arizona and Nevada borders on the Colorado River and is 726 feet tall from base to crest. It is as thick at its base as two football fields are long and can handle the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in an hour.

The towers on top divert water to huge steel pipes called penstocks that run through the walls of the dam to a power plant where it is used to turn 17 hydroelectric generators. The plant produces about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year for homes and businesses in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

When Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 it was the highest dam in the world. It was also the largest project in America’s history and it was finished on time and under budget. It was also the first example of a comprehensive interstate compact to deal with allocation of water rights. This lesson, from the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, helps students explore some of the reasons Hoover Dam was such a success.

Why was Hoover Dam built?

Hoover Dam was built for a variety of reasons. It was constructed to control floods, irrigate farms, and provide hydroelectric power. It also is a tourist attraction.

Before the dam was built, the Colorado River flowed wildly and caused significant flooding in the area. The US government decided to build the dam to divert the river and prevent flooding. It also was built to help with irrigation on farmland in Arizona and California.

Work began on the project in 1931, just two years into the Great Depression. This was a time when the US government funded many big infrastructure projects to help people find jobs and support their families.

Working on the dam was difficult and dangerous work. About 96 workers died during construction. These deaths included those who were killed while blasting, drowning or from other construction-related accidents. However, the number may be higher if workers who died from heart problems, dehydration or issues that weren’t directly related to building the dam are counted.

How was Hoover Dam built?

In 1928, engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation began exploring the potential of a dam in Boulder Canyon. They realized that the massive concrete structure could control flooding, allocate water to farmers and cities in the Southwest, and generate hydroelectric power.

Construction started in 1931 during the Great Depression and the project employed thousands of men on an hourly wage ranging from 50 cents to $1.25, according to The History Channel. The first step was building a town to support the workers and construct cofferdams around the work site.

The next step was excavating the massive foundation for the dam itself. Architect Gordon Kaufmann wanted to emphasize the imposing mass of the structure, so he left its smooth curved face free from any adornment. The resulting look is what makes Hoover Dam one of the most iconic structures in the world. The dam was dedicated in 1935 and began producing electricity for Los Angeles two years ahead of schedule.

What is the history of Hoover Dam?

Hoover Dam is a thriving tourist destination and engineering marvel on the border between Arizona and Nevada. It tames the Colorado River, creates the scenic Lake Mead reservoir, and supplies water and electricity to millions in three states. Ask students to investigate how the cities and towns that receive energy and water from Hoover Dam have grown since 1935.

Construction of the dam began in 1931, just two years into the Great Depression. At this time, the federal government was financing big infrastructure projects as a way to provide jobs for unemployed workers. The project was dangerous and expensive. During construction, 96 workers lost their lives.

In addition to flood control, the main purpose of the dam was power generation. To this day, the dam provides power for many cities and towns in southern California and Nevada. It also irrigates 1.5 million acres of farmland and produces millions of gallons of water per day. The Bureau of Reclamation maintains a website with a 1981 film, historic images, and other information about the dam.

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