Monday, 25 July 2011

The Hoover Dam

It's the penultimate day of our Stateside sojourn and we still have one more major landmark to visit.

The Hoover Dam is around 25 miles from Las Vegas near the border between Nevada and Arizona. It was built in the early 1930's to combat heavy flooding in the western United States and to provide irrigated water and hydroelectric power. Today it helps service large parts of Nevada, Arizona and California, though interestingly not Las Vegas.

On the short journey we are able to take in the spectacular sites of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. Lake Mead is situated very close to the Colorado River and from the freeway up to the Hoover Dam you can't help but be captivated by it's bright blue splendour. We make a note to visit should we ever find ourselves back in this part of the world one day. For now though, we press on to the Hoover Dam in all it's giant, concrete glory.

There's a little confusion in parking the car. After an uncomfortably brief security check - think Checkpoint Charlie without the threat of being shot - or even searched - or bothered at all in any way come to think of it - no, just think of a white hut - we are pointed in the general direction of a myriad car parks. We somehow manage to miss several of these and end up having to drive right around the whole Dam complex. Or the whole damn complex, if you prefer. Anyway, eventually we make a ludicrously sharp right turn and manage to find a space somewhere in Arizona. A kindly parking attendant advises us that if we move on a little bit further we can get a bit closer to the Dam and the Visitor's Centre. Center. Whatever. Those responsible for naming American tourist attractions cannot bring themselves to come up with any better term than Visitor's Centre (Center) for anything remotely resembling a place where information can be gleaned.

We decline this kind offer, mostly out of sheer can't-be-arsed-ness, and instead move out into the Nevada mid-afternoon heat. It is utterly stifling, but the good news is that it's all downhill to the Dam and the Visitor's Centre. I'm not offering you the alternative spelling this time, Dam you. Oh, I've done that gag before, too. You'll have to forgive me, I'm not myself at the moment. Well, I am. Maybe that's the trouble.

So anyway, we follow the steady flow of tourists to the bottom of the slope. There are clocks on each side of the road, one of which shows the time in Arizona while the other shows the time in Nevada. This is because the state line runs somewhere through the middle of the Hoover Dam site, but is rendered slightly pretentious and unnecessary in my view by the fact that it is exactly the same time in Arizona as it is in Nevada. It all put me in mind of Homer Simpson hopping in and out of the American Embassy in Australia. Technically accurate, but somehow cretinous.

In truth the views of the Dam on the way down to the Visitor's Centre are not the best if you happen to be a wheelchair user. The walls are very high and there is a rail on top of the wall also. At certain points you can just make out the vast concrete surrounding you and get an idea of it's sheer depth, but you might find it more interesting to ignore the Dam at this point and focus on the water flowing around it. It's an incredibly scenic view. Honest.

As you might expect (except perhaps at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles) there are organised tours of the Dam available. However we choose to explore at our own pace. It's cheaper and you don't have anyone barking information at you, nor do you have to worry about whether every nook and cranny in the bowels of the place will be wheelchair accessible. Does one have nooks and crannies in one's bowels? Anyway.....

It proves to be a good decision. The Visitors Centre is a most marvellous place, full of interesting exhibits charting the history of the Dam from it's inception under the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (although it was the brainchild of Herbert Hoover, the then Secretary of Commerce and future President, hence the name), to it's completion and opening in September 1935, to it's present form. Hoover had to fight to convince his government colleagues and other influential politicians of the time that the Dam was necessary. Most of the flooding had taken place in the west of the country, causing the eastern-based politicans in New York and Philadelphia and the like to adopt a stance that was distinctly 'I'm alright, Jack.' They viewed the flooding and other issues associated with the Colorado River as a 'Western problem', and did not consider it in the national interest to spend so much money on addressing it.

It was left to Franklin Roosevelt to carry out the grand opening, but it is the more human stories which really grab the attention. With a workforce of some 5,000 men and on site accommodation for only 480, the large majority were left to find shelter for themelves and their families elsewhere. The plan had been to house the men in the newly built Boulder City, Nevada, but that was before the Presidential order came to begin construction of the Dam before completion of the new city.

Sadly, 96 men lost their lives during the construction of the Dam, while another 16 deaths are associated with the building of the Dam. They include surveyor J.G.Tierney, who drowned while looking for a site for the Dam well before work got under way. Horrifically, many of the bereaved families never saw a cent of life insurance money as the deaths were attributed to pneumonia and other conditions caused by spending so much time on the construction site. If you fell off some scaffolding or were hit with falling debris well.......maybe your wife and children would see some form of compensation. Maybe. If not, not.

From the top floor viewing area I get a real sense of the vastness of the place. It's an awful long way down. Seven hundred and twenty six feet, in fact. It doesn't compare to the Grand Canyon but then being man made it never could. Yet looking out from behind the glass at that sort of height is still a pretty awe-inspiring experience.

We finish with a rather disappointing lights show which aims to display exactly the broad range of land now serviced by the Dam and the ways in which it helps provide power and water. However, the small theatre, dull-as-death voice over and Kindergarten model design are all a bit underwhelming if truth be told. It is perhaps for the best that we did not visit that theatre first or we may very well have given up on the whole thing and decided just to go back to Vegas to get lashed in some more casinos. You can get vodka and orange for free, you know?

I'm glad we didn't.

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