Colossus, on the building of the Hoover Dam, by Michael Hiltzik

Workers in 1932 construct the retaining wall for the road on top of Hoover Dam, over the Colorado River. The dam took four years to complete and fueled the growth of cities such as Los Angeles and Denver, but no one knows how many men died in the process.
Workers in 1932 construct the retaining wall for the road on top of Hoover Dam, over the Colorado River. The dam took four years to complete and fueled the growth of cities such as Los Angeles and Denver, but no one knows how many men died in the process. (AP)

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By Kevin Starr
Sunday, June 20, 2010

COLOSSUS

Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century

By Michael Hiltzik

Free Press. 496 pp. $30

Ambitious public works are by definition iconic. They do what they were made to do -- dams, bridges, roads, multiple other examples of civil engineering -- but they also, as icons, make compelling statements regarding the society that built them and the time and the place in which they were built.

From this perspective few public works in North America are as iconic as Hoover Dam. In this detailed and vividly written study -- destined to be the standard history for decades to come -- Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, struggles with considerable success to bring it all together: the dam itself, its engineering and design, the mighty and mercurial Colorado River it sought to control, its remote and punishing desert site, the larger-than-life personalities involved in its development and completion, the previously untold story of its troubled labor history, the tragic consequences to human life brought about by its rushed and relentless construction.

With equal ambition, Hiltzik also wants to tell us what Hoover Dam meant to those who envisioned it, what it meant once it became a symbol of the New Deal, what it meant as an initiator of the American Century, and the challenge it poses to 2010 America. Could we do this today? And would we choose to do it again, even if we could, given the dam's deficiencies and our newfound humility before the power and fragility of the planet?

Hiltzik approaches Hoover Dam as historian, investigative reporter and social critic. He begins his narrative with the Colorado River itself: the Mississippi of the Far West, true, but a river animated not so much by mythic force as attitude, a river given to intermittent rages and changes of course, forever tempted to rediscover and reestablish the ancient inland sea it had created in eons past. This is the river, after all, that gouged the Grand Canyon from stone. A river like this has got to be respected, even by engineers.

Early visionaries dreamt of subduing the Colorado for purposes of irrigation and flood control. A private entity called the California Development Corporation thought it could sneak some of the waters of the river into Southern California via a hastily scraped channel, and when the river rose and turned in the direction of its long-lost inland sea, a significant portion of the Southern California desert was left underwater. Sen. Hiram Johnson, a former governor of California, and Phil Swing, congressman for much of sparsely settled Southern California beyond Los Angeles, wanted the river captured in a more orderly and engineered manner and sponsored a bill in Congress to authorize the dam, which passed in 1928 after long delay.

In 1912, Johnson had run alongside Theodore Roosevelt in the breakaway Bull Moose campaign and still nurtured presidential ambitions, as did his fellow progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, who chaired the commission that, after much acrimony, hammered out the Colorado River Compact to determine how the seven states along the river should allocate the impounded waters among themselves. Suspicious of water-hungry Southern California, Arizona would not sign the agreement until 1944.

Herbert Hoover gets on Hiltzik's nerves, to put it mildly, and provokes his investigative instincts. Hoover, Hiltzik believes, claimed and was eventually accorded more credit than he deserved as the compact-meister while serving as secretary of commerce for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge and then as president. This animus is perhaps a weakness in Hiltzik's approach, allowing Hoover's faults to mask his compelling presence to his generation as a progressive advocate of public works. But no matter: Hiltzik is an equal-opportunity debunker when it comes to digging into sources and finding the true story behind the dam's construction.

Boulder Dam -- as FDR pointedly called it upon dedication (to which Hoover was not invited and during which his name was not once mentioned) -- was compellingly appropriated by FDR as the premier icon of the New Deal, despite Roosevelt's earlier opposition to the project. In building the dam, FDR claimed, Americans had come together under the sponsorship of the federal government to combat the Depression, redeem the arid West and make a better America. (The dam's name was changed from Boulder to Hoover by legislation in 1947.)

In Hiltzik's telling, however, six construction firms came together and made not only the dam but also an impressive profit, by hiring Frank Crowe, the premier dam builder of his era, to drive workers relentlessly from 1931 to 1935 and finish the project two years ahead of schedule. Wages were frozen; two sets of books for overtime payments were kept, one public, one secret; unions were busted; minorities were banned from the workforce (though a token construction crew of African Americans performed admirably); and safety measures were haphazard by modern standards, resulting in a still undocumented number of deaths from falls, dynamite blasts, blunt-force trauma, heat exhaustion and carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Hiltzik's subtitle sees the completion of Hoover Dam as a key dynamic in the creation of the American Century. Unfortunately, he does not pursue this notion as far as he might have: into World War II. Hydroelectricity from Hoover Dam empowered the aircraft and shipbuilding industries of Southern California, transforming the region into the Gibraltar of the Pacific; through the ships and planes built with Hoover Dam hydroelectricity, the project made its power felt as far away as Asia.

But to say this is to ask more of an already rich book, which, incidentally, gives due credit to the Los Angeles-based architect Gordon Kaufmann for the design of the dam and to Norwegian-born artist Oskar Hansen for those mysterious winged creatures standing guard over it and for the equally mysterious pavement map that positions Hoover Dam as a planetary marvel. Hiltzik concludes on a cautionary note: "The task facing the people of the Colorado basin today is to learn how to live in harmony with the river, as did the Indians of the plains and desert in millennia past."

Kevin Starr is professor of history at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is "Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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