I could have just turned left like all the other cars following one another like a line of ants marching stolidly into their anthill. But instead of taking the bypass to the Hoover Dam, I pointed my car straight ahead.
This road less traveled took me to downtown Boulder City, Nev., where the Depression-era stucco buildings made me feel as though I were driving through Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It was so peaceful, such a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of Las Vegas, just 35 minutes away. Why would anyone want to bypass this?
And it’s not just the quiet. If you’re curious about Hoover Dam (originally called Boulder Dam), then skipping Boulder City means ignoring a major part of its history. The men who built the dam lived in this company town, which the federal government erected over the desert in 1931. When the dam was completed in 1935, the town remained under government control until its incorporation in 1960.
Boulder City’s more than 15,000 residents haven’t forgotten its storied beginnings. All over town you come upon bronze statues commemorating the workers, dozens of whom died on the job, and their families, who endured harsh living conditions. “Afternoon Breeze,” by Roy W. Butler, for instance, shows a woman strolling down a street, her right hand holding her hat in place and her left clutching a small purse. The plaque accompanying the statue describes how these pioneering women made their shoddy houses livable even when dust and snakes crept through the cracks in the walls.
At the antiques store Back in Thyme, I learned that many of the supervisors’ houses are still standing. As I admired the 1950s-style purses and old Life magazine covers, I struck up a conversation with employee Cheri Smillie (as in “smiley,” an apt description). She lives in a 1932 brick house once owned by a dam employee. “I wanted a house with history,” she said.
Cheri moved to Boulder City from Orange County, Calif., with her husband so that he could take a job in Vegas. But they ruled out buying a home in Sin City; they wanted to live in a calmer place. Boulder City fit the bill, especially because it’s one of only two Nevada cities that ban gambling. Hence the town slogan: “A World Away for a Day.”
“I’m not bored here by any stretch,” Cheri told me.
Neither was I, partly because I could sate my appetite for shopping, especially for random tchotchkes.
At Goat Feathers Emporium, an antiques depot in the building that used to be the dam workers’ laundry, I found old hardcover Bobbsey Twins books, glass medicine bottles, sewing machines, irons and hats that would have been right at home at the recent royal wedding. A sign advertised “useful junk,” though as soon as I walked out with a 1960s chapeau that made me look like the ballerina from “Black Swan,” I wondered whether I’d actually ever wear it.
Across from Goat Feathers is the historic Boulder Dam Hotel, built in 1933. Turns out that Boulder City was once as much of a weekend playground for celebrities as Palm Springs is today. (Apparently at least one still frequents the town: Desi Arnaz Jr. reportedly has a home here, but alas, I never ran into him.)
At the time it was built, nothing in southern Nevada compared to the Boulder Dam Hotel, a two-story, white-columned Dutch Colonial with a heating and cooling system that was quite advanced for the era. But by 1941, the first resort hotel had opened on the Las Vegas Strip, and once visitors realized that they could see the dam in a day, the Boulder Dam Hotel went into decline.
Now there are only memories of such illustrious guests as Shirley Temple, Boris Karloff, Bette Davis and Will Rogers, who stayed there while performing at the Boulder Theatre (which Arnaz bought in 1997 for the Boulder City Ballet Company). Like everything else in Boulder City, the theater has a connection to the dam workers. When it was built, it was the only building with air-conditioning. Laborers would pay 25 cents for a ticket — not to see the movie, but to nap in comfort for a few hours before heading back to work.
Luckily for me, despite its slightly weathered look, there’s still plenty of air-conditioning at the hotel, so I decided to roam around in it for a while. I was hoping to tour the Hoover Dam Museum it houses, but that was closed, so I hit the art gallery run by the nonprofit Boulder City Art Guild instead. I loved Vegas artist Boo Witzmann’s “A Day at the Museum,” an oil painting showing a boy in a green and yellow baseball uniform staring at Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Gleaners.”
On my way out, I stopped by a display case with costume jewelry replicas of gems once worn by the likes of Carole Lombard. The jewelry’s sold at Classic Hollywood Gems, a hotel boutique run by Dee McKinney, who moved to Boulder City from St. Louis. McKinney called her choice of a new home a fluke, but she said that she loves the town’s history. “In Vegas, if it’s 10 years old, they blow it up,” she said. “Here, they try to preserve their buildings.”
For even more history, I drove five minutes to the Nevada State Railroad Museum to take the seven-mile journey along the eastern end of the Boulder Branch Line, commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1931 to transport the materials needed to build the dam.
I hopped on the refurbished 1911 Pullman Coach, choosing the open-air car over the air-conditioned ones. The ride was quite windy, but I didn’t mind it so much as I soaked in the scenery of the sprawling El Dorado Valley and the Mojave Desert.
After that, all I wanted was to see this dam that had spawned a railroad and a city. I drove the six miles to the dam and to the recently opened bypass bridge, officially the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. At 890 feet high and 1,900 feet long, it’s an engineering wonder in its own right, the second highest bridge in the United States (the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado is taller), soaring high above the Colorado River and offering commanding views of the dam.
From an overlook between the dam and the bridge, I had a panoramic view of both these manmade marvels, as impressive as the natural wonders surrounding them. And standing there, I really did feel a world away.