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Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the…

Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century

by Michael Hiltzik

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In the late 1920s, as we were hurtling toward the Great Depression, and the early 1930s, as we were struggling through it, the United States embarked on one of the greatest engineering projects in history. Hiltzik follows the conception, design, and building of the Hoover Dam from the first Europeans to reach the Imperial Valley in what is now California, to Americans learning about the wild and powerful Colorado River, and the periodic destructive flooding of Imperial Valley and other potentially valuable agricultural territory.

From there began the search for ways to control and harness the power of the river. The challenges were not merely technical and engineering problems. Harnessing the Colorado River meant deciding how to divide up the water among seven different states with competing interests, as well as deciding whether the project would be "merely" for flood control and irrigation, or for hydroelectric power generation as well.

These were not small matters. Water rights was already a deeply fraught issue in the west, and water law as it had developed in the much more well-watered east didn't fit conditions in the arid west. New principles and new agreements had to be created.

As for hydroelectric power, Edison and other power companies were deeply opposed to public power generation that would compete with them and would likely be significantly cheaper. Nor were the power companies alone in this opposition. Herbert Hoover, chairman of the compact commission that negotiated the deal among the seven affected states, was deeply, ideologically, opposed to anything being done by government that could be done by private industry, regardless of which course was "best" for the general public. Hoover, of course, later became President, and was President when construction on the dam began, and when the Crash of 1929 rang in the start of the Great Depression. There were other forces and other players at work also, though, and such figures as Rep. Phil Swing (R-CA), Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-CA), William Mulholland, Walker Young, Frank Crowe, and others played major roles in getting the hydroelectric power generation part of the project approved.

All this, of course, prior to the physical and technical challenges of actually building the dam in Black Canyon, the largest public works project in US history to that point. Personality clashes, intense heat, lack of any amenities, incredibly dangerous work--it all makes for an exciting tale with many unexpected twists.

At the start of the Hoover Dam project, America was a country with a strong value on individual achievement and personal independence. By the time it was completed, America had become a culture that had discovered the value and the possibilities of cooperation and mutual support. Begun under Hoover and completed under Franklin Roosevelt, transformed into a symbol of the New Deal, the Hoover Dam project played a significant role in that transformation.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the library.
( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Another library audiobook down from the walks with Henry. ( )
  TravbudJ | Sep 15, 2018 |
Excellent book, excellent narrator. I didn't think a book on building a dam could keep interesting for so many hours (audiobook) but this book did it.

Includes history of prior dams, and dam breaks, in the US that led up to the engineering designs of Hoover dam - that part was quite interesting, as I had no idea that there were quite so many dam breaks around the country and the loss of life/property was pretty darn staggering. The pre-construction and construction sections of the dam include lots of behind the scenes descriptions of deals made, politics practiced, and lots and lots of misdeeds by The 6 Companies. And a bonus is that the book goes over the "where are they now?" of the main players for the 1950s, 60s, and in several cases beyond. Highly recommend for any history buffs. ( )
  marshapetry | Dec 8, 2016 |
Interesting telling of the building of Hoover Dam. Required reading before you visit this landmark! ( )
  addunn3 | Jul 30, 2016 |
The American Southwest is a very dry place. What little rain that falls collects into the Colorado River, a river some said was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow" because of all the silt. It can be a wild and dangerous river and yet its flow wasn't regular enough to reliably allow crops and irrigation. Some tried, however, and in 1906 an enterprising effort to bring irrigation water to California's Imperial Valley failed spectacularly and created the Salton Sea near present-day Palm Springs. Higher than usual flood waters breached a canal bank and created a new river rushing downhill into the below sea-level area at a tremendous rate. "In simple terms, the river was carving itself a new gorge... the current hurtled over a precipice at the point where the New River entered the Salton Sea. This miniature Niagara proceeded to claw its way upstream at a pace of a mile a day, leaving in its wake a canyon eighty feet deep." (pg 45) It was floods like this that prompted some to propose taming the river with a dam.

Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, met with representatives from the 7 states affected by the Colorado River (CA, NV, AZ, UT, CO, NM, WY) and eventually hammered out an agreement on water sharing and rights. The political wrangling made this the least interesting part of the book. After that it mostly discusses the actual construction of the dam: the massive scope of the project and the labor involved. This was the Depression years, and Six Companies (the firm who won the bid to build the dam) wasn't above cutting the wages of desperate men willing to work for a pittance just to keep their families from starving - to which the government mostly turned a blind eye. Safety was a low concern as well, and frequent fatal accidents opened the door for labor unions, although heavy-handed tactics by Six Companies kept them from organizing much of a presence.

Most of this fascinating book focuses on the social, political, and labor history of the dam. I wish more of the environmental aspect had been discussed, especially as it relates to the changes caused by damming the river (although it does mention that decades of earthquakes followed as the massive weight of the water that became Lake Mead began pressing down upon the land). The book explains rather well how access to water and electricity (generated by the dam) allowed the southwest to grow and thrive, creating such thirsty and brightly-lit cities as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Squabbles over water continue even today, however, and an enormous population still lies at the mercy of the river and its unreliable flow of water. The book would benefit from more pictures and maps, but regardless, it was very interesting and insightful.

(Modified from the original review posted on 11/15/11 on my blog: bookworm-dad.blogspot.com) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
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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.
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(Introduction) The president's train lumbered across the desert in the dead of night.
By any customary measure, the Colorado River is an unremarkable stream.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The author of "Dealers of Lightning" pens the definitive account of the epic construction of the Hoover Dam, one of the the 20th century's most consequential public works.

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