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Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century (edition 2010)

by Michael Hiltzik

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1941060,720 (4)20
Member:tag100
Title:Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century
Authors:Michael Hiltzik
Info:Free Press (2010), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 512 pages
Collections:Tim's Books, Your library
Rating:****
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Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik

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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 |
This is a very interesting history, informative and well written. In telling the story of the desire for, the fight and planning for and the construction of this engineering marvel, Hitzik is telling many interlocking stories. Most prominent is the recounting of the history of water rights in the American southwest, and the fighting between the states of that region for use of the waters of the Colorado River. Hitzik tells of the early attempts to control the river and make use of the river through irrigation and engineering, including canals and aqueducts. He describes how the ability to use the river for irrigation has transformed that formerly desert region and allowed Las Vegas and, especially, Los Angeles to explode into mega-cities. The politics of the fight to create the dam as a public rather than a private enterprise is very interesting and has resonance in today's political battles, as well. The detailing of the engineering itself, and the ways in which new procedures and technologies had to be designed to build this mammoth dam, is quite riveting. The ways in which the contractors made sure to squeeze every possible nickel of profit out of the project, sometimes fraudulently and very, very frequently at the expense of the safety and the lives of the thousands of construction workers involved in the project make depressing but hardly surprising reading. At least two full chapters are devoted to describing the ways in which the very real danger to the workers, danger that came in all sorts, was purposefully ignored by the construction company in order that they might rush the job and therefore maximize their profits. workers' attempts to organize in order to improve their lots (in addition to the danger, pay rates could be lowered at any time and often were) were crushed ruthlessly. And after all, this was all going on in the middle of the Great Depression. Where were these men and their families going to go? The whole thing gives us America in a nutshell, particularly at that point in history: the whole range from dynamic designers, builders and innovators to insatiable greed mongers and ruthless exploiters. ( )
1 vote rocketjk | May 23, 2014 |
The Hoover Dam--what an achievement! This well researched and competently written history covers all aspects of its creation, political, personal, labor, engineering, environment. ( )
  gbelik | Nov 5, 2013 |
A sweeping book on Hovver Dam. Goes through history of the area, but only from modern times. Really enjoyed. Would liked to have gotten more info about the engineering of the dam, as well as more photos. ( )
  bermandog | May 25, 2013 |
Outstanding story of mans attempt to tame the Colorado River. The history provided by the book of what led up to building the dam was Fascinating. It could never happen today the environmentalists would block it from ever being built and the unions would make it too cost prohibitive. ( )
  zmagic69 | Jun 6, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
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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