As breathtaking today as the day it was completed, Hoover Dam not only shaped the American West but helped launch the American century. In the depths of the Great Depression it became a symbol of American resilience and ingenuity in the face of crisis, putting thousands of men to work in a remote desert canyon and bringing unruly nature to heel.
Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Michael Hiltzik uses the saga of the dam’s conception, design, and construction to tell the broader story of America’s efforts to come to grips with titanic social, economic, and natural forces. For embodied in the dam’s striking machine-age form is the fundamental transformation the Depression wrought in the nation’s very culture—the shift from the concept of rugged individualism rooted in the frontier days of the nineteenth century to the principle of shared enterprise and communal support that would build the America we know today. In the process, the unprecedented effort to corral the raging Colorado River evolved from a regional construction project launched by a Republican president into the New Deal’s outstanding—and enduring—symbol of national pride.
Yet the story of Hoover Dam has a darker side. Its construction was a gargantuan engineering feat achieved at great human cost, its progress marred by the abuse of a desperate labor force. The water and power it made available spurred the development of such great western metropolises as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Diego, but the vision of unlimited growth held dear by its designers and builders is fast turning into a mirage.
In Hiltzik’s hands, the players in this epic historical tale spring vividly to life: President Theodore Roosevelt, who conceived the project; William Mulholland, Southern California’s great builder of water works, who urged the dam upon a reluctant Congress; Herbert Hoover, who gave the dam his name though he initially opposed its construction; Frank Crowe, the dam’s renowned master builder, who pushed his men mercilessly to raise the beautiful concrete rampart in an inhospitable desert gorge. Finally there is Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over the ultimate completion of the project and claimed the credit for it. Hiltzik combines exhaustive research, trenchant observation, and unforgettable storytelling to shed new light on a major turning point of twentieth-century history.
Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author who has covered business, technology, and public policy for the Los Angeles Times for three decades. He currently serves as the Times’s business columnist and hosts its business blog, The Economy Hub. His books include Big Science, The New Deal, Colossus, Dealers of Lightning, and The Plot Against Social Security. Mr. Hiltzik received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for articles exposing corruption in the entertainment industry. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children. Follow him on Twitter @HiltzikM.