Published: August 19th 2012September 30th 2011
The largest (litterally!) tourist attraction in Nevada
Driving out of Las Vegas is just as surreal as driving in.
Traffic near the strip is atrocious.
Soon, a normal city replaces that unreal glittery world.
The buildings gradually disappear to reveal rocky hills and desert scrub.
Get gas in this stretch of highway, because prices go up quickly afterward.
The buildings eventually fade away until the road is once again in empty desert.
Over the last five days I have gone from empty nowhere to a fantasy world and back to empty nowhere.
The highway reaches a ridge of red buttes.
A weather-beaten building sits in front of them, with a sign reading “last chance gas”.
The price is as bad as the Owens valley.
Past the building, the road enters a ravine between the buttes.
Soon afterward, it forks.
Until a decade ago, the highway next went over the top of Nevada’s single largest tourist sight, Hoover Dam
, a highlight of a southwestern road trip.
Certain events then convinced government authorities that allowing large numbers of vehicles, particularly trucks with potentially hazardous cargos, near a major piece of infrastructure
View of Lake Mead on the road to Hoover Dam. Note the line on the far shore from when the water dropped due to drought
was less than optimal
They set up a huge inspection station
, which snarled traffic for many miles.
The state of Arizona built a bridge
to bypass the dam, so only visitors see it now.
Despite this, it’s still popular as ever.
Past the inspection station, the road reaches the rim of a deep narrow gorge.
Unlike the buttes above, it’s composed of black rocks.
The highway turns upstream and the dam first appears, a vast concrete wall across the canyon.
A giant pulley system stretches across the canyon below the dam.
Next to it are dozens of electrical towers, with wires dropping straight down.
This close to Las Vegas, I shouldn’t be surprised at seeing another tourist rip off.
Past the wires sits a building with a parking garage, marked ‘visitor center’.
What most people don’t realize is that the parking garage charges high fees, and there are free lots further along the road.
Those lots require a ten minute hike across the dam, but that is exactly what people come here to see!
After the parking garage, the road turns
Red rock buttes
Buttes above the highway near Black Canyon and Hoover Dam
and crosses Hoover Dam.
The view is quite good, although a safety railing blocks some of it.
A parking lot sits on the far side.
Unbelievably, this lot also costs money.
Past that lot, the road turns and starts climbing the canyon wall.
The rock here is once again red.
Quickly, the road reaches a long series of pullouts along the side of the road.
These are the official parking spots for Hoover Dam, and they are free.
Nothing anywhere along the road notifies people about this.
Hiking back along the road, the first thing people see is a huge concrete trench
The trench leads away from a large gate, which is dry.
The reservoir behind the dam is low, thanks to almost a decade of below average precipitation in the Colorado basin.
The trench is a spillway.
It leads under the highway to an absolutely enormous pipe in the hillside.
The trench is visitor’s first taste of the huge scale of the dam, because close up it looks large but compared to the rest of the dam it looks tiny.
One of Hoover Dam's spillways, capable of handing the water volume of Niagra Falls
Hoover Dam itself looks like a huge curving wall of concrete across the canyon.
The top is just wide enough for the highway.
The reservoir side shows four absolutely huge intake towers
, tall concrete pipes lined with slots.
Thanks to the low water level, they look even larger than normal.
The other side shows a vertigo inducing view of a slanted concrete wall, dropping a long way to a building at the base with electrical transformers on it.
The building holds the generators.
Hoover Dam is one of the tallest dams in the world
, 726 feet high.
A sign warns that anyone throwing something off the dam will be arrested.
The safety railing has a subtle art deco design.
The design becomes stronger at a pair of small towers holding brass doors.
Either side of these towers has plaques in the classic art deco typeface listing the government officials that helped finance the dam.
The list is very long.
These towers are the original elevators into the dam, used by both maintenance workers and tourists.
On the far side, the walk reaches a
The massive intake towers for Hoover Dam, which lead to the powerplant
plaza where the art deco design
kicks into high gear.
Its centerpiece is a flagpole surrounded by a map of the heavens.
The map symbolizes the year the dam was finished, 1935.
The artist, Oskar Hansen, believed the dam would last so many centuries that future visitors would only know the date from the alignment of the stars at the time (he may be right).
Next to the map sits a mosaic of an American eagle flanked by the seals of the five states which used water and electricity from the dam when it was first built.
The center seal is California, flanked by two little grizzly bears, because that state used (and still uses) the most water.
The back wall contains a beautiful art deco relief carving by Hansen, a memorial to the workers who died building the dam.
Finally, the far end contains two beautiful art deco statues of eagles.
Their talons are very bright from rubbing them; an old legend states that doing so will bring luck in Las Vegas.
Soon afterward, I reached that “visitor’s center” from earlier.
It’s not the real visitors’ center
Tilted power line towers
Power line towers above Hoover Dam, tilted so the wires can drop stright down to the power plant
Instead the building holds a deli and a huge gift shop.
Both of these are expensive, another sign of a classic tourist trap.
The real visitor’s center is the building across the street, overlooking the canyon with a perfect view of the dam.
Like the Arch in St. Louis (see June 19th
) the dam is a security site, so prepare for a search on the way in.
Once inside, people end up in a huge line in front of a ticket booth.
The dam offers two different tours
, both of which cost money.
The short tour visits the generator room
The long tour adds two of the maintenance tunnels inside the dam itself.
For some reason, the long tour sells out very quickly, so I ended up on the short one.
I had time to kill beforehand, so I went to the museum.
The saga of Hoover Dam started way back in the late 1800s with businessman George Chaffey.
Like many people wandering the west, he was looking to make his fortune.
He finally ended up in the Imperial Valley
View of the Hoover Dam powerplant from the top of the dam
southern California, a flat, hot, dry near desert.
Like many before him, he noticed that the soil was incredibly rich from thousands of years of floods on the Colorado River.
The soil and climate were perfect for growing plants normally found in southern Europe (dates, olives, cashews) which were rare and expensive in the United States at the time.
The only problem was a total lack of water.
Unlike people before him, he decided he could provide it, by damming the Colorado River.
He founded the California Development Company, which built a dam near Yuma Arizona and a canal into the valley in 1901.
Over the next few years, things boomed.
Thousands of farmers moved to the valley and the area became prosperous.
Nobody seemed to realize that the same floods that deposited the fertile soil could still occur and ruin them all.
In 1905, the river did just that. The flood
not only destroyed the canal, it redirected the river so the entire flow poured into the valley.
The center filled with water to create a huge lake called the Salton Sea, which still exists.
The classic view of Black Canyon from the top of Hoover Dam, with the new bridge in the middle
Engineers needed two years to rebuild the dams and send the Colorado back on its original course.
Chaffey sold his company at a huge loss and left.
The tale may have ended there except for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
They had made a lot of money transporting produce from the Imperial Valley, so they had a vested interest in seeing the area succeed.
They bought the canal company.
Unlike the previous owners, the railroad had deep influence over California state government.
The company lobbied legislatures to finance a much larger dam, one that would control floods on the Colorado and irrigate much of southern California.
California congressmen introduced a bill to authorize such a dam in 1920.
At this point, the other states the Colorado flows through became very concerned.
All western states have laws stating that anyone who borders a river has the right to claim the unused flow.
They do not need to consider potential future users when doing so.
The states believed that if the dam were built, California would claim the entire flow of the Colorado leaving nothing left for them.
Art Deco memorial to workers who died building the dam
Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce under President Calvin Coolidge, persuaded the states to negotiate a compact
to split up the water, which they finished in 1922.
It governs the river to this day, although it has had to be amended several times.
For example, the water engineers overestimated the river’s annual flow by over 10%.
With the agreement in place, construction could proceed.
While compact negotiations proceeded, civil engineers surveyed the canyons below the Grand Canyon to find the right place for the dam.
The canyon in question had to be tall and narrow, with solid rock on the walls.
It had to be located away from known earthquake faults, and close to sources of material for concrete.
The engineers first picked a site in Boulder Canyon upstream (which is now flooded) but then moved it to Black Canyon.
This is the source of the original name, Boulder Dam.
Many supporters wanted to name it after Hoover, who had pushed for the compact that made it possible.
Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal agencies actually built the dam, viewed naming it for his predecessor, a President
Eagle and star chart
Eagle mosaic surrounded by a chart of the stars in 1935, the year the dam was finished
from the other party who had led the country into the Great Depression, to be an unacceptable embarrassment
Congress passed a bill changing the name to Hoover in the 1947.
One consequence of this little political tiff is that the dedication plaques near the elevators refer to ‘Boulder Dam’, not ‘Hoover Dam’.
Building Hoover Dam required unprecedented engineering skill
No construction company had ever worked on a project of this size.
The federal government ultimately awarded the contract to a group of six firms, the “gang of six”, who dominated the business for decades afterward.
Dozens of dams, such as Bonneville on the Columbia River (see July 19th
) were built in the ensuring decades, and the techniques for all of them were pioneered on Hoover Dam.
First, the builders blasted tunnels through the sides of the canyon.
They diverted the Colorado through these tunnels around the dam site.
These tunnels were later reused for the spillways.
They then excavated the riverbed down to bedrock.
Given the flood thirty years earlier, this took remarkably little time.
Then, they started blasting the sides of the canyon
Hoover dam statue
One of two statues at Hoover Dam representing American ingenuity. Note the bright feet, rubbed by generations of visitors to bring good luck in Las Vegas
to create anchor points.
Loose rocks from the blasting then needed to be knocked off the walls.
Men sitting on platforms hanging from ropes did the job, one of the most hazardous available.
With the walls now smooth, concrete pouring
The dam was poured layer by layer.
Workers set up sets of large wooden molds, and buckets on huge pulleys filled them with concrete.
When a mold filled up, workers broke it down and created the next layer.
The concrete was mixed on site using material from nearby mines.
The system ran around the clock.
The largest of the pulley systems still exists, the one seen from the entrance road, which is now used to transport replacement parts for the powerhouse.
It’s the largest pulley system in the world.
Engineers knew in advance that drying that unprecedented amount of concrete would be a huge problem.
Concrete must dry evenly to get full strength.
It also releases heat during this process.
A mass of concrete as large as Hoover Dam was guaranteed to dry unevenly and crack.
The usual solution
Tribute to the men who blasted rocks from the side of the canyon, hanging from wooden swings
was to wait for each layer to dry before pouring the next one, but that would require over a century to finish the dam.
The solution was absolutely ingenious.
Workers laid small steel pipes into the concrete as it poured.
The builders then obtained every air compressor they could find in the western United States, creating the largest refrigeration plant in existence.
The plant cooled water to near freezing, which was then pumped through the pipes.
The water cooled the concrete, and came out near boiling.
With this process, the dam dried in only three years.
The system has been used on every large dam since.
The concrete was not the only thing of unprecedented size on Hoover Dam.
The water pipes were so large, thirty feet in diameter, that no railroad car could carry them.
The parts were transported in pieces and then assembled by a team of welders.
Although the dam was built mainly for irrigation and flood control, it contains a full power plant
Designers knew the dam would feed water downstream at a predictable rate to the irrigation
Power generation from 1940s
The original museum generator model from the 1940s, historic in its own right
By generating electricity with that water, the federal government could sell electricity to pay for the construction cost.
It worked so well that this ultimately paid the entire cost of the dam.
The museum has a display on power generation and transmission.
For anyone who has seen the subject in a science museum, it will be instantly familiar.
The highlight is a scale model of one of the dam’s generators, where a waterwheel at the bottom of a shaft spins magnets at the top, generating the power.
The model in question was built in the 1940s, making it nearly as historic as the dam itself.
Hoover Dan was designed for flood control, and has never had a water volume that it couldn’t handle.
The closest was a huge flood in 1983
nearly equal to the one that destroyed the Imperial Valley eight decades earlier.
The museum has a picture of the spillways from that year, with half the tunnels filled with water.
In case it isn’t obvious, this museum presents everything about the dam as a good thing.
The project was an
One of four huge pipes from the penstock towers to the generators
unprecedented demonstration of human ingenuity that brought incredible prosperity to much of the southwest.
It turned deserts into some of the most productive farmland on earth, and allowed cities to rise where none had existed before.
The museum has not one word about the environmental havoc
the dam caused when it drowned a canyon and altered the flow of a major river, not to mention enabling unprecedented growth ultimately unsupportable by the region’s resources.
If the Colorado River ever dried up, millions of people would soon die of thirst.
My dam tour started with a mandatory film on the dam.
It is even more positive than the museum and ultimately felt like a PR piece.
This is the dam’s managers patting themselves on the back.
Afterwards we got in a large elevator that replaced the ones in the dam for a long ride downward.
My ears popped.
The elevator opens into a tunnel blasted into the rock, one of the original work tunnels.
The tunnel leads to a viewing area over a very large metal pipe.
The pipe leads to the generators.
One of the two generator rooms at the base of Hoover Dam. Only the topmost part of the generators are visible
area has a diagram showing the water flow through the dam.
The pipe is slightly wet.
Workers (and tour guides) never discuss dam leaks; the correct word is “seepage”.
After seeing the pipe, the tour goes to a balcony above a very long concrete room.
Light pours in through windows on the left side.
This is the generator room, directly in front of the dam.
The floor contains a long row of tall cylindrical structures, the tops of the generators.
The rest of the floors are covered in black and white mosaics patterned after southwestern pottery designs.
The right wall contains a bank of control devices that look like the Hollywood version of a mad scientist’s lab.
Workers use these to monitor the power plant.
A huge crane sits overhead, which is used to move generators for maintenance.
It is one of the largest in the United States.
The urge to make dam(n) puns about the place is nearly irresistible, and the guides have heard them all over the years.
After seeing the dam, I drove over that bridge seen just downstream.
The crane used to move the generators, one of the largest in the world
It soars high over Black Canyon, and was quite a feat to build.
It should have a great view of Hoover Dam, but it actually has none at all thanks to safety railings.
It also has a trivial, but important, political annoyance.
The bridge is named after two people
, a Special Forces soldier from Arizona who died in Afghanistan and a local Congressman.
The Congressman is listed first.
Past the bridge, I had a long drive across western Arizona.
The early part runs close to Black Canyon, with some nice views into the gorge.
The source of the name is quite obvious.
Afterwards, the road enters desert every bit as flat and empty as what I saw in the Mojave, with a low mountain ridge in the distance.
It finally reached interstate 40.
The scenery did not improve any, but at least it moved past me faster.
The highway finally reaches the town of Williams.
The town is an old railroad depot that has only existed for one reason, tourists visiting the Grand Canyon.
It’s the closest interstate town to the south rim.
One of the mosiacs on the floor of the generator room balcony
Williams has three separate exits named “Grand Canyon”, only the third of which actually goes there.
The other two lead to strings of tourist traps.
I’ve been to the Grand Canyon
before, but decided to see it anyway.
The canyon is one of the great vistas of the Southwest.
If nothing else, I would have to deal with “You saw the entire United States and skipped the Grand Canyon; are you crazy?” questions for the rest of my life if I bypassed it.
Heading north, something unexpected happened: the sky clouded over.
Soon afterward, it started to rain.
Rain rarely falls in this part of the country, and the roads are not well designed for it.
The rain finally let up near sunset, when I reached the park.
Not long afterward, I reached Mather Point
, and saw the huge gaping gash in the earth.
I found it less impressive than many people do.
For starters, the weather was overcast at sunset, so the canyon was very dark.
This makes the incredible size less noticeable.
Next, I’ve hiked
My view of the Grand Canyon on a clouded over day at sunset.
below the rim in the past, and a repeat visit can’t compares to seeing the canyon for the first time.
Finally, I’ve seen so many other big gaps in the earth on this trip (Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon, Columbia Gorge) that another big gap isn’t as overwhelming as it could be.
After the viewpoint, I drove east into the Navajo Nation
The largest Native American Reservation in the United States, it covers all of northeastern Arizona.
I ate dinner at the Cameron Trading Post
It is one of several set up in the mid 1800s to trade with the Navaho.
It contains a restaurant in a building from that era.
The menu featured a number of Navaho specialties, such as frybread and spicy stew.
The quality, sadly, was average at best.
Impressive rugs line the walls.
Tonight I had my first encounter with an issue that will come up repeatedly in the next month.
Unlike the rest of the country, Arizona does not observe
daylight savings time.
In effect, the state is on Mountain Time in the winter and Pacific Time the rest
Cameron Trading Post
The main dining room at the Cameron Trading Post
of the year.
The Navajo Nation, on the other hand, DOES observe it.
This means that outside winter a given time in this area could mean one of two things, depending on the exact location of the person saying it.
That included how late the trading post stays open.
I quickly learned to ask the time zone along with the time when talking to people in this region.
After dinner, I had a long drive across the entire reservation.
I did the entire thing after dark, and didn’t see a thing.
The reservation is mostly empty land with very few towns.
I drove until I crossed into Colorado on the eastern edge of the reservation, found the town of Cortez, and could sleep.