Boomin' Up: Building Boulder Dam

In 1931 work began on the engineering modern marvel of its day, Boulder Dam. Engineers had never built a dam of this size. Skeptics said it would never work.

But in the depths of the Depression, construction workers and average joes heard the siren call of good wages and responded. Despite the backbreaking work, they came in droves hoping to get one of the coveted jobs on the project.

In spite of the sweltering heat and primitive conditions, men packed up their wives and children and brought them to a canyon on the Colorado River where the temperatures reached 120 degrees in the shade. Down there, on the canyon floor, there was no electricity, no running water, no air conditioning. Women set up little tent and box homes and made do with ingenuity and courage. The men went to work and the families endured the hottest summer on record because there was no alternative.

In the small town of Las Vegas, men arrived by train, hoping to get find work.  George Foley,Sr remembers that "for every job on the Dam, ten men came here to get it".  Those that could not find work, Gail Andress remembers, "lived under the mesquite bushes and in a 'Hooverville' down by the cemetery".

One of those fortunate to find a job was Lee Tilman.  Now almost 94 years old, Lee remembers that "the most important thing was to have a job and to keep that job no matter what."  Herb Jones was a college student who managed to find work in Anderson's Mess Hall his first summer home from college.  Men gathered every day at the Employment Office in Las Vegas hoping against hope that work might be available.  Jones recalls that "you had to wait for someone to get fired or injured" in order to be able to take their place.  Jones went back to college in the fall.  When he returned the next summer, he was able to find work as a puddler,  whose job was to wade in the freshly poured concrete and stamp out all the air bubbles.

Las Vegas was a small town back then but on Friday and Saturday nights, the men working on the Dam would drive down the unpaved two lane road now known as Boulder Highway, to wet their whistles, do a little gambling and visit the Red Light District, Block 16.

The river had to be diverted so that construction of the face of the Dam could begin, concrete was poured 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  A cooling system had to be invented to cure the concrete so that it wouldn't develop cracks.  High scalers, hanging from ropes and jumping from side to side, placed dynamite in the crevices of the canyon walls, lit the fuses and then swung out of the way as the dynamite exploded.

It was back-breaking, dangerous work.  The Wobblies and others tried to unionize the workers and work shut down for days.  When the men went back to work, there was no union but they did have slightly better working conditions.

The Federal Government realized that the families of the working men had to have a place to live and so construction of Boulder City, a federal reservation with no gambling and no liquor allowed, was started.

 Families from Las Vegas made the long drive out Boulder Highway frequently to watch the construction and watch the Dam being built.  On the way home, they often stopped off at Jimmie Jones' (no relation to Herb) restaurant, The Green Shack, for fried chicken dinners.

Many who lived in Las Vegas back then were poor.  George Foley Sr remembers big family Sunday dinners every week but it was only years later that he realized that his father was sitting there "wondering where next week's meal would come from".  The construction of the Dam helped Las Vegas weather the Great Depression better than many other cities.

Four years later and two years ahead of schedule, work was completed on the Dam.  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt came to town to officially dedicate the Dam.  They were driven in an open air Dusenberg out to the site.  People lined Fremont Street to wave at the passing couple.  As the car approached the Dam, George Foley Sr, who had hitch-hiked from town, stood on the side of the road and waved.  Wendell Tobler remembers the enclosed Dedication platform where FDR delivered his speech.  But what struck Wendall most of all was the small platform that was built for the photographers.  That platform was open air and constructed in front of the main FDR dedication site.   It seemed to Wendell to be suspended in air and, as a young boy, remembers thinking that one wrong move might send all the photographers over the side.  

The Dam did more than just transform the Southwest forever.  It transformed the small town of Las Vegas into a tourist destination. 

Join us at our historic Event this month:

Saturday, Oct. 21st

Clark County Museum

1830 S. Boulder Highway


This once-in-a-lifetime panel includes:

Dam Construction worker Lee Tilman,

Violet Oppedyk Tracht whose family owned one of the first dairies in the Valley,

Laura Godbey Kelly Smith who as a small child lived in Ragtown that infamous summer,

Gail Andress, George Foley and Emmett Sullivan were all young boys who witnessed first hand the impact on the small town of Las Vegas.

Moderated by Dr. Michael Green

Reception begins at 5:30

Event begins at 6:30

You won't want to miss it!