Hoover Dam | Great Depression Project

What can happen when the right components come together? You know the answer. Amazing things can be accomplished. This post highlights one such joining of forces in the construction of Hoover Dam. This country was in the depths of the Great Depression when Hoover Dam was constructed 1931-1935. The labor force was ready. Science, mathematics, engineering, ingenuity, motivation, and technology came together with the support of government to complete one of the most impressive projects the world has seen. I have seen documentaries about it. They pale in comparison to seeing, and being inside, the real thing. Join me below for some visual highlights from our visit to this important place.

Picture 2

The view above is courtesy of Google Maps. At left is the visitor center and observation level. The four round tower structures top center and lower right are water intakes. They stand nearly 400′ tall from their bases and provide the water flow to the generators in the structures at the lower left. From the top of the dam to the river level below is 726′.


This is the view from the visitor’s center. The dam is so large, four separate images were merged into this one. Two of these vertical structures housed restrooms decorated beautifully in the art deco style, as were most of the public areas.


Inside Hoover Dam

The tour started by riding the elevator down to the level of the 30′ diameter steel penstock pipes that carry water to the turbines on the Nevada side of the dam. We traversed through a tunnel in the rock which opened into a room directly above one of the pipes. You could feel the muffled vibration on your feet as the water rushed toward the generators. Another pipe of equal size is on the Arizona side of the dam. The drawing above shows some of these structures and dimensions.



30′ Penstock Pipe

We went back to the elevator and up one level. After walking a long distance through another rock tunnel, we emerged into the generator hall. There is one on each side of the river at the base of the dam. A light on top means that generator is operating. It was early in the day and the temperatures were cool. Less electricity demand meant they were not all operating. Note the stairs and railings for scale. The top of the railings are about 3′ tall.




This picture is of a full sized model in the visitor’s center. The rotating steel shaft is 3′ in diameter. Spinning magnetized electromagnet coils move past stationary coils of wire to generate the electric current.



One other smaller generator is in the floor of the hall of generators. This one supplies electricity for the various needs of the dam site. The main large generators above provide electricity directly to the grid. Notice the ladder in the upper right for scale.


Outside Hoover Dam

Standing on the observation deck gave a view down to the Arizona and Nevada generator halls nearly 700′ below. Electric cables emerge from the roof of the halls and up the wall of the canyon. There they are guided by cantilevered towers to keep them from touching each other or the rock walls. The cables are connected to transformers and the grid.




Here are the two intake towers on the Nevada side. A matching pair are on the Arizona side of the dam.


This overview shot was taken from the new bypass highway bridge recently constructed.


Building Hoover Dam

I am not going to go into details about the building of the dam. Instead, I will provide some links at the end to URLs for you to follow if interested. Here are a few interesting things from the visitor’s center. First is the manpower needed and their pay scales. Shovel operators were relatively well paid.


Large buckets transferred and poured concrete day in and day out 24/7.

Hoover Dam was the first man-made structure to exceed the masonry mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The dam contains enough concrete to pave a strip 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to New York City. More than 5 million barrels of Portland cement and 4.5 million cubic yards of aggregate went into the dam. If all of the materials used in the dam were loaded onto a single train, as the engine entered the switch yards in Boulder City, the caboose would just be leaving Kansas City, MO. Curing concrete releases heat. If the heat produced by the curing concrete could have been concentrated in a baking oven, it would have been sufficient to bake 500,000 loaves of bread per day for three years.


Here is a short time lapse video of the growing dam from the visitor’s center. It takes less than a minute.

The Bypass Highway Bridge

Traffic formerly all crossed the top of the dam. In October 2010, a new bypass highway bridge was opened allowing traffic to flow more easily and quickly between AZ and NV and to make the dam more secure. These pictures of the bypass bridge were taken from the top the dam. Again, multiple images were merged because the bridge is so large. Cars can park in a lot to the right on the Nevada side to allow tourists to walk safely to the center of the bridge.



Here is a time lapse movie of the construction of the bridge from the Federal Highway Administration. It takes less than 2 minutes to view.

Final Thoughts

Hoover Dam was a vast and impressive project. It was formerly called Boulder Dam. If you ever get a chance to see it and tour inside, I urge you to do it. It is a monument to the resourcefulness of people when they set their mind to a goal of this magnitude. For the day, it was like striving to send humans to the Moon.

There are continuing controversies about water rights and other issues, of course. But, the building of such a facility in the depths of the Great Depression illustrates well how the right components can, and should, come together. I think this should be a lesson to us all. We are capable of great things. We can do them.

For additional details, visit these URLs.

Hoover Dam Home – http://www.usbr.gov/…

Articles from the past – http://www.usbr.gov/…

Essays about the dam – http://www.usbr.gov/…


21 thoughts on “Hoover Dam | Great Depression Project

    • Yes. I couldn’t agree with you more. I wonder how many times I was gawking around with my mouth open. Nothing prepared me for the truly awesome place.

      Humans have done this through history. Pyramids, Machu Pichu, etc. Sadly, we also have the potential to go negative with our power. There’s the challenge.

      Thank you for stopping in today.

  1. Truly a remarkable place, and glad we took it in during our only visit to the area. The tour and the information center tell a great story! Well done, Jim!

    • It was one of the best tours ever for me. We arrived right after opening that day. No crowd yet. When we emerged, the place was packed. Good we got in early. And, good there were lots of people going in.

      Thanks, Frank.

  2. Eve and I drove across the Hoover Dam in 1989, but I wasn’t aware of the new bypass. Security has definitely increased since September 11 (2001). A few years before then a bypass was built for Mansfield Dam outside of Austin, and the old two-lane road across the top of the dam (which I’d driven many times) became a bikeway/walkway. It was a great place to visit, but unfortunately even that non-automotive access was cut off after September 11. Similarly, I was taking photographs near the base of that dam a few years ago and I must have gotten too close because the police came to see what I was doing. By coincidence, the Mansfield Dam is on the Colorado River, but it’s a different Colorado River from the one that flows through the Grand Canyon.

        • In the mid 80s, I positioned my telescope behind an elementary school in my neighborhood. It was dark and had an outlet for the clock drive. My eyes got dark adapted. I noticed a person walk a dog across on the far side of the schoolyard.

          About 15 min later a policeman came around the corner with a super bright flashlight in my face asking what I was doing. He let me stay, but told me to call the shift desk next time so they knew not to worry. I said I did that earlier in the day. He said to call just before I go over. The day shift doesn’t tell the night shift about those calls. ???

  3. Awesome engineering achievements. Nice job capturing the scale of the thing, as much as can be communicated indirectly like this. I’ve been inside a small dam, on the upper Skagit River in Washington, tiny compared to this, and even there, the 3 giant generators made me feel like an ant.

    I read a book which took place during the construction of Hoover dam, from the pov of some workers, who were grateful for the work at that time, as difficult and dangerous as it was. I remember the descriptions of them tunneling through rock, with the river held at bay to keep it dry. That’s always amazed me, knowing the relentless power of water, the engineering challenge to divert it during construction. The 30s wasn’t all that long ago, but even so there was a lot of manual labor moving rock after the dynamiting. We can imagine the engineer’s relief when the tunnels being dug from each end met up! Kind of like when the two ends of the new bridge arch met in the center. That was a remarkable achievement too. Seeing what goes on during construction reminds us of the temporary structures built and then removed in building infrastructure, costly and destroyed, but essential.

    The decay of our infrastructure is one of those issues that is not getting the attention it should. Bridges and roads are invisible until they fail, like the bridge that collapsed into the Skagit river last spring. Lots of attention and money for a catastrophic failure, very little over routine maintenance and updating. Crazy way to manage such things.

    Thanks for the informative article, and I’m glad you had such a great visit there.

    • It is good to see you today. I agree that these achievements make one feel so small. I got to visit and tour the Apollo facilities at the Cape in the early ’60s. We went into the huge cubic Vehicle Assembly Building, touched the crawler that carried the Saturn V rocket out to the pad, and went into places no one gets to today. I always marveled at the size.

      Your point about keeping our infrastructure maintained and safe is very well taken. I am very distressed about how little attention is paid until something awful happens. To use a simple example, watch car or a house fall apart with improper maintenance and upkeep. It is less expensive to do it routinely that to fix the problems due to neglect.

      Thank you for your visit.

  4. I’ve never been to Hoover Dam, but this was a fine visit. It’s an amazing place – wondrous, almost.

    Reading your post, I did find myself wondering if we could accomplish such a thing today. My first impulse is to say “no”. Just a day or so ago I came across a post that made this point:

    “When our country has accomplished great things in the past, there has usually been a great engineer running the program: Hyman Rickover with the nuclear submarine program, or Wernher von Braun with the Apollo space program, for example. Rickover and von Braun were famously stern taskmasters, but they did not substitute wishes for reality.

    Which may be why they were able to launch submarines, and rockets that astounded the world. While today, we can’t even launch a website.”

    The article was focused primarily on the difficulties with the Obamacare launch, but the larger point is important. Now and then I have a suspicion that our obsession with the virtual world is reducing our ability to appreciate and function in the real world. Imagination’s required, of course – you have to imagine something like this dam before you can build it. But understanding the nature of rock, concrete, water, electricity – that’s necessary, too.

    I could add a few things about politicians and bureaucrats pushing aside true experts, but I guess I’ll leave that alone.

    Interesting post!

    • I listened to a program last week that pointed out the value of the now de-funded Office of Technology Assessment. It was cut in 1995. The office provided over 750 studies on a wide range of topics, including the environment, national security, health, and social issues. The OTA would have been able to help guide the implementation of the ACA legislation and perhaps avoid the technology mess we are in of a disfunctional signup system.

      Sometimes, the attempts to save money can look good. But, they can also cost more in the long run.

      Thanks for your comments.

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