The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1989, Volume 35, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Hoover Dam: An American Adventure.

By Joseph E. Stevens. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. Notes. Bibilography. Illustrations. Index. 326 Pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Gregg R. Hennessey, Historian and author of articles about San Diego, including water development and reform.

From its inception, Hoover Dam has captured the imagination of Americans for its technological achievements, its architectural beauty, and its dual symbolism of harnessing nature and offering hope during the Depression. In 1980, when a young Joseph E. Stevens first saw America’s “great pyramid” on the Colorado River, he too was seduced by the dam’s symbolic imagery and power. Stevens wondered what kind of people would dare to build such an astounding project in so hostile an environment. As his subtitle tells us, this was a national adventure, a defining experience for America.

Hoover Dam: An American Adventureis an extensively researched, well Written popular history. The narrative offers no analysis and makes few judgments. Stevens uses literary license to highlight the heroic myth that has surrounded the building of the dam. The adventure, for him, lies in the people who made the dam, not in the politics or the engineering. Stevens interwines the experiences and fortunes of the three principal groups who came together in Black Canyon. Owners of the famous Six Companies consortium financed and organized the project, and profited so well from it and subsequent federal contracts, that they went on to international fame and fortune. Among them were Bechtel, Kaiser, Morrison-Knudsen, and Utah International. The engineers who ran the project and overcame all hardships and difficulties were headed by Frank T. Crowe, the leading dam builder of his day. Crowe also found great financial and personal rewards on the Colorado River. The final group involved at Hoover Dam was the laborers, so desperate for work they unhesitatingly risked life and limb for scandalously low wages in horrible working conditions. The author’s best moments in this book are when he gives names and faces to some of these individuals and their families, none of whom secured anything from Black Canyon beyond a bit of pride and a sense of survival.

Stevens wants very much for the Hoover Dam adventure to be an uplifting, romantic battle between man and nature wherein the intrepid capitalists and their ingenious engineers laboring shoulder to shoulder with fearless, even cavalier workers, tame the capricious river. The evidence and stories he lays before us paint a very different picture, however. Emerging from these pages is a callous and irresponsible Six Companies, aided and abetted in the early years of the project by a sympathetic Hoover administration, which exploited desperate victims of the Depression — killing and maiming hundreds — to meet deadlines, earn profits, and make reputations. The Six Companies amassed a dismaying list of ruthless actions including the crushing of labor union activities seeking to address worker safety, and engaging in criminal activity to discredit injured workers’ compensation claims. Frank Crowe callously pushed the workers in spite of unsafe and unhealthy conditions in pursuit of company profits, in which he had a direct stake.

During the buildings of Hoover Dam, San Diego had its own plan for using Colorado River water and thus receives no direct mention in this book. In the 1920s San Diego had pulled out of regional planning efforts for the Colorado River to pursue its own course, a blueprint for shipping 112,000 acre feet of water west through the desert, over the mountains, and in to city reservoirs. This rather grandiose scheme was never realized and the exigencies of World War II forced San Diego to finally rejoin the rest of southern California in order to get the essential water provided by Hoover Dam.

Stevens ends his story with the dam’s completion and a short overview of its manifold benefits for western development. His sense of wonder and awe at this spectacular project causes him to accept unquestioningly the promises of modern technology to make nature do man’s bidding without fear of the environmental or human costs. In fact, in closing (pp.265-67) he denigrates such concerns. While Hoover Dam represents positive values for some, others see it as a short term and unwise attempt by society to control nature in pursuit of profit. The dam did open up the west for development but it also possibly irreparable damage on the environment without providing positive benefits for everyone, as the dam builders invariably promised. Stevens has captured and vividly recounted the heroic building of Hoover Dam, but he has chosen not to count the costs that followed in its wake.

[shown here is the corrected version of the book review which was published in Spring 1989]