A brutal planet and people as hard as rocks. Black Canyon Part 1

Do you have someone among your friends who is passionate about energy? Until a few months ago, the answer would probably have been – ‘no, I don’t’. Back then, energy was only a passion for a small group of technical geeks, militant environmentalists and politicians looking for their niche.

Today, energy is on everyone’s lips. Tension and lack of energy are capable of toppling governments, creating acute financial crises, changing the political landscape and putting military units on combat alert.

It only took two years with a pandemic, rampant money printing, two years of disrespecting laws and good practice in public finance, implementing extreme environmental ideas and less than a year of Russian-Ukrainian war to make people realise that one of the most important means necessary for survival is to have energy.

The current energy panic has literally everyone talking about energy. Ordinary people are trying to organise their own alternative energy sources (wood, solar panels). The wealthy ones are locking up their cold homes and going on a couple of months’ holiday to warm countries. State governments are trying to stockpile large supplies of energy, understanding that a shortage will be a mortal danger to the country’s economy and to the forces in power.

However, this feverish search for sources of needed energy is limited. Everyone is looking at where to buy, divert, negotiate energy supplies. Almost no one is planning to extract it from deep within or from the earth’s surface.

This article is about the people who almost a century ago – through bold vision, hard work and cutting-edge technology – created a great energy source that changed the face of the American Southwest and, a dozen years later, the face of the global economy.

Entrance to Black_Canyon, Colorado River from above
Near the Black Canyon of the Colorado River (Nevada/Arizona), in the middle of a hellish desert, it was decided to build the world's tallest dam, the largest man-made water reservoir and the world's largest power plant. Entrance to Black Canyon, Colorado River from above ©T.H._O'Sullivan, Library of Congress

A brown, brutal planet

The sight appeared like a classic mirage before the eyes of exhausted travelers. But this was no mirage, but a real picture of the Nevada desert. Near the Black Canyon of the Colorado River (Nevada/Arizona), in the middle of a hellish desert, hundreds of people were camping out in temperatures of plus 45°C. Everything around them was scorched from the roasting sun, colourless or tinged with hundreds of shades of dead red or brown. Whole families vegetated here in old cars, shacks or tents.

The place they chose for their nomadism was called Hemingway Wash, and it lay right next to the lofty rock of Cape Horn. This was one of the last relatively flat pieces of riverbank on the Nevada side of the river, before the brisk stream had tumbled into the precipitous, dark Black Canyon defined by massive, tens of metres high, rocky walls. Existing on the banks of this inhospitable river, in heat akin to that of an oven, might have seemed an extreme misery. That it could be even worse was only evident by looking at the nearby hills on either side of the canyon. This was not an environment in which humans could exist. As far as the eye could see, there was no sign of living vegetation. Nature was so harsh that it was reminiscent of the images that mankind would come to know decades later thanks to images sent by satellite from the surface of the red planet, Mars.

These people came to share life on the riverbank with venomous spiders, arthropod clusters and desert snakes. It might have seemed that the Colorado River would show some relief in this unique place. However, it was not a source of even the slightest comfort due to the masses of aggregates it carried in its swift currents. The water “was too thick to pump … and too thin to shovel with shovels”. The nomadic residents, even if they had access to water, had to either wait until the next day for the natural impurities in the water to subside or repeatedly strain it through makeshift strainers after drawing it. This macabre assemblage of exhausted people, creating an unreal Ragtown, was as real a picture as possible of the USA in the early 1930s.

Solitaey house Nevada desert
The images of the West that were shown in Hollywood films had little to do with real life. Pioneers remembered their first steps in the West as a period of poverty, sacrifice, great hope and even greater disappointment. Refugees were looking to survive the cruel economic depression of the 1930s. There was to be a mythical job in the West that was a salvation from starvation. In Las Vegas, there were more than 40,000 applicants for the 5,000 dam-building jobs, who persistently camped out in the city and along the Colorado River, waiting for their chance to get a job. © Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

A vivid illustration of the Depression

These people came to the Nevada desert voluntarily. The nomads were a living illustration of the American economic depression that occurred in 1929. This unprecedented collapse of the US economy resulted in thousands of people being thrown out of their family homes to places where there were – even minimal – chances of getting a job, even if these chances were completely inadequate for human existence. Such a place was the Black Canyon.

In the words of one US senator, most of the Wild West should not be settled by US citizens unless it is forced exile for a committed crime. In much of the Western Territory, one of the few chances of survival was to settle near one of the railways and secure access to drinking water. Without this, being in the desert was life’s roulette. This desert gamble with lives at stake had its own name: “40 miles” (about 60 km), which is the distance that animals, even the most hardy ones such as American mules, and their handlers are able to travel without water.

No matter which direction the newcomers turned their eyes, there was no rescue in sight. To the east of the Ragtown, the Black Canyon area was dominated by bleak rocks stretching along a hostile river; to the north and south a boundless desert spread out. It could be traversed for days without the chance of encountering a living being. After many hours of travel, it was possible, at most, to reach one, maybe two trails trodden by people. To the west of Black Canyon, the only trace of human civilisation was a tiny, dusty town living off the railway line, a few brothels and a couple of bars. This boarded-up hellhole was well on its way to joining the long list of Wild West ghost towns.

Las Vegas "the Fertile Plain"

By the end of the 19th century, more than 90 per cent of the West’s mining towns were ghost towns with the most beautiful names you could think of at the time: Gold Acre, Silverhorn, Star City, Diamond Field, Queen City, Monte Cristo, Lucky Boy or Eldorado. The town near Black Canyon also had a fancy name, but it sounded like a bad joke. Who could take seriously the town located here called the “Fertile Plain”, or more precisely – because of its Mexican roots – Las Vegas? Those who had visited it before could firmly attest that it was the dustiest and driest place on the planet. Nature had spared it almost everything. Settlers avoided Las Vegas and southern Nevada by an arc as wide as possible. Everyone wanted to reach California and Oregon. That was until the day the news spread that this unfriendly land hid not only what everyone so coveted – namely gold and silver – but also what was essential for survival: water!

In September 1930, the people who had been nomadising in the desert for weeks and months saw a spark of hope. For it was then that an event took place that could be the start of a new life for them. Both the poor of the makeshift camps and the social and political cream of Nevada and the surrounding states of the Southwest gathered in the Mojave Desert. The latter arrived by chartered trains, buses and a few planes. Millions of Americans gathered around radio sets looking for a personal spark of hope in the coverage of the event confirming that the raging depression was about to end. There were millions of people waiting for good news, and among them, in August 1930, nearly four million unemployed. This army of the poor grew exponentially so that in 1933 it reached the unprecedented figure of nine million people without work. This was no longer an economic crisis, it was a real catastrophe.

Change of location

On 7 September 1930, about 10 km south of Vegas, Ray Vilbur (President Herbert Hoover’s envoy) finally drove a golden nail (smelted silver, for the record) into the first sleeper of the new railway line after a couple of unsuccessful attempts. It was to connect the area adjacent to Black Canyon with the only visible point of civilisation on the horizon, namely Las Vegas, a few dozen kilometres away. Construction began on the eighth wonder of the world, a 224-metre-high dam and hydroelectric power plant on the Colorado River – a wonder that will go down in history as Boulder Dam, as the locals will call it, or Hoover Dam, as tourists and politicians will call it.

"Rigger-rodman working with topography survey party in Black Canyon on Nevada side. Rodman is lowered over canyon rim on rope and gives points which are recorded with both horizontal and vertical angle by two transit parties.
Before construction could begin, a lot of surveying had to be done, which could only be done by professionals with circus artist qualifications. "Rigger-rodman working with topography survey party in Black Canyon on Nevada side. Rodman is lowered over canyon rim on rope and gives points which are recorded with both horizontal and vertical angle by two transit parties.” © Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation

The new wonder of the world was originally to be built in Boulder Canyon, more than 120 km from Las Vegas. The entire construction site was also to be built near this location, but – as has happened many times before and many times later in history – an unlikely stroke of luck happened to this small, dusty town. Despite decades of geological research and despite many years of planning, the final location for the project was decided on only a few years before Congress decided to start construction. And that location was not Boulder Canyon. The construction site was moved to the south, just outside the corners of Las Vegas. Geologists determined that the original location in Boulder Canyon was not the best because of geological issues and because of pure economics. Black Canyon was lower in elevation than the originally chosen location, saving time and money. The terrain of the Black Canyon rim also proved to be more favourable. There was no need to carve into the rock the platforms on which the machinery and buildings of the future construction site were to be placed. Nor was it necessary to excavate the rocks for the dam’s foundations as deeply as planned in the first location. By moving the dam closer to Las Vegas, the reservoir intended to serve as a storage and regulator of the river’s water level could be much larger. The existing rail line running through Vegas made it easier to transport materials and accommodate thousands of future dam builders.

Credit: Ted-Ed

Does California want to steal their water?

Not only has the location of the planned dam changed. There has also been a revision of views on why the dam should be built. It was originally intended to protect California’s fertile Imperial Valley from the devastating floods caused by the river. The agricultural areas of California, which were already booming economic centres in the 1920s, were to no longer fear the violent floods of the unpredictable Colorado. Many times before, the river had washed away farms, plantations and laboriously constructed irrigation canals. As it was 90 years ago, today California is a state where agriculture is the number one economic branch and consumes up to 80% of local water resources. 90% of all water available in the West is used to irrigate desert lands. There has been a confrontation between the interests of individual states and those of powerful California.

Farmer in the Imperial Valley
The area of California in the 1920s was a thriving agricultural centre. Farmers, after the construction of the dam, were no longer to fear the violent floods of the unpredictable Colorado. Many times before, the river had washed away farms, plantations and laboriously constructed irrigation canals. The seasoned farmers of the Imperial Valley area battled with capricious nature. © Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

The smaller states began to emphasise their own needs and the fact that the Colorado is ‘their’ river. The main source of its flowing water is the Rocky Mountains and their melting snow. With a total length of more than 2,300 km, the river flows through Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah. The Colorado River drains into a delta located in Mexican territory and eventually ends in the Gulf of California. The Colorado flows primarily through the territory of another great state, Arizona, which has fiercely battled its great neighbour, the Republic of California, since its inception as a US state.

California’s insatiable appetite for water became a source of conflict that would continue for decades after the dam was built. Each state tried to prove that it had been wronged in the allocation of water that was to be put at its disposal. They also all unanimously claimed that California wanted to steal their water. Fierce debates continued from 1928 for decades to come. It was not until 1963 that the US Supreme Court ruled to reduce the amount of water discharged to California and give some of it to its neighbours – primarily Arizona. The dispute did not end in 1963 or 1968, but continued in fact until 2007, when an agreement to distribute Colorado River water was signed anew.

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