‘Happy city’ and people as hard as rocks. Boulder City. Part 2

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In the realities of the 1920s and 1930s, the West and the state of Nevada was a backward part of the USA that paled in comparison to the industrial East. The country’s economic recovery programme after the depression caused by the great stock market crash of 1929 was called the New Deal. It provided for the construction of an industrial infrastructure especially in the west of the country. Key to its success were rivers, their regulation and the production of electricity. The Hoover Dam was to be a facility to match America’s growing ambitions. It was to be the tallest dam in the world, the largest reservoir of man-made water and the largest power station in the world.

The impending start of construction, however, did not bring rapid change and the much-anticipated jobs. Those who already got jobs were carefully selected specialists from the government’s United Status Bureau of Reclamation pulled here from other construction sites around the country. Six Companies, the consortium of the company building the dam, also had its own employment and pay policies. The consortium was greedy and, at every stage of construction, tried to make money even at the expense of hired labourers, who had to pay for the smallest, captive services provided to them exclusively by their employer. The consortium dominated everything that could provide additional income: accommodation, food, transport – everything at every stage of employment. Six Companies was absolutely unconcerned about the gigantic queue of unemployed people waiting for a job in Las Vegas.

In a city with a population of around five thousand in the early 1930s, there were 42,000 unemployed people registered with the employment office, each hoping for one of the five thousand jobs provided on the site. Most of them were camping out on the lawns around the courthouse or the railway station. Around the city, nomads of the unemployed grew similar to those that had already appeared on the banks of the Colorado River. The town was filled with a mass of unemployed men begging for work from every man they met, who, by his appearance – and, of course, his hat – led one to believe that – perhaps – he was a representative of the companies building the dam. When a request for even the simplest job did not work, many did not hesitate to beg for a piece of bread to survive until the next day. The town’s permanent residents, seeing this sea of poverty and desperation, asked in the press and on the radio where the American Red Cross was, which should prevent the human drama unfolding before their eyes.

Construction of Boulder Dam, Boulder City, Nevada: Rigger on cableway headtower during erection
Construction of Boulder Dam, Boulder City, Nevada: Rigger on cableway headtower during erection © Glaha, Ben D., Library of Congress

Las Vegas was too "dirty"

The humours of weary residents and homeless visitors improved as construction of the rail line connecting the future construction site to the Union Pacific rail hub progressed. The completion of this line was the signal for the start of large-scale construction work proper. Instead of confirmation that things were moving in the right direction, the city unfortunately had to swallow another bitter pill. Las Vegas was not too keen on the then Interior Minister Ray Wilbur, who had already visited a few months earlier to see for himself whether a major base could be set up here for the companies building the dam and their workers. The town had done its best to hide its sinecure during his inspection. Wilbur was a typical public servant brought up in the Victorian tradition of restraint towards alcohol, entertainment and extramarital socialising. Vegas was fully aware of the Secretary of State’s moral principals, so the social life that had been going on in the city for many years completely died down. For the first time in its history, the rules of Prohibition were being followed. Rules that were the law all over the country, but here lived their own, i.e. completely disregarding the regulations, life. At the time of Wilbur’s inspection, Block 16, or the ‘red light district’, was closed. The city pretended to be a good, healthy, American community ready to welcome thousands of workers.

'The builders of the eighth wonder of the world. Pictured - second from left, Sims Ely, the despotic Boulder City Manager, in the middle in a three-piece summer (?!) suit, the then US Interior Minister Ray Wilbur, second on the right Frank Crowe, the legendary dam builder.
'The builders of the eighth wonder of the world. Pictured - second from left, Sims Ely, the despotic Boulder City Manager, in the middle in a three-piece summer (?!) suit, the then US Interior Minister Ray Wilbur, second on the right Frank Crowe, the legendary dam builder. © Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation

After the Secretary of State’s departure, Vegas residents drank a river of whiskey, rejoicing that such an embarrassing visit by an official from Washington was over. They drank with joy that Vegas would become the brightest shining star among the cities of the Southwest. Disappointment was high, however, when Wilbur’s decision was published. According to him, Vegas was too “filthy” to host thousands of honest American workers during the steamy construction period, who, according to him, hated alcohol, vaudeville, brothels and other mischief of the day with all their hearts.

Federal reservation

In order to isolate the workers from the pernicious influence of Vegas, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to set aside a federal reserve in the desert – some 40 kilometres from the city – excluded from the jurisdiction of the satanic state of Nevada. This time it was to be a reserve for whites, or more precisely white workers tasked with building the world’s largest dam, artificial lake and power station in record time. Boulder City, as the newly created reserve was called, looked like an oasis of prosperity and stability against the backdrop of the Great Recession and widespread poverty. All the civic virtues and good habits of America at the time were to be imported into Boulder City. What was happening in the neighbouring city, Las Vegas, was considered a freak show and social demoralisation.

Boulder City - reservation for White workers
Boulder City - reservation for White workers © Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation

Boulder City was conceived as the simple opposite of nearby Las Vegas. It was planned to be a governmental city, organised and disciplined in every way, where phenomena such as the exuberance and crazy ideas characteristic of the boom-town West were to be banned. It was to be a sober city planned as a workers’ paradise with all the comforts and protected from both sinful Vegas and predatory desert. One of the first orders the Bureau placed in connection with the construction of Boulder City was the purchase of 9150 trees and shrubs and 1200 rose bushes, which, as one can easily guess, met a miserable fate, that is, total annihilation by common desiccation.

Boulder City planted 9150 trees and shrubs and 1,200 rose bushes, which met a miserable fate - total annihilation by common desiccation.
Boulder City planted 9150 trees and shrubs and 1,200 rose bushes, which met a miserable fate - total annihilation by common desiccation. © Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation

No gambling, prostitution or alcohol!

The great plus point of this friendly and safe haven was supposed to be an ironclad rule that all residents had to abide by – “no gambling, prostitution or alcohol”. Over time, it became apparent that, exactly like any other ideal, Boulder City too had stains on its seemingly impeccable image. The city took on more than just positive values from the American reality. It also found room for racism, class discrimination and political corruption.

That Boulder City would become the American ideal was to be guaranteed by a man named Sims Ely. For officials from the Bureau of Land Reclamation, he was the ideal administrator of a city “magnificently designed, set in beautiful nature; a city that gave people happy living conditions in the spirit of the highest American ideals”. Locals did not entirely agree with this description, for they had a radically different opinion of Sims Ely, an opinion in line with that of one resident who stated that “he was a little Hitler”.

Sims Ely was a professional administrator and looked the part. Add to that the fact that he was 69 years old on the day he took over the city, and that his duties included keeping in check an entire city populated by some of America’s hardest working people, and one might have doubted whether he was up to the task. Those who doubted his ability and broke discipline not only had to be very disappointed but also hurriedly packed their bundles and left the city. Ely decided everything in ‘his’ city and in the literal sense of the word. Police officers were at his personal disposal and only carried out his decisions. Despite the US-wide end to Prohibition in Boulder City for smuggling alcohol from nearby Las Vegas, there was only one punishment – expulsion from the city and the consequent loss of his construction job. Family abuse and family squabbles were effectively eliminated by threats of expulsion. Sims Ely was so powerful that he did not hesitate to take parents away from their children as long as there was discord in the family and the children were not properly cared for.

Boulder City This - a sober city planned as a workers' paradise with all the comforts and protected from both sinful Vegas and the predatory desert.
Boulder City This - a sober city planned as a workers' paradise with all the comforts and protected from both sinful Vegas and the predatory desert. © Department of the Interior. Bureau of Reclamation

Contrary to the American principle of free enterprise, every shop and service establishment had to be approved by an all-powerful administrator. Similar approval was required for every chef in the restaurant and all the dancers who were the great attraction of the local dances. This was absolute power. Ely was hated by the locals, but at the same time he perfectly fulfilled his role as government superintendent keeping the whole town sober, peaceful and racially pure. Indians, African-Americans, Chinese or Mexicans the moment they crossed the administrative boundaries of this white reservation had to think seriously about what they were doing.,.

The period of Sims Ely’s reign left a lasting mark on the residents and the city. What he proposed on behalf of the government and the consortium building the dam might have looked like an undemocratic dictate. It might have, had it not been for the fact that it was, in its own way, accepted by the majority of locals, even after the construction was formally completed. The city, constructed around unprecedented rules, was not demolished as previously planned. Not everyone left it. Many stayed and felt very comfortable there – so comfortable that this special form of government was still maintained many years after construction was completed. Boulder City survived and cultivated the strict rules established there. Until 1969, alcohol could not be purchased there. To this day, it is the only place in this part of Nevada where gambling is forbidden, not to mention a total ban on anything to do with prostitution. In fact, the city has become one of the most well-kept, Mad West places, a near-perfect place. All thanks to the ‘little Hitler’, who held the town together until the day he turned 79. Sims Ely died at the age of 92 fully convinced that he had succeeded in creating the perfect ‘government’ city, incomparably better than ‘corporate’ cities such as, for example, the devilish Las Vegas. For Sims Ely, it didn’t matter who you were or what you were doing on an ongoing construction site. What mattered to him was your morale, how you conducted yourself and whether you obeyed the law.

Ahead of schedule and below cost

The preferences of another giant from the dam-building days were quite different. For him, the most important thing was what you could do, not how you lived or what you spent the money you earned on. This was understandable, as engineer Frank Crowe was the one who was supposed to make sure that the giant dam on the Colorado River was built on schedule. He was eminently predestined to hold the post, not only because of the experience gained in the construction of many dams for the Bureau of Reclamation, but because of a certain special skill – Frank Crowe always finished construction ahead of schedule. He earned a unique fame and the nickname ‘Hurry up Crowe’ not only because he finished the work ahead of schedule, but also because it was done below the planned cost.

That Frank Crowe would be building the largest dam and power station in the world was clear to himself as early as 1921. His entire engineering career was subordinated to one goal, which was to direct the construction of Boulder Dam. To be able to become the head of this particular construction, Frank worked feverishly for a potential developer, the Bureau of Reclamation. When it was decided to build the dam with the forces of a private consortium, Frank gave up a stable job with a government agency to work for a private company that intended to bid for the project and which later actually won the bid. Many years before the actual start of construction, Frank squeezed in wherever he could take on tasks related to the design of the future dam. He was involved in the design work, constructed a fantastic cable car system that enabled construction in extremely challenging mountainous terrain, and designed a highly efficient rock drilling system that enabled whole mountains to be pierced in no time. He also worked to develop the winning tender, which was so accurate that it differed by only $24,000 from that planned by the US government. The Six Companies construction consortium promised to build the dam and power plant for $48,890,955, which equates (in 2015 dollars) to a total of $766,632,689.

A brutal battle

Exactly seven days after the announcement of the results of the tender won by the Six Companies consortium, Frank Crowe began construction of the greatest engineering marvel that the people of that time had seen. No one and nothing was able to stop Frank Crowe and his crew. He was prepared to employ the devil himself on the site, as long as the devil guaranteed that construction would be completed on schedule and within budget. He was not stopped by a major workers’ strike at the very start of construction. Frank did not stop the work when it became clear that tunnelling was poisoning the workers and truck drivers working there. He was not stopped by extreme temperatures reaching plus 50°C, floods or other natural disasters. This ruthlessness against brutal nature, against people who refused to obey him and against the technical limitations of the time resulted in what Frank had always promised. He completed the construction of the world’s largest engineering facility on 29 February 1936, two years ahead of schedule.

The work guaranteed by “Hurry up Crowe” and the roof overhead provided by “little Hitler” were a big deal, but every day the residents discovered that there was absolutely nothing to do in the Nevada desert. There was nowhere to spend even the few dollars earned from construction. Life consisted only of work. The workers lived only for the prospect of a paycheck and a day off. It was then that a spark of joy appeared on the horizon – a dusty hole lying 50 km west of the construction site – Las Vegas.

Credit: The B1M


If the residents of the Rugtown vegetating on the riverbank or those in super-organised Boulder City were given the opportunity to see the future of this cursed, deserted piece of land, they probably wouldn’t believe their eyes. In the vision of the future, their feet would be washed by the soothing waves of a huge artificial lake spanning 180 kilometres. Instead of primitive huts, shacks and tents, they would see caravans of water sports enthusiasts on the banks of the man-made reservoir. A few kilometres east of the former nomadism would have stood the ready-made, monumental dam and massive power plant that made much of the dry West the garden and workshop of America. The dam itself has become a tourist magnet attracting millions of people to see for themselves the technical and economic capabilities of the world’s new super power, the USA.

Today, the dam is not the tallest structure. High above the crest of the dam, a gigantic bridge has been built – 260 metres high (counting from the surface of the Colorado River), connecting the precipitous canyon banks and two states: Nevada and Arizona.

To the north of the former desert nomadism, military installations, airfields and training grounds sprang up. This is where military personnel from all over the country found work, creating an impressive arsenal of weapons for the world’s most powerful country. To the south of the nomadism, tens of thousands of new luxury homes have sprung up, all with perfectly designed gardens and backyard pools.

What would have most fascinated the poor people who anchored themselves in this – seemingly hopeless – desert at the beginning of the 20th century would have been the image of what, a few decades later, had sprung up to the west of their nomadism. On the horizon they would have seen a veritable glow of light and glass skyscrapers. The city of Las Vegas would stretch out before them. What they would have seen could be considered a desert mirage. Silhouettes familiar from other parts of the world would loom on the horizon: the Egyptian pyramid, the Parisian Eiffel Tower, the towers and edifices of Venice, a colossal circus tent and medieval Gothic castles.

Las vegas Strip
In the 1980s, the Las Vegas Strip was still far from glamorous and elegant. It was cluttered with numerous modest motels and mediocre hotels, in front of which huge advertising poles dominated. ©Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress
Las Vegas from above
Na początku XXI wieku obszar metropolitalny Las Vegas był najszybciej rozwijającym się regionem USA, miejscem, gdzie tworzono dziesiątki tysięcy nowych miejsc pracy. Las Vegas zaczęło coraz bardziej przypominać normalne amerykańskie miasto. ©Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress
Hyatt Resort Lake Las Vegas
By the turn of the 20th century, Las Vegas had become so arrogant that it began to alter the city's natural surroundings. Golf courses were located in the desert, housing developments were built and artificial lakes were created to be yet another plaything of the exponentially growing class of local and visiting millionaires. Pictured is the Hyatt Resort on the shores of Lake Las Vegas, Nevada. ©Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

The final reckoning

The Colorado River itself has become a less glorious symbol of the modern world, because it illustrates what happens when we covet – after all, limited – natural resources too much. Today, the Colorado no longer flows naturally into the sea. The river delta, once spanning three thousand square miles, now covers an area of less than 250 miles. What to some is a unique triumph of engineering and human persistence, to others is an example of a crime against nature. Evidence of how nature is today can be seen in the white fragments of the canyon walls that protrude 40 metres above the water level. These white fragments of rock, which are normally dark brown in colour, show how dramatically the water level has dropped compared to 1998, when the basin was last filled to 100%. The summer of 2022 recorded the lowest water level since the dam was completed, i.e. since the mid-1930s.

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead from above
Contemporary photograph of the Mojave Desert tamed by Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. ©Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

Klimatyzacja musi działać

Mimo tych zadziwiających zmian dokonanych na pustyni natura – nie licząc wysychającej rzeki – w niczym się nie zmieniła. To jest w dalszym ciągu owo brunatne, straszne miejsce wypalane przez okrutne słońce, pełne dzikich zwierząt, takich, które potrafią przetrwać w tym surowym klimacie. Wśród tych wytrwałych i odpornych gatunków na pustyni pojawił się nowy okaz – człowiek, który nie tylko się tu utrzymał, ale nawet uznał to miejsce za prawdziwy raj, w którym chce spędzić całe życie albo przynajmniej tydzień szalonych wakacji. Warunek jest tylko jeden – klimatyzacja musi działać na najwyższych obrotach i to 24/7.


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