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Is this a god dam?
October 13, 2011 1:10 PM   Subscribe

Rising 726.4 feet from its foundation, Hoover Dam was constructed in five years, beginning in 1931 and completed in 1936. Take a look back at its construction and history. Via The Browser.
posted by nosila (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I took the Hoover Dam tour back in the day. It's amazing. My tour guide, though, thought he was a comedian.

"One of the world's largest hydroelectric facilities, Hoover Dam was dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin Roosevelt. This grasshopper walks into a bar..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:25 PM on October 13, 2011


They designed that with slide rules and pencils. *Those* were engineers. We're a bunch of pampered degenerate softies.

(Not to mention the differences pre/post OSHA)
posted by rmd1023 at 1:30 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yup, I went on the tour too. Nifty.

But just more proof that the world's greatest achievements can only be accomplished by slave labor.
posted by Melismata at 1:32 PM on October 13, 2011


There is concrete in the middle has not yet cured, and it probably never will. Whoa.
posted by soelo at 1:36 PM on October 13, 2011


The Story of Hoover Dam (archive.org video)
posted by The Deej at 1:45 PM on October 13, 2011


I've been playing a lot of Fallout New Vegas recently (Just sprang for all of the DLC's). The entire thing centers around a war between the great powers of the setting over control of Hoover as both a symbol of the past, and the power to shape the future. Looking at these photos, the game totally undersells it.

The other thing that strikes me about Hoover is how beautiful it is, in a way that almost no other mega-dam even approaches.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:46 PM on October 13, 2011


But just more proof that the world's greatest achievements can only be accomplished by slave labor.

Not sure I follow you here... Sure, there were issues of racial injustice surrounding the construction of the Hoover Dam, but I'm not sure where you're getting the idea there was any sort of compulsory labor or involuntary servitude involved. People fought over the opportunity to work on the dam project by most accounts I've seen, including this one.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:48 PM on October 13, 2011


Obligatory "I'll be your dam guide...no wandering off the dam tour" clip.
posted by chococat at 1:54 PM on October 13, 2011


It's probably overstating it to say we used slave labor.

But labor rules and environmental regulations would probably make a project like the Hoover Dam too expensive today. See this report from American Public Media.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:55 PM on October 13, 2011


Impounded water has always scared the shit out of me, for some reason. I have a phobia of dams, especially of being in water just behind them.
posted by Danf at 2:03 PM on October 13, 2011


Too expensive according to whom? Who gets to set the bar for how much massive infrastructure projects that return untold value to the public over time should cost?

All those freedom-loving folks who never met a government handout they didn't like unless it was to a human being who actually needed it?
posted by saulgoodman at 2:03 PM on October 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


There is concrete in the middle has not yet cured, and it probably never will. Whoa.

Where are you getting this? Concrete doesn't need air to cool. The concrete may still be "curing", in the sense that there is still a chemical reaction going on, but it would should the same throughout the dam, and most concrete is considered "cured" after 28 days. The Straight Dope board seems to agree with me.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:10 PM on October 13, 2011


BoobyVan: 112 people died during construction of the dam, and more due to pneumonia or illness. Depending on the accounting you use, constructing Hoover today would be far less expensive because of proper saftey precautions.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:10 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


That APM piece is pretty skimpy. While it's no doubt true we couldn't have built the same Hoover Dam today, there's not the slightest evidence presented to suggest we couldn't have built a better one--more expensive, maybe, but money well spent on saving the lives of the 100 workers who died and on siting it somewhere even better.

The fact is, if we've learned more about how to do these projects properly and that makes them more expensive, instead of bitching about it, shouldn't we be incorporating our new knowledge and best practices and competing on quality? If we can't afford it, human progress just has to come grinding to a halt at whatever level of social and technological development the markets will bear? And if that turns out to be not much for very long?
posted by saulgoodman at 2:12 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


edit: I should have said concrete doesn't need air to cure, not cool. Curing concrete does warm up, and the engineers made provision to help cool the dam during construction, but that was to keep the thermal stresses from wrecking the structure, not to aid curing afaik.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2011


So what would a comparable "Put America Back to Work" project be today? Something useful, something valuable, something big and dramatic.... hmm... how about FOSSIL 50 (choir sings), a ten year project to cut the country's use of fossil fuels by 50% by any means necessary. The energy companies can get on board by investing like woah in renewable projects as appropriate to region, the car companies can get on board by raising average mileage across the fleet by ditching guzzlers and building electrics and hybrids, the construction industry goes nuts building new plats, science and engineering goes nuts, towns in the middle of nowhere (suddenly next to gigawatt solar or wind installs) spring up and need service jobs... BY GOD IT COULD SAVE THE COUNTRY.

In more ways than one.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:18 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The best part of the movie shown before the tour is where the narrator talks about how "six companies" came together to build the dam, and then there is a quick cut to a shot of a huge tanker truck with the words "SIX COMPANIES" stenciled in 2 feet high letters on the side.

For some reason, that always seemed hilarious to me. It also is the sort of visual joke you'd see on something like The Simpsons or a Warner Bros. cartoon.
posted by sideshow at 2:18 PM on October 13, 2011


In January of 2003 some friends of mine and I went on a cross country road trip. We drove two vehicles, an SUV and a pickup, which had camping supplies in the bed with a tarp over it. After a sunset stop at the Grand Canyon we drove to LA by way of Las Vegas. Naturally enough we made a stop at the Hoover Dam.

About half a mile or so from the dam there was a checkpoint. The police officer asked "what's in the back [of the pickup]?" We answered truthfully, "camping supplies." He waved us through without even asking if he could look under the tarp, which could have concealed a literal ton of high explosives. This was at about 1am, and at that time the highway still drove right over the dam (this was years before the Bypass was built). It was about then that I realized that the post-9/11 security apparatus was a complete sham.
posted by jedicus at 2:20 PM on October 13, 2011


sideshow: the dam was built by Six Companies, Inc., made of... uh, seven companies.
posted by zsazsa at 2:22 PM on October 13, 2011


Too expensive according to whom? Who gets to set the bar for how much massive infrastructure projects that return untold value to the public over time should cost?

Presumably, the people who float the bonds to pay for these projects would be setting the bar. There are limits: a fleet of mining spaceships sent to the asteroid belt would probably also return "untold value" to the public as well.

According to the public radio article I linked above, the Hoover Dam cost about $750 million in today's dollars. Now, it costs more than twice that amount to build a useless 1.7 mile subway in San Francisco.

And we're just talking costs here -- look again at the environmental impact of the Hoover Dam, and ask yourself if the EPA would approve a similar project today.
posted by BobbyVan at 2:27 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am pretty certain that I heard in some documentary that the concrete deep in the dam will take years to fully "solidify". Maybe Cadillac Desert. I could be mistaken.
posted by kenaldo at 2:40 PM on October 13, 2011


IIRC, the tour guides make the "still have decades left to fully cure" claim.
posted by nomisxid at 2:42 PM on October 13, 2011


...which could have concealed a literal ton of high explosives...

What many people don't realize is how massive large dams are; you get some idea from the construction photos, but Hoover is nearly as thick at the base as it is tall Unless placed just right (and perhaps even then) even a ton of high explosives would cause little more than cosmetic damage to that much mass. Even military operations specifically designed to take out dams have taken multiple bombs to succeed.
posted by TedW at 2:46 PM on October 13, 2011


even a ton of high explosives would cause little more than cosmetic damage to that much mass.

But that's just the thing: either it could have done significant damage, in which case it was security theatre not to check the back of the truck, or it couldn't have done significant damage, in which case it was security theatre to even have a checkpoint.
posted by jedicus at 3:06 PM on October 13, 2011


According to the public radio article I linked above, the Hoover Dam cost about $750 million in today's dollars. Now, it costs more than twice that amount to build a useless 1.7 mile subway in San Francisco.

Totally different kinds of engineering problems, though. And I think you underestimate the extent to which modern companies are to blame for cost overruns due to mismanagement and various bad corporate business practices (I've worked on large-scale software implementation projects where some of the big dog partners checked out at the very beginning because they didn't get the contract terms they wanted and had subs who didn't even know the technologies doing most of the day-to-day work anyway--who never even developed plans for key tasks. In Florida, we still haven't been able to replace the state's accounting system, and it's been literally on the verge of failure for years now. Something has changed. We just don't effectively do big projects anymore, and that's not due to any regulatory creep in the cases I've seen).

And we're just talking costs here -- look again at the environmental impact of the Hoover Dam, and ask yourself if the EPA would approve a similar project today.

So, who's going to pay the cost of the environmental damage then? The reason we regulate environmental impacts is because they are costly to the public. In the case of the Hoover Dam, we didn't know what some of those costs would be upfront because of inexperience. What's the alternative? Just pretend we don't know what the actual costs would be today and mis-price the thing, or make the public absorb those costs over time in the interest of private profits? Either way, somebody pays. Personally, I'd rather take it out of somebody's profits on the front-end, if that keeps the local communities from having to pay the costs down the road. No one has a right to expect to profit off of exploiting public resources after all.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:21 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I visited Hoover Dam in 2004. Fantastic place. It's a real shame the reservoir is drying up. I'd love to see it again for comparison sake.

Earlier this year I visited the Grand Coulee Dam. Also an impressive installation. Grand Coulee is significantly larger and supplies quite a bit more power than the Hoover operation. The tour guide claimed the power it produces paid for construction and upkeep several decades ago. So ... why do we still have to pay for electricity?

No, I'm serious. It Doesn't Cost Them Anything To Make Electricity Why Do I Have To Pay For It? Yes I know, upkeep and maintenance. So charge commercial facilities a little more and provide power (up to a certain consumption) to residential locations for free. Suddenly people are heating their homes and water and cooking with electricity, and are more interested in electric cars. As a nation we stop consuming foreign resources and start selling ours to the rest of the world. Financial boom, national pride.

Also, Grand Coulee operates a pumping station powered by its own generators which moves water from the reservoir over a ridge to farmland which is not naturally supplied water by the tributaries that feed the Columbia River, where Grand Coulee gets its supply from. Why not employ the same technique to move water greater distances? Pump water from the Columbia or Missouri into the Colorado. Pump water from the Mississippi into areas experiencing drought like central Texas.

One area has too much water, the other has not enough. This is a problem we can solve.
posted by LoudMusic at 3:24 PM on October 13, 2011


It's a real shame the reservoir is drying up.

Thankfully, the wet wet winter the western Rocky Mountains had last year boosted the level of Lake Mead by almost 30' and we have another 40' to go. We were three feet from deep shit (water shortages shared between CA, NV and AZ), but lady luck looked our way again and we got a huge break with this past winter. If this winter is just "normal" it will go a long way to stabilizing the lake.
posted by SirOmega at 3:38 PM on October 13, 2011


There are no bodies buried in the concrete. As a kid, I took in on faith that a number of workers had fallen in the wet concrete, beyond retrieval. My dad told me this, and it was not in me to call bullshit on it, even if I had been skeptical, which I was not.

Hence, I have believed that there were workers entombed in Hoover Dam until today.
posted by Danf at 3:40 PM on October 13, 2011


The Bypass bridge sure is a nice complement to the Dam itself, but it's a real shame you can't drive across it anymore. Snaking your way down on that road gave it a real impact that I don't think seeing it from a bridge will match.

Disclaimer: I have not actually driven across the Bypass.
posted by madajb at 3:51 PM on October 13, 2011


Totally different kinds of engineering problems, though.

Hmm. I'll grant you that tunneling under San Francisco is more politically fraught, but I don't see why one should be exponentially more expensive than the other.

I think you underestimate the extent to which modern companies are to blame for cost overruns due to mismanagement and various bad corporate business practices

Surely this is true to an extent, but isn't government just as responsible in terms of lax oversight and corruption?

We just don't effectively do big projects anymore, and that's not due to any regulatory creep in the cases I've seen.

You probably wouldn't see too much regulatory creep in the software industry, but I'd recommend this recent piece from the Wall Street Journal on the problems facing big infrastructure projects. I'd also welcome any comments on this from Mefites who work in civil engineering or infrastructure.
The easiest project to start is a road through a strip of desert with no people and none of the wildlife deemed vulnerable by environmentalists. Yet even this kind of infrastructure lay-up would take three years from conception until the start of construction, according to an executive at a global firm that advises on such projects. Draw the proposed road to run through an urban area or environmentally sensitive terrain, or assume that negotiations are necessary to acquire land, and 36 months easily turns into seven years of planning before the project is ready for a shovel.

Want to build a bridge? Preparing to create such an economic stimulant requires at least five years, assuming no complications. Mr. Obama may dream of another New Deal-era of big public projects, but he may not fully appreciate the innovations that have occurred in the past three-quarters of a century. At all levels of government, techniques for delaying construction while making it more costly have rapidly advanced, especially in the area of environmental review. It's possible that the massive Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, couldn't even be built today. "Damming rivers is a very touchy subject now," says our source, given the environmental concerns about impact on fish and other species.
Personally, I'd rather take it out of somebody's profits on the front-end, if that keeps the local communities from having to pay the costs down the road. No one has a right to expect to profit off of exploiting public resources after all.

If you're taking it out of somebody's profits on the front-end, you're going to be making lots of projects just too expensive to do. Why not take the "untold value to the public" that the project will deliver and balance that against the foreseeable environmental costs? If A>B, the project goes forward.
posted by BobbyVan at 3:54 PM on October 13, 2011


Little known facts about Hoover Dam, if Hoover Dam were a scale model made of legos.
posted by Hume at 4:04 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


LoudMusic: We do that already, the problem is finding water. Try and find the 4 million or so acre feet of water you'd need to irrigate Texas' 2 million abandoned acres of farmland somewhere without starting a war.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:31 PM on October 13, 2011


IIRC, the tour guides make the "still have decades left to fully cure" claim.
posted by nomisxid at 4:42 PM on October 13


Yep, that was where I heard it. I think they may have mentioned it soon after explaining that there were no bodies. I assumed the guides themselves wouldn't spread misinformation, but that is just an assumption.
posted by soelo at 4:33 PM on October 13, 2011


There's a scene setting in the original Half Life that resembles Hoover Dam. The first time I visited the dam, I kept having deja vu. "THAT SNACK BAR BUILDING! THERE ARE MARINES HIDING BACK THERE!"
posted by rmd1023 at 5:35 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read once that the Berlin Wall was surprisingly hard to tear down because the East Germans had added asbestos to the concrete, essentially making it a fiber-reinforced composite.

Our grasp of the toxicity of asbestos was at best very limited when the Hoover Dam was built, so I wondered whether it had asbestos in the concrete too.

I found a page run by lawyers suing over mesothelioma saying it did, and a page about a mining ghost town in Arizona saying it did, in the form of chrysotile.
posted by jamjam at 5:48 PM on October 13, 2011


I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. My dad was an electrical engineer working for the Corps of Engineers and did design work for the dams in the region. So we saw a lot of dams, at various times. Bonneville and The Dalles, in particular; one time my dad wheedled a guard at Bonneville and got us into the powerhouse there.

As an adult, eventually moving to the SouthWest to live for a while, I finally visited Hoover Dam. And frankly, I was underwhelmed. For one thing, the Colorado river just isn't that big. (Its primary importance is that it's virtually the only major source of fresh water in the desert there. But as rivers go, it ain't all that much -- says the guy who grew up next to the Columbia river.)

And the dam itself didn't really seem very impressive. Yeah, it's tall, but the canyon there is quite narrow. I was used to the Dalles Dam, which is 2.7 kilometers wide and controls the entire flow of the Columbia.

And my reaction to seeing Hoover dam was, "Is that all? What's the big deal here?" I looked at it for a few minutes, and then drove back to Vegas.

I guess the reason that the Hoover Dam is so famous is because it's so old. There are dozen projects like that in the PNW of comparable size (within a factor of 2) but by the time that effort began in the PNW, building huge dams had become routine. But when Hoover dam was built, there wasn't really anything remotely like it anywhere else yet.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:08 PM on October 13, 2011


Chocolate Pickle: it's also because it's an Art Deco masterpiece. The dam itself has a certain grace to it, and there are amazing details everywhere in the buildings.
posted by zsazsa at 6:34 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Dalles Dam isn't as tall either. Tall things have always held a special mystique in the human mind. In addition, the Dalles Dam was built later in history.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:51 PM on October 13, 2011


"Standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam/right between two states of mind."
posted by kirkaracha at 9:35 PM on October 13, 2011


I took the Hoover Dam tour about three or four years ago and was very impressed. I think the thing that left the greatest impression on me from the tour was the part where we walked along the catwalks between the penstocks - the huge intake pipes that feed water to the turbines, and when I say "huge", I mean something like 30 feet in diameter.

But that wasn't the really memorable part - the memorable part was the, well, not exactly noise, it was more like a low rumble; the rumble from all the massively pressurized water flowing through the 30'-diameter pipes right there and the knowledge that you're literally inches away from such massive, constrained power.

As the tour guide was rattling off facts and figures about the flow rate, I did some mental arithmetic to figure out how fast the water was actually moving in the penstocks, and in fact it's about walking pace.
posted by kcds at 5:04 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


With all the talk about the feeling of the presence of the numinous and the uncanny subsonics can generate, that's especially interesting, kcds.

You've winkled out the organ of this particular cathedral of technology, I bet.
posted by jamjam at 12:39 PM on October 14, 2011


There used to be another tour you could get, called the Hard Hat tour. You wore hardhats,
and went all the way down to the turbine shaft gallery, peeked out a window down
the sheer face of the dam, and crawled over grates that cover bottomless shafts into the
dam body. Down in the shaft gallery, it was all 1940's technology, with quivering oil
pressure needles and some slightly leaky oil lines.

The terrazzo floors of some of the internal passages, and the massive, ornate
aluminum doors were a revelation into some of the attitudes toward the dam during its
construction.

You got to keep the hardhat, too.
posted by the Real Dan at 3:55 PM on October 14, 2011


They've still got a tour that does much of the old hard hat tour - you get to see some of the lovely terrazzo and the aluminum doors and can peer out the grilles.

I think part of what impresses me about hoover is that it *is* old. They did this back when movies in color were a crazy new thing.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:33 PM on October 15, 2011


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