On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.
The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.
The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.
The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.
Building Hoover Dam
Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.
But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”
The 1931 strike
The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.
The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.
The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.
This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.