The Professor's History Lesson: The Hoover Dam

The Brilliant Blog’s new series, The Professor's History Lessons, shares amazing moments in the history of energy and electricity. We hope these brief looks back in history will teach you something new and give you a greater appreciation for the energy used in your daily lives.

“This morning I came, I saw and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind.”

Eighty-one years ago, with a crowd of 10,000 onlookers, President Franklin Roosevelt recited that opening line at the dedication ceremony of what was then the world’s biggest dam. The Hoover Dam, formerly Boulder Dam, began powering Los Angelean homes on Oct. 9, 1936, and today it generates approximately 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year for residents in Arizona, California and Nevada, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). But the dam actually started making headlines years before it powered the lights for our West Coast friends.

This great marvel took five years and the construction of a new city to complete the project. In the 1930s, more than 5,000 dam workers were chiseling out the massive wall. To house all of the workers, the USBR, which supervised the project, created Boulder City, Nevada so it could regulate its residents (and kick out local squatter settlements). While Boulder City is situated just 26 miles southeast of where we now call “Sin City,” the government actually banned alcohol and gambling within its city limits to keep the massive project’s image squeaky clean. Dam propaganda at the time aimed to lighten the spirits of those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, so the town needed to reflect this lightheartedness as well. Thus, clean-living was a requirement for all workers. The government finally relinquished control of the town, and some of its restrictions, when it was incorporated in 1960. However, alcohol remained banned until 1969, and to this day Boulder City remains one of two Nevadan cities that still prohibit gambling.

While the U-shaped dam was praised for its successful powering of a city 266 miles away, it’s real interest was in collecting distributing water, notes Thanks to the Federal Reclamation Bureau, the Hoover Dam became part of a water development project to round up the Colorado River’s resources. The project resulted in the channeling of millions of gallons of water to California to irrigate crops. The water collected behind the dam is known as Lake Mead, and is considered the nation’s largest reservoir, according to the United States Society on Dams.

Today the 248 square-miles that comprise Lake Mead are a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It attracts more than 9 million visitors a year for boating, fishing, skiing, swimming and other outdoor adventures, according to USBR. Clearly, President Roosevelt had it right: no one can resist the wonders of this manmade creation.