Friday, February 8, 2013

Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, by Michael A. Hiltzik (author), Norman Dietz (narrator)

Tantor Media, ISBN 9781400146789, June 2010

In the late 1920s, as we were hurtling toward the Great Depression, and the early 1930s, as we were struggling through it,  the United States embarked on one of the greatest engineering projects in history. Hiltzik follows the conception, design, and building of the Hoover Dam from the first Europeans to reach the Imperial Valley in what is now California, to Americans learning about the wild and powerful Colorado River, and the periodic destructive flooding of Imperial Valley and other potentially valuable agricultural territory.

From there began the search for ways to control and harness the power of the river. The challenges were not merely technical and engineering problems. Harnessing the Colorado River meant deciding how to divide up the water among seven different states with competing interests, as well as deciding whether the project would be "merely" for flood control and irrigation, or for hydroelectric power generation as well.

These were not small matters. Water rights was already a deeply fraught issue in the west, and water law as it had developed in the much more well-watered east didn't fit conditions in the arid west. New principles and new agreements had to be created.

As for hydroelectric power, Edison and other power companies were deeply opposed to public power generation that would compete with them and would likely be significantly cheaper. Nor were the power companies alone in this opposition. Herbert Hoover, chairman of the compact commission that negotiated the deal among the seven affected states, was deeply, ideologically, opposed to anything being done by government that could be done by private industry, regardless of which course was "best" for the general public. Hoover, of course, later became President, and was President when construction on the dam began, and when the Crash of 1929 rang in the start of the Great Depression. There were other forces and other players at work also, though, and such figures as Rep. Phil Swing (R-CA), Sen. Hiram Johnson (R-CA), William Mulholland, Walker Young, Frank Crowe, and others played major roles in getting the hydroelectric power generation part of the project approved.

All this, of course, prior to the physical and technical challenges of actually building the dam in Black Canyon, the largest public works project in US history to that point. Personality clashes, intense heat, lack of any amenities, incredibly dangerous work--it all makes for an exciting tale with many unexpected twists.

At the start of the Hoover Dam project, America was a country with a strong value on individual achievement and personal independence. By the time it was completed, America had become a culture that had discovered the value and the possibilities of cooperation and mutual support. Begun under Hoover and completed under Franklin Roosevelt, transformed into a symbol of the New Deal, the Hoover Dam project played a significant role in that transformation.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the library.