A big example of how the middle and upper classes depend on and leach off the working class.
After almost 70 years, Hoover Dam is still considered an engineering wonder. It rose from the almost impossible to a resounding success that dramatically enhanced the quality of life for millions and millions upon millions more in future lifetimes. The unharnessed power of the Colorado River became mastered. Much needed water was funneled to fertile but arid lands. Agricultural production suddenly blossomed and will flourish for infinite generations. Hydroelectric power is an economical source that will supply ample demands for lifetimes. And a scenic by-product of Hoover Dam is Lake Mead a water-lovers spectacle that is enjoyed by millions every year.
But the real story behind Hoover Dam is the thousands who built it and the families that endured the living hell to bring it all to realty. In particular those that died on the job or resulting from the harsh conditions.
Construction of Hoover Dam would not begin until April of 1931, but men and families began drifting into Las Vegas (30 miles from the dam site) in early 1929 in hopes of dam construction employment. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, an avalanche of unemployed poured in for a limited number of Hoover Dam construction jobs.. Many came with life’s possessions, wives, children and little to no money.
The infamous community of “Ragtown” on the floor of Black Canyon next to the Colorado River was born. The makeshift shantytown consisted of tents, cardboard boxes, tin scraps and anything else that could serve as shelter against the scalding heat of summer and freezing nights of winter. Ragtown swelled to 1400 people and ballooned to 5,000 men, women and children.
The first summer of 1931 in Ragtown was beyond harsh, it was devastating. With average July temperatures of 116 degrees and approaching 130 degrees on the floor of Black Canyon combined with swirling dust and no natural shade, over 25 men, women and children died in that first June-July period of heat conditions.
Although clouded with sediment, the ever flowing water from the Colorado River was sufficient for bathing. The women would drape wet cloth over baby cradles to cool them. Fresh milk was no option and canned food was the only way to avoid spoilage.
Times were tough and harsh on everyone, but especially on the blacks. In the 1930s racism and segregation was rampant and the attitude of the Six Companies, Inc. who had been awarded the building contract of Hoover Dam was no exception. Many blacks came to Las Vegas and Black Canyon with hopes of finding dam building jobs and most were turned away because of racism.
Black Work Crew The federal government mandated that Six Companies, Inc. hire more black workers but made only a token effort by hiring less than 30 blacks. They were given only the demeaning jobs such as debris cleanup and other labor functions undesired by white workers. To compound the difficulty facing the black workers, they weren’t permitted to live in Ragtown and had to commute daily from Las Vegas. Six Companies, Inc. also had employment practices that expressly restricted the hiring of “chinamen”.
In spite of an abundance of Native Americans in the region just a few were ever hired. All of them were given the most dangerous of jobs, which was “high scaling” dangling precariously on the canyon walls while clearing obstructions for the eventual joining of dam ends to those canyon cliffs. However, they were paid a higher hourly rate versus general laborers and were permitted to live in Ragtown and eventually in Boulder that became a town for dam workers.
During the Great Depression, many workers and their families arrived long before work on the dam began in hopes of finding jobs. They lived in jerry-rigged dwellings in makeshift tent camps next to the river. Because the area was totally desolate, with recordings of 110 to 120 degrees in the canyon (later peaking at 140 in the airless portals of the diversion tunnels), much preparation was necessary, including rushing Boulder City, seven miles southwest of the dam site, to completion in fifteen months to provide suitable living conditions for workers.
Contrary to oft-repeated legend, no one is buried in the concrete, though ninety-six men were officially listed as having died on the project.