This surprisingly wide-ranging history of the creation of the most famous hydroelectric dam in the US opens with the night-time rail journey made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the dedication ceremonies of the “colossus” then known as Boulder Dam (later renamed for FDR’s predecessor in a bit of semi-comic back-and-forth intrigue only possible after FDR’s death). That ceremony marked the start of FDR’s reframing of the dam’s creation as emblematic of the great public works and jobs-creation projects that marked his first two terms in office, even though it had been in the works since the first decade of the century. Hiltzik amplifies this: “Hoover Dam was the first manifestation of the clamorous, ascendant West’s expanding influence in Washington…It’s water and hydroelectricity turned California into the most politically weighty state in the union, it fueled the development of the isolated cities of the Southwest into bustling Sunbelt metropolises, which continue today to drain Eastern cities of money, population, and talent.” In re-examining this massive project today, Hiltzik asks “other, darker questions” such as whether it was right to build the dam in the first place, and in the course of his investigation, describes historical connections and personages of a dazzling variety: the Wobblies last stand, LA Water and Power’s William Mulholland, Teddy Roosevelt, and CA’s Progressive Senator Hiram Johnson. Perhaps no other man-made object carries such symbolic weight and evokes so many tentacles of history.
A great read from many angles: labor and environmental history, political drama, social migrations, and gloriously recondite Californiana .
Check the BPL Catalog for this title: Colossus : Hoover Dam and the making of the American century