Following up on yesterday’s post, this book review of Colossus: Hoover Dam & the Making of the American Century, in the Wall Street Journal, about the building of the great dam, reminds us of what we can do when we set our mind to it; a willingness to capture and store water, devoutly to be wished for the present time.
“With a runaway oil well fouling the Gulf of Mexico for weeks on end—and both government and industry seemingly helpless to stop it—Michael Hiltzik's "Colossus," about the construction of the Hoover Dam, is a welcome reminder of the engineering genius that built America.
“Mr. Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, tells the Hoover Dam story in the grand tradition of David McCullough, who more or less invented the idea of popular and historically sophisticated books about stupendous engineering achievements. Like Mr. McCullough in "The Great Bridge" (1972), about the Brooklyn Bridge, and "The Path Between the Seas" (1977), about the Panama Canal, Mr. Hiltzik clearly explains the technological and physical difficulties posed by the dam project, but he also fixes the endeavor in its time and captures the personalities of the people involved.
“The decades after the Civil War were an age of such projects, which enhanced the growing national feeling that the U.S. was capable of whatever it chose to take on. The Brooklyn Bridge was an astonishing leap in spanning great distances. The Panama Canal—a project that had defeated the French— was completed by the U.S. in 10 years. Skyscrapers reached ever higher, culminating in 1931 with the Empire State Building, which would remain the world's tallest building for 40 years.
“One of the largest of these megaprojects was the Hoover Dam, its major construction completed during the period 1931-35. At 726 feet, the dam was more than twice as high as any dam ever built and was located in what was then a remote and forbidding desert. But what made the dam so colossal—far more than its size and location—was the fact that it had to tame the most unruly major river in North America….
“What began as a gargantuan engineering project quickly became a national monument to the American can-do spirit—nearly a million tourists visit the dam annually even now, though the Hoover has been surpassed in size by other dams around the world. The five-year project, completed two years ahead of schedule and only $5.8 million above its $54.7 million budget, involved 21,000 laborers and required 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete. (The construction process was speeded up by sinking more than 580 miles of one-inch steel pipe in the concrete and circulating cold, refrigerated water to dissipate the chemical heat of setting concrete.) The dam's 17 main turbines generate about four billion kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power, enough to serve the needs of 1.3 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California.
“With the U.S. lately facing ever more difficult challenges and the can-do spirit apparently on hold, "Colossus" may inspire in readers a longing for a new building project on the Hoover's scale, something that will summon up once again America's famous self-confidence and daring.”