Fittingly, noted the San Francisco Chronicle, the history of Hoover Dam is just as roiling and dirty as the silt laden Colorado Critics felt that what could have been a dry, technical story of the creation of the dam became, in Hiltzik s hands, a fascinating social, political, and labor history Although Hiltzik spares readers few engineering details, he also looks closely at key political compromises and issues and captures the colorful personalities of the main players He also offers new insight into the tragic worker deaths A few reviewers commented that the book doesn t live up to the promise of its subtitle that quibble notwithstanding, Hoover Dam is a standout popular history This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine. 3 1 2 stars The first 40% was a drag, as it focused on water rights and political infighting I wanted to read of the engineering challenges, bravery, and worker risks that took up the rest of the book, which was well done. Colossus Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century is a fascinating read, authoritatively researched, and made very personal by author Michael Hiltzik, who tells stories of the personalities involved in the dam construction project, from Presidents to wage laborers There s a problem, though Hiltzik seems to make absolutely no mention of the environmental impact of the dam and reservoir, aside from mentioning two towns and some archaeological resources flooded as Lake Mead filled I don t usually like to criticize books for what the author didn t write, but in this case Hiltzik seems to underline the omission by repeatedly referring to the desert landscape as barren, devoid of life and notable only as a blank slate on which humans create their profitable projects There is no mention of the free flowing river s native fisheries driven toward extinction by the dam s construction There is no description of the old growth desert drowned by the rising waters, no description of the effect on the estuary at the river s mouth on the Sea of Cortez The only mention I ve found in the entire book of environmental effects other than earthquakes due to the weight of the impounded water is this passage, on page 400, in a discussion of the dam s chances of being built today The environmental impact statements mandated today for large scale public and private developments by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and subsequent legislation certainly would have consumed years, if not decades, of study and debate, and surely would not have become final without several rounds of litigation Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a further assessment of the dam s impact on wildlife habitats in the reservoir zone and downstream would be required prior to construction America s unconcern with those issues in the 1920s and 1930s facilitated the construction of the dam, but also led, doubtlessly, to the eradication of undiscovered, unrecorded, and unrecoverable habitats and the extermination of untold species of flora and fauna.An apt turn of phrase, that untold species of flora and fauna Their stories remain untold by Hiltzik It s about like writing about the engineering efforts that went into building Apollo 13 and the deadly drama of the crew s struggle to cope with equipment failure, reserving for one short passage on page 400 of your 408 page book any mention that the whole thing took place in outer space The desert environment isn t just a backdrop We know many of the the changes in the desert since the dam was built and they are staggering We know the species lost and damaged They have names the bonytail and humpback chubs, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker near extirpated from the river below Hoover Dam the Colorado Delta clam, once so abundant that its shells formed miles long ridges throughout the delta, now endangered and found in only a few spots the desert tortoise, threatened for the most part by human development of the barren desert that would not have been possible without Hoover Dam.That, given any kind of objective point of view, is the story of the building of Hoover Dam In omitting it, Hiltzik relegated his book to the realm of political and engineering minutiae It is entertaining, informative, and extremely well written, but an entertaining, informative, well written book of trivia is still, when you get down to it, a book of trivia And that s a damned shame. Hoover Dam, first called Boulder Dam, is a marvel of technology, ingenuity and personal fortitude of those who first thought of constructing it and those who finally saw it through to completion For some, it was an all consuming passion, fraught with financial hardship, danger, loss of life, and, in the end, a man made triumph over nature and the Colorado river The story is rich in characters from President Theodore Roosevelt to President Hoover, and finally President Franklin D Roosevelt, who dedicated it.Michael Hiltzik explores so many facets of the process of planning, obtaining Congressional approval, personal and professional rivalries, compromises, confusion over the name Boulder Dam or Hoover Dam , states rights vs government control and the list goes on He also tells much of the story of the Great Depression and how people out of work flock to the project from all over the country in hopes of finding a job just to stave off starvation And the hardship doesn t end there.As I read this book, the magnitude of the undertaking became so clear, and the personalities of those involved became so real to me The sacrifice was immeasurable, and it didn t end with the completion of Hoover Dam, as you will see. Ordered from before a trip to Nevada Got about halfway through they hadn t started building the dam yet before I went to the dam Finished it after my trip. This book does not live up to its title It is about Hoover Dam It is not about the making of the American century, unless just by extrapolation and inference.This is a painstaking history of the creation of Hoover Dam Hiltzik goes back before the Civil War to start tracing white people s interactions with the Colorado river even further back, when he discusses the Spanish explorers who discovered it It was a raging, unpredictable river that nearly refused to be tamed, a river that destroyed lives and fortunes by people who thought they could master it.Eventually, the narrative picks up with Hoover s attempt as Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge, sitting down with the seven states that surround the river, to make a deal for water rights and usage Then the battle through Congress Then the bids Then the building, in minute detail An epilogue brings us up to present day, the companies that survived, the billionaire inheritors it created, the environmental destruction.My takeaway from this is that Hoover Dam represents the gloriousness of the human spirit, the desire to command nature and bring it to useful service for human expansion And the gloriousness of scientific study, exploration, and creation of massive structures But it s also the story of callousness, greed, complicity, and ridiculous shortsightedness, all of which is very interesting as I sit here, living in San Diego.Six Companies made money wherever they could charging the men and families who lived in their apartments than they were worth than they even put down on paper as paying to construct them , charging them for food than they budgeted for, refusing all sorts of workers compensation claims men died not of carbon monoxide poisoning but tuberculosis and pneumonia , running off unionizers and engaging in lockouts during labor unrest, hurrying up so fast that safety was a secondary concern and cost many their lives And the average workers tended to share their views labor organizers were underhanded lazy leaches, any job was a good job during the Great Depression Hiltzik s portrait of the Dam s construction emphasizes that corporations don t undertake public works projects for the sake of humanity or posterity or legacies or anything else They do it for money, usually while deriding the federal government as a source of meaningless regulations and limitations on profit making.If this is the portrait of the American century, these are its features grandiose claims to taming nature coupled with a profound faith in the indomitable will of Man purposeful on the gender here , the rapid expansion of technology and human settlement with little concern for or understanding of long term geological geographical demographic consequences, the squishing of labor whenever possible in the name of profits and fair business practice, and the wheeling and dealing of politics in, with, and alongside business And farmland in California. What this book is about First, the development of the American West, with emphasis on the Southwest and Southern California Hoover Dam as the centerpiece of water development is a great foundation for this discussion Second, the book is a tribute to the many people who died and suffered so Hoover Dam could be built I love history books like this that connect the event they re covering to a sense of the politics, economy, culture, and thinking of the times Colossus did this really well for most of the narrative The book s Introduction was just outstanding A great summary of the dam s meaning with looks back and ahead using FDR s dedication as the pivot point Really good stuff Colossus also does a great job at least initially at capturing all of the drama over a period of many years preceding the dam s construction and through to its completion The many episodes of Colorado River disasters, political brinksmanship, and both company and personal competition carried a really exciting narrative for me This is the kind of book that has me saying, You can t make up stuff this good I couldn t put the book down for most of it However, I was very disappointed in the last third of the book Starting with the chapter entitled The Pour, I felt the narrative of Colossus take an unwelcome turn This was the most technical chapter It was interesting after a fashion, as I m not an engineer But I felt the book drag at that point And from The Pour on, the narrative seemed pro forma to me Even a bit scolding about the human cost of this damn Gone was the drama and human interest that made the book such a compelling read for me I kept thinking that Hiltzik s editor had probably showed up at that point demanding a completed manuscript That was my only beef otherwise, I ve been recommending this book.A couple of themes that I enjoyed in this book 1 Vegas has always been Vegas Even back in the day The counterpoint with Boulder City was just wonderful Although after learning about what vile man Pat McCarran was, I ve got yet another reason to hate the place and its airport.2 One person can make a huge difference I know this is sentimental, but guys like Frank Crowe, Henry J Kaiser, Dad Bechtel, George Chaffey and Philip Swing, Hiram Johnson who I really want to know about individually moved history And then there s the river The Colorado River was a fascinating character in this book 3 Making it up as we go along This largest engineering project, largest dam by far project was amazingly seat of the pants Parts of the project exhibited careful planning, well executed But I was surprised how much was made up on the spot in special equipment, construction techniques, and work procedures Sometimes with really bad consequences The fact that after the dam was completed, a large 2nd project was required to shore up its foundations was pretty shocking The risk of failure was so great tossing in the St Francis Dam disaster was a great reminder of that.4 Human life is truly cheap, even in our country Between the effects of the Depression on folks living in the shantytown, the carbon monoxide poisonings and coverups, the many worker deaths, and the horrific labor practices, Hoover Dam was a pretty shameful tale Hiltzik lavished tons of attention on this aspect of the story a bit too much in my opinion Particularly toward the end, it got repetitive. This is a terrific true account of man vs nature, telling the epic saga from the 1920s and 1930s of the taming of the mighty Colorado River, and the building of Hoover Dam Author and L.A Times writer Michael Hiltzik has a Pulitzer Prize under his belt for investigative reporting, and his talent is definitely on display in this exhaustively researched book Colossus reads like a political thriller, and Hiltzik s cast of characters, both famous Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, FDR and obscure master dam builder Frank Crowe come to life on its pages Starting with the earliest attempts to dam or divert the Colorado in the 1800s, Hiltzik takes us through every phase of the project s development from the complex negotiations required for seven different state governments to cooperate on a Colorado River treaty, to the search for a private contractor large enough to tackle the building of what would be the largest man made concrete structure ever He does all this without glossing over the human toll which resulted from death defying construction work in an era where worker safety was not yet at the forefront of anyone s minds.The book is loaded with interesting digressions, anecdotes and trivia For instance, what is now Boulder City, NV began its life as a workers camp, first for just the workers, and later, as construction dragged on, for the workers families as well Then there was the war of words and politics over what to call the project in 1930, a toady of then President Herbert Hoover pulled an end run and announced, without counsel or forewarning, that the structure was to be christened Hoover Dam better to ask for forgiveness than permission , even though no such edifice had ever been named after a sitting President Hoover s detractors felt this new name was especially insulting, since Hoover was originally opposed to the project, so they continued referring to it by its original name, Boulder Dam The disconnect between these factions was so profound that when Hoover s successor, FDR, dedicated the mostly completed dam in 1935, he did without referring to the former President or the name Hoover Dam at all The dam remained in this state of limbo until Harry Truman finally signed its present name into law in 1945 Colossus is weighty and thorough, yet also easy to read Hiltzik is probably correct in suggesting that the American West as we know it today would be much different had the dam never been built, while wondering if a project of such magnitude would ever even get off the ground today He acknowledges the Dam as an engineering marvel, while shining a bright light on some of the unsavory methods used to ensure its timely completion. The cover blurb calls it a turbulent thriller Civil engineering humor, I suppose The book is an oddly slanted history, a bit turbid and containing long dry patches There was a good bit of background on the treatment of the Colorado river prior to the conception of Hoover dam which was well researched and interesting Beyond that, the book got sidetracked into decrying the Big Six companies behavior toward the workers focusing on the number of casualties, labor strife and poor working conditions I was hoping for interesting insight into the design and technical details He repeats that it was massively challenging but never clearly says why it was, or how those challenges were overcome The author s perspective on the difficulty of building the dam under such challenging conditions was strangely weak, making the book dull and flat Part of the problem is that the book lacked human interest the characters were presented in a way that made them seem dreary relics in an historical dustbin Comparison to the overly imaginative treatment of William Mulholland in the fictional Chinatown is unfair, but you get the idea From my experience this book reflects an underlying incomprehension of the construction industry and a broad misunderstanding of the challenge of the undertaking and the intelligence and bravery of the people who undertook it Not recommended. As Breathtaking Today As The Day It Was Completed, Hoover Dam Not Only Shaped The American West But Helped Launch The American Century In The Depths Of The Great Depression It Became A Symbol Of American Resilience And Ingenuity In The Face Of Crisis, Putting Thousands Of Men To Work In A Remote Desert Canyon And Bringing Unruly Nature To Heel Pulitzer Prize Winning Writer Michael Hiltzik Uses The Saga Of The Dam S Conception, Design, And Construction To Tell The Broader Story Of America S Efforts To Come To Grips With Titanic Social, Economic, And Natural Forces For Embodied In The Dam S Striking Machine Age Form Is The Fundamental Transformation The Depression Wrought In The Nation S Very Culture The Shift From The Concept Of Rugged Individualism Rooted In The Frontier Days Of The Nineteenth Century To The Principle Of Shared Enterprise And Communal Support That Would Build The America We Know Today In The Process, The Unprecedented Effort To Corral The Raging Colorado River Evolved From A Regional Construction Project Launched By A Republican President Into The New Deal S Outstanding And Enduring Symbol Of National Pride Yet The Story Of Hoover Dam Has A Darker Side Its Construction Was A Gargantuan Engineering Feat Achieved At Great Human Cost, Its Progress Marred By The Abuse Of A Desperate Labor Force The Water And Power It Made Available Spurred The Development Of Such Great Western Metropolises As Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, And San Diego, But The Vision Of Unlimited Growth Held Dear By Its Designers And Builders Is Fast Turning Into A Mirage In Hiltzik S Hands, The Players In This Epic Historical Tale Spring Vividly To Life President Theodore Roosevelt, Who Conceived The Project William Mulholland, Southern California S Great Builder Of Water Works, Who Urged The Dam Upon A Reluctant Congress Herbert Hoover, Who Gave The Dam His Name Though He Initially Opposed Its Construction Frank Crowe, The Dam S Renowned Master Builder, Who Pushed His Men Mercilessly To Raise The Beautiful Concrete Rampart In An Inhospitable Desert Gorge Finally There Is Franklin Roosevelt, Who Presided Over The Ultimate Completion Of The Project And Claimed The Credit For It Hiltzik Combines Exhaustive Research, Trenchant Observation, And Unforgettable Storytelling To Shed New Light On A Major Turning Point Of Twentieth Century History
As a columnist and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Michael A Hiltzik won the 1999 beat reporting Pulitzer Prize for co writing an article about corruption in the music industry, and the 2004 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism He earned his Masters degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1974.
- 512 pages
- Michael A. Hiltzik
- 20 August 2017 Michael A. Hiltzik