The Construction of the Hoover Dam: History of Events

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  • 0:03 A Great Opportunity
  • 0:49 Approving the Dam
  • 2:50 Construction
  • 4:44 Legacy of the Dam
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Korn

Ryan taught elementary school and holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

Though President Hoover did not end the Great Depression, one of his most well-known efforts, the Hoover Dam, remains important to many people's lives. In this lesson, we will learn why Hoover approved the dam and how it was constructed as well the dam's effects on the country.

A Great Opportunity

For many years, the Colorado River - the same one that carved the Grand Canyon - was considered one of the wildest rivers in the country. In fact, it often flooded, devastating nearby towns and farmers. But by the 1920s, it was also considered a tremendous opportunity. With the West poised for growth, many Americans, including President Herbert Hoover, wanted to control the river and use its power by building a dam at the Nevada-Arizona border.

A dam is a barrier designed to block the flow of water, usually along a river. People build dams for three main reasons:

  1. To control water flow and prevent flooding.
  2. To convert the flow of water into electricity (also known as hydroelectric power).
  3. To harness water for drinking and farming (or irrigation).

Approving the Dam

Even before he became president, Hoover, himself a former engineer, was an advocate for the project. In 1922, while serving as President Harding's Secretary of Commerce, Hoover forged the agreement that would dictate how the states along the river would share the water. And over the next seven years, he would work to persuade skeptical Eastern states to support the dam and pass the agreement in Congress. After becoming president in 1929, he was finally able to sign it into law.

Throughout this time, Hoover saw the dam as a way to develop the country's infrastructure out West. When someone talks about infrastructure, they're talking about the basic parts of a system that allow it to function and grow. For instance, power plants are a part of our country's infrastructure. Everyone could have TVs and computers in their homes, but none of them would work without power plants generating the electricity and wiring it to you. And without enough electricity, other companies wouldn't be able to build new houses with electrical outlets or sell new electronics.

The infrastructure of a country includes roads, schools, power plants, Internet servers, and more. Without things like these, the country can't function. And that was the problem out West in the 1920s. Places like California were starting to grow, but they didn't have the infrastructure - the drinking water, the irrigation systems, or the electricity - to handle it.

After the depression hit, Hoover also began to see the dam as a way to put people back to work, improve the quality of life of those who lived in the area, and invest in the American economy. When you make an investment, you're spending some money on a project in the hope that the project will return even more money in the long run. In this case, Hoover's thinking was that investing the American people's money in a dam would drive economic growth and help pull the nation out of the depression. Still, he remained opposed to direct government relief on the grounds that recipients would become dependent on the government and be unwilling to work.


At the time, the dam was the most expensive public works project ever undertaken. Public works are infrastructure projects, like highways and schools, that the government builds for public use and benefit. For the dam, the government planned to invest a total of $165 million. And that was in the 1920s, when candy bars only cost 5¢! In 2012 dollars, that would have been more than $2 billion!

It's crazy to think about, but when construction began in 1930, there were no roads that led to the site where the dam was to be built. It was totally underwater! So the first step was to build two tunnels on each side of the Colorado River to divert the water around the dam site. Each tunnel was 56 feet in diameter, about the size of a semi-trailer. Only then could the workers prepare the rock for the concrete using jackhammers and dynamite, pour layers upon layers of concrete to build the structure, and construct the power plants.

Many workers had no experience or knowledge of construction; they were just desperate for a job. In total, 21,000 men would work on the project. And work they did, day and night, seven days a week. The work was backbreaking, the heat extreme, and safety standards lax. Many became sick and approximately 100 died.

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