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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading List: Colossus

Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus. New York: Free Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-3216-3.
This book, subtitled “Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century” chronicles the protracted, tangled, and often ugly history which led up to the undertaking, in the depths of the Great Depression, of the largest single civil engineering project ever attempted in the world up to that time, its achievement ahead of schedule and only modestly above budget, and its consequences for the Colorado River basin and the American West, which it continues to profoundly influence to this day.

Ever since the 19th century, visionaries, ambitious politicians, builders and engineers, and more than a few crackpots and confidence men had dreamt of and promoted grand schemes to harness the wild rivers of the American southwest, using their water to make the barren deserts bloom and opening up a new internal frontier for agriculture and (with cheap hydroelectric power) industry. Some of the schemes, and their consequences, were breathtaking. Consider the Alamo Canal, dug in 1900 to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley of California. In 1905, the canal, already silted up by the water of the Colorado, overflowed, creating a flood which submerged more than five hundred square miles of lowlands in southern California, creating the Salton Sea, which is still there today (albeit smaller, due to evaporation and lack of inflow). Just imagine how such an environmental disaster would be covered by the legacy media today. President Theodore Roosevelt, considered a champion of the environment and the West, declined to provide federal assistance to deal with the disaster, leaving it up to the Southern Pacific Railroad, who had just acquired title to the canal, to, as the man said, “plug the hole”.

Clearly, the challenges posed by the notoriously fickle Colorado River, known for extreme floods, heavy silt, and a tendency to jump its banks and establish new watercourses, would require a much more comprehensive and ambitious solution. Further, such a solution would require the assent of the seven states within the river basin: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, among the sparsely populated majority of which there was deep distrust that California would exploit the project to loot them of their water for its own purposes. Given the invariant nature of California politicians and subsequent events, such suspicion was entirely merited.

In the 1920s, an extensive sequence of negotiations and court decisions led to the adoption of a compact between the states (actually, under its terms, only six states had to approve it, and Arizona did not until 1944). Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover played a major part in these negotiations, although other participants dispute that his rôle was as central as he claimed in his memoirs. In December 1928, President Coolidge signed a bill authorising construction of the dam and a canal to route water downstream, and Congress appropriated US$165 million for the project, the largest single federal appropriation in the nation's history to that point.

What was proposed gave pause even to the master builders who came forward to bid on the project: an arch-gravity dam 221 metres high, 379 metres long, and 200 metres wide at its base. Its construction would require 3.25 million cubic yards (2.48 million cubic metres) of concrete, and would be, by a wide margin, the largest single structure ever built by the human species. The dam would create a reservoir containing 35.2 cubic kilometres of water, with a surface area of 640 square kilometres. These kinds of numbers had to bring a sense of “failure is not an option” even to the devil-may-care roughneck engineers of the epoch. Because, if for no other reason, they had a recent example of how the devil might care in the absence of scrupulous attention to detail. Just months before the great Colorado River dam was approved, the St. Francis Dam in California, built with the same design proposed for the new dam, suddenly failed catastrophically, killing more than 600 people downstream. William Mulholland, an enthusiastic supporter of the Colorado dam, had pronounced the St. Francis dam safe just hours before it failed. The St. Francis dam collapse was the worst civil engineering failure in American history and arguably remains so to date. The consequences of a comparable failure of the new dam were essentially unthinkable.

The contract for construction was won by a consortium of engineering firms called the “Six Companies” including names which would be celebrated in twentieth century civil engineering including Kaiser, Bechtel, and Morrison-Knudsen. Work began in 1931, as the Depression tightened its grip upon the economy and the realisation sank in that a near-term recovery was unlikely to occur. With this project one of the few enterprises hiring, a migration toward the job site began, and the labour market was entirely tilted toward the contractors. Living and working conditions at the outset were horrific, and although the former were eventually ameliorated once the company town of Boulder City was constructed, the rate of job-related deaths and injuries remained higher than those of comparable projects throughout the entire construction.

Everything was on a scale which dwarfed the experience of earlier projects. If the concrete for the dam had been poured as one monolithic block, it would have taken more than a century to cure, and the heat released in the process would have caused it to fracture into rubble. So the dam was built of more than thirty thousand blocks of concrete, each about fifty feet square and five feet high, cooled as it cured by chilled water from a refrigeration plant running through more than six hundred miles of cooling pipes embedded in the blocks. These blocks were then cemented into the structure of the dam with grout injected between the interlocking edges of adjacent blocks. And this entire structure had to be engineered to last forever and never fail.

At the ceremony marking the start of construction, Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur surprised the audience by referring to the project as “Hoover Dam”—the first time a comparable project had been named after a sitting president, which many thought unseemly, notwithstanding Hoover's involvement in the interstate compact behind the project. After Hoover's defeat by Roosevelt in 1932, the new administration consistently referred to the project as “Boulder Dam” and so commemorated it in a stamp issued on the occasion of the dam's dedication in September 1935. This was a bit curious as well, since the dam was actually built in Black Canyon, since the geological foundations in Boulder Canyon had been found unsuitable to anchor the structure. For years thereafter, Democrats called it “Boulder Dam”, while Republican stalwarts insisted on “Hoover Dam”. In 1947, newly-elected Republican majorities in the U.S. congress passed a bill officially naming the structure after Hoover and, signed by President Truman, so it has remained ever since.

This book provides an engaging immersion in a very different age, in which economic depression was tempered by an unshakable confidence in the future and the benefits to flow from continental scale collective projects, guided by wise men in Washington and carried out by roughnecks risking their lives in the savage environment of the West. The author discusses whether such a project could be accomplished today and concludes that it probably couldn't. (Of course, since all of the rivers with such potential for irrigation and power generation have already been dammed, the question is largely moot, but is relevant for grand scale projects such as solar power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and other engineering works of comparable transformative consequences on the present-day economy.) We have woven such a web of environmental constraints, causes for litigation, and a tottering tower of debt that it is likely that a project such as Hoover Dam, without which the present-day U.S. southwest would not exist in its present form, could never have been carried out today, and certainly not before its scheduled completion date. Those who regard such grand earthworks as hubristic folly (to which the author tips his hat in the final chapters) might well reflect that history records the achievements of those who have grand dreams and bring them into existence, not those who sputter out their lives in courtrooms or trading floors.

Posted at December 12, 2010 21:36