The formative years

Like many great entrepreneurs, Warren A. Bechtel would take a few frightening steps toward failure before he found the path to success. In 1898, a nearly bankrupt 25-year-old Bechtel and his pregnant wife, Clara, left Peabody, Kansas, and headed 100 miles (161 kilometers) south in search of construction work and new opportunity. Thus began an epic journey that would span more than a century of building, five generations of his family, and eventually much of the globe.

Visit whoisbechtel.com for an interactive experience of our long history.

Building a Century

A look back at 100 years of Bechtel history.

1898–1949: Building the foundation

I arrived, with a wife, two babies, a slide trombone, and a 10-dollar bill.

Warren Bechtel

  • 1919

    First major non-railroad construction project: Klamath Highway in Northern California.

  • 1921

    First job for a large power utility: the Caribou Water Tunnel in Northern California, part of the Caribou Power Plant, which will generate 75 megawatts of electricity

  • 1923

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    A Family Business

    W. A. Bechtel Co. was a family business from the beginning. W. A. was determined to build a company that would allow him to pass along to his children not just financial security and physical assets, but a sense of responsibility and obligation to company employees and associates, and to the enterprise. He took immense pleasure in the increased interest and involvement of Bechtel family members.

    Pictured (left to right): W.A. Bechtel and sons Steve, Ken, and Warren Jr.

  • 1923
    • Introduced using track-laying tractors on the Southern Pacific Railroad, Natron Cut-off, Oregon.
    • Southern Pacific Railroad, Arizona: main line extension.
  • 1925

    Bowman Dam

    First foray into the dam-building business: Bowman Dam, California, is completed. The construction site is so remote that the company is forced to construct a camp, complete with a hospital, a hundred head of cattle, a slaughterhouse, and storage facilities, to sustain the crew for the winter.

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  • 1929

    First pipeline: The 8-mile- (13-kilometer-) long Tres Piños–Milpitas in California begins operation.

  • 1931 The Hoover Dam: Bechtel's First Megaproject

    The Hoover Dam project was too big for any one company. So W. A. Bechtel helped form a consortium calling itself Six Companies, Inc. W. A. knew the heads of the consortium companies as friends and business associates, having been in partnerships with most of them. 

    The Hoover Dam was ​officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in September 1935—represents a pivotal event in the history of Bechtel. There have been bigger projects, and there will be still bigger jobs in years to come. But never again will Bechtel be involved with a project that so profoundly shaped our company's sense of itself. 

    Hoover Dam was a make-or-break proposition for my grandfather. It became the birthplace of many of the great traditions of the present Bechtel organization.

    Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., 1982

    Between 1934 and 1938, the Six Companies, Inc., partnership built Parker Dam across the Colorado River. Operating as Columbia Construction Co., they corralled the waters of the Columbia River behind the concrete arches of Bonneville Dam and built Ruby Dam and Grays Harbor jetties in Washington State; and as Six Companies of California, they constructed a section of the Oakland–Contra Costa highway. Utah-Bechtel-Morrison-Kaiser Co. lined the Moffatt Water Tunnel and built Taylor Park Dam in Colorado.

    • Completed in 1936, the Hoover Dam was Bechtel’s first megaproject
    • Construction began in 1931 and finished in 1936, two years ahead of schedule and under budget
    • Night falls on the dam’s intake towers
    • Hoover Dam attracts more than one million visitors each year
    • A view from the top of the dam to the power plant – located over 720 feet (some 220 meters) below
    • The dam’s turbines generate electricity for Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.
    • One of the dam’s hydroelectric power transformers
    • Workers tunneling through the Black Canyon
    • Over 16,000 people worked on the project in 1931 – 1936; here workers use a pneumatic drill to shape abutments
    • Formed by the dam, Lake Mead is capable of holding more than 9 trillion gallons (34 trillion liters) of water

  • 1933

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    Stephen D. Bechtel Sr.

    Steven D. Bechtel Sr. becomes president of W.A. Bechtel Co.

  • 1933

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    San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge

    These were times when attempting the impossible became standard procedure, and the Bay Bridge is a perfect example—the plans called for bridge piers to be set deeper than anyone had ever attempted. And seldom had anyone confronted currents as unpredictable or winds as blustery as those on San Francisco Bay.

    The Bechtels formed Bridge Builders, Inc., allying themselves with Six Companies partner Henry Kaiser, one of W. A.’s most trusted collaborators. They added several old-line eastern firms, including some of the most experienced deep-caisson builders Steve could find. 

  • 1941

    First shipbuilding job: Calship delivers 467 cargo ships and Marinship cranks out 15 Liberty ships and 78 tankers and oilers. 

  • 1942

    As part of a Department of War–mandated project to shore up U.S. defenses in Alaska, Bechtel interests begin work on Canol, a  1,430-mile (2,300-kilometer) pipeline across Canada and Alaska. The pipeline transports oil from Canadian fields to a new refinery.

  • 1943

    Bechtel’s first work in the Middle East: Bahrain Petroleum Co. hires BMP to build a refinery capable of producing 150,000 barrels of oil per day.

  • 1945

    First major power contract: Equipment changes for Southern California Edison; engineers must convert power equipment operating on a 50-cycle current to a 60-cycle current. 

  • 1947

    Trans-Arabian Pipeline

    Bechtel begins work on the 1,068-mile (1,719-kilometer) Trans-Arabian pipeline (Tapline), which will transport oil across Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to tankers in the Mediterranean. 

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  • 1949

    First nuclear reactor: Near Arco, Idaho, Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EBR-1) is the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity from atomic energy.