Around the world, people associate Bechtel with megaprojects — engineering and construction jobs too big for other companies. Over the years, there have been some humdingers, from Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia to the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1, which brought high-speed rail travel to the UK. But when it comes to Bechtel’s megaprojects, the benchmark is still Hoover Dam, the one that started it all. And right now, that project is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
By any measure, Hoover Dam is stupendous. It looms 726 feet (221 meters) above Black Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada state line. It’s 660 feet (201 meters) wide at the base and 1,244 feet (379 meters) across at the top. It weighs 6.6 million tons (6 million metric tons). Behind the dam, Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir, capable of holding more than 9 trillion gallons (that’s 3.41 × 1013 liters) of water from the Colorado River. Water from the lake drives turbines inside the dam that generate electricity for Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.
You get the picture. Yet to really understand the significance of Hoover Dam, you need to consider it in context of the time when it was built. Construction began in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. As a global economic catastrophe left millions jobless, the U.S. government financed big infrastructure projects across the country to provide work for unemployed men and women.
A consortium called Six Companies Inc., one of which was Bechtel, won the right to build the concrete arch dam, at a cost of nearly $49 million — a staggering amount back then.
The late Stephen Bechtel Sr., who became head of the company in 1933 following the unexpected death of his father, founder Warren Bechtel, later recalled how the project was a beacon in a dark period. “There weren’t many jobs around at the time,” he said. “People just wanted to come [to Hoover Dam] from all over the world.”
Between 1931 and early 1936, when the consortium turned the dam over to the government, more than 15,000 people had worked on it. When President Franklin Roosevelt officially dedicated it on September 30, 1935, he put a new take on a phrase coined nearly 2,000 years before, when he said, “I came, I saw, I was conquered.”
For Bechtel, a company already more than 30 years old, Hoover Dam was something of a watershed. The project came in two years ahead of schedule and under budget, giving company leaders the confidence that they could take on any project, anytime, anywhere.
“There’s no question that it was a stepping stone for us,” says Stephen Bechtel Jr., who ran the company from 1960 to 1990. “The Hoover Dam project and our role in it was a major platform for advancing on to other bigger projects since then.”
Today, Hoover Dam is one of the top tourist attractions in the United States — more than a million visitors each year take tours offered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. What they see is one of the wonders of the modern industrial world. What they know is that this gigantic concrete structure is more than just a dam. It’s a symbol of the human spirit, a project that came around when the country needed it most.