Hoover Dam was an audacious and courageous undertaking. Built during the Great Depression, the dam would tame the flood-prone Colorado River southeast of Las Vegas―protecting cities and farms, generating cheap electricity to supply power to homes and industry, and providing work for thousands who desperately needed jobs.
A consortium called Six Companies Inc., which included Bechtel, won the right to build the concrete arch dam, at a cost of nearly $49 million—a staggering amount in the early 1930s (roughly equivalent to $860 million today). Skeptics thought it couldn’t be done. Others were convinced that the contractors would go bust. But the men of Six Companies boldly moved forward, drawing on their considerable, collective knowledge and experience, managing huge risks, and pioneering as they went.
Bechtel founder Warren Bechtel and his son Steve were key leaders of the consortium, and their contributions to the project amounted to a blueprint for how their company, Bechtel, would approach huge, difficult, complex projects to come. Six Companies finished the dam in five years, two years ahead of schedule and under budget, giving company leaders the confidence that they could take on any project, anytime, anywhere.
Today, Hoover Dam is a top tourist attraction—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.
The first megaproject
By any measure, Hoover Dam is amazing. 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. Behind the dam, Lake Mead is the country’s largest reservoir, capable of holding more than 9 trillion gallons (that’s 3.41 × 1,013 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.
Around the world, people associate Bechtel with megaprojects—engineering and construction jobs too big for other companies. From Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia to the Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1, Bechtel has become the go-to company for projects that test the level of human achievement. But when it comes to Bechtel’s megaprojects, the benchmark is still Hoover Dam, the one that started it all.
There’s no question that it was a stepping stone for us. The Hoover Dam project and our role in it was a major platform for advancing to other bigger projects since then.—Steve Bechtel Jr.
A project of astounding proportions
At the time of its construction, Hoover Dam was mankind’s most massive masonry structure since the Great Pyramids. In all, it took this―and more―to create Hoover Dam:
- 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete
- 88 million pounds of plate steel and outlet pipes
- 6.7 million pounds of pipe and fittings
- 45 million pounds of reinforced steel
The project also stands out for something on a much smaller scale. It’s believed to be the first sizable construction job on which wearing hard hats (or hard-boiled hats, as they were originally called) was mandatory for all.
Jobs when few were available
To really understand the significance of Hoover Dam, you need to consider it in the 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.
More than 16,000 people worked on the project between 1931 and early 1936.
Steve 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.”
Taming the Black Canyon