Hoover Dam is one of the ultimate symbol of an era when an urban, industrial America reveled in harnessing its natural resources. It was during the Great Depression, when thousands of men and their families came to Black Canyon to build the Hoover Dam – a project designed to transform the raging Colorado River into a hydroelectric power source for the region’s growing population.
This majestic and massive concrete arch-gravity dam, 660 feet thick at its base and wide enough at its crest that traffic on old U.S. 93 coursed right over its top. Some 726 feet in the canyon below, or the equivalent of a 60-story building, the Colorado River lies tamed behind this great concrete wedge, its base as wide as two football fields are long.
Hoover Dam stores water that irrigates 2 million acres, not only in the rich farm fields of Southern California’s Imperial Valley, but across the state line in Arizona. Hoover Dam generates enough hydroelectric power to serve 1.3 million people each year, provides municipal water for urban centers including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, holds back flood waters, provides storage during drought and takes more than a little credit for the unabashed growth of the desert Southwest. For all that, Hoover Dam is much more; it is an American icon, a monument to the ingenuity of the nation’s engineers and the power of its machines.
The story of Hoover Dam begins long before the ounce of concrete was poured on June 6, 1933, and it continues today with the recently opened Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, an engineering marvel in itself, towering 900 feet above the Colorado River’s Black Canyon, just south of Hoover Dam. The new bridge diverts traffic from the top of the dam, lessening congestion and increasing security, while also offering unsurpassed views from its pedestrian walkway. Hoover Dam, spanning the Arizona-Nevada border about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is the most-visited dam in the world, counting some 7 million tourists a year. With its 110-mile-long Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and its corresponding system of tunnels, outlet works, spillways, power plant, and transmission lines has transformed this bone-dry slice of desert into a vacation paradise.
Before the dam was built, the Colorado River flowed freely though Black Canyon. Today, the entire area is transformed into the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and is a frequent stop for boaters and water-sport fans of all types.
In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the dam one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders, it also stands as a National Historic Landmark and also owns the title as one of the Top 10 Construction Achievements of the 20th Century, Hoover Dam continues to draw more than a million visitors a year more than 70 years after its creation.
The dam is named after America's 31st president, Herbert Hoover, who played a large role in bringing the nearby states into agreement about water allocations, settling a 25-year controversy. The dam has been called Boulder Canyon Dam as well as Boulder Dam, but Hoover Dam was reinstated as the official name by Congress in 1947. As a conservationist, he was a strong proponent of preserving our natural resources and protecting the nation's lands from misuse, and from destruction by disastrous floods. As an engineer, he strongly supported construction of a high concrete dam on the Colorado River to control the river, and to provide irrigation water to the rich farmlands nearby, and a dependable supply of water for Southern California communities.
President Hoover advocated that the Boulder Canyon Project be self-supporting, financed entirely through the sale of hydroelectric power generated at the dam. He was personally involved in the pre-construction discussions concerning the location, feasibility and safety of the dam -- a dam of unprecedented height and weight and the key to control and regulation of the Colorado River.
A National Historic Landmark, Hoover Dam is the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere, standing at more than 725 feet above the Colorado River. With 17 generators producing 4 billion kilowatts of electricity a year, it also is one of the country's largest hydroelectric power facilities. Operation and maintenance of the facility are solely supported by revenue from power sales.
Completed in October 2010, the Mike O' Callaghan -- Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge offers spectacular views that were once only available by helicopter. For those who never fully appreciated the dam, it's hard not to become a fan after this. Visitors have access to drive to this bridge and see the dam from a high vantage point. Located about 1,500 feet south of the Hoover Dam, the walkway on the bridge is approximately 900 feet above the Colorado River.
One neat fact is that visitors can go from Nevada to Arizona after crossing the 1,900-foot-long bridge. There are plenty of informative placards before and during the bridge walk. The construction of the bridge came to mind in the 1960s, but didn't actually happen until 40 years later. This bypass was created to not only reduce traffic, but also to protect Lake Mead and the Colorado River from hazardous spills and explosions.
Two tours of the dam are available and well worth the time and money spent. For $11 per person (discounts available for children, seniors and active military) is the Hoover Dam Power Plant Tour. It is broken up into several components at numerous locations. The unique tour format allows guests to pick and choose which locations they want to see and the complete tour generally lasts about two hours. The Hoover Dam Power Plant Tour begins with a brief video show depicting the history of Hoover Dam and how it came to be. Afterwards, a guide will escort you to an elevator for a 500-foot descent to get an up-close look at the power plant generators housed at the base of the dam. Guests will also see the original diversion tunnels and stand atop a giant, 30-foot pipe where they can feel the rumble of Colorado River water racing through it.
Another interesting stop on the tour is an observation deck set above the dam affording panoramic views of the Colorado River and Lake Mead. The location also provides a bird's-eye view of the Hoover Dam facility, including an unobstructed look at the dam's mechanical components. The tour continues with several stops along the top of the dam, from the Winged Figures of the Republic to the Nevada Intake Tower.
For $30 per person visitors can enjoy the second part optional tour of the Power Plant (including access to the visitor's center, observation deck and original Hoover Dam exhibit building), but they will also get to experience a unique and intimate tour of the dam itself.
The tour continues with an unprecedented look inside the dam, entering through the inspection tunnels. Visitors will be able to see inspection markings written on the walls from decades past and then peek out of the vents down onto the river below. After the inspection tunnels, guests will get to go deeper into the dam and see the seepage gallery and a set of antique stairs. This is the ultimate tour for those interested in the Hoover Dam.
The view from the dam also offers a breathtaking look at Lake Mead, the country's largest man-made reservoir. Although water levels have been low recently, Lake Mead can store up to 9.2 trillion gallons of water, equal to two years of the river's annual flow. It also has become a popular recreation area, sought out by more than 9 million visitors each year.
With the official opening of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge (Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge) in October 2010, vehicles travelling on U.S. Highway 93 no longer cross Hoover Dam. Visitors to the dam must now exit US 93 at Nevada State Route 172 to reach the dam. Additionally, State Route 172 is not open to through-traffic, as the roadway on the Arizona side of the site has been closed. Vehicles can still cross the dam to visit the Arizona viewpoints and concessions, but all are required to turn around and re-enter Nevada to access Highway 93.
Visitors can park in designated lots and walk across the dam for better viewing and photographic opportunities, during daylight hours only. At no time will any vehicles be allowed to stop on top of the dam. Pedestrians are prohibited from the top of the dam during hours of darkness.