On 30 September 1935, ten thousand spectators crowded into Black Canyon, on the banks of the Colorado River. There, in the scorching heat, they listened, while millions more crowded round their radios at home.
US president Franklin D Roosevelt had arrived to “celebrate the completion of the greatest dam in the world” – the ‘Boulder Dam’… and definitely not the ‘Hoover Dam’.
Leading up to the dedication ceremony, a row had broken out over what the dam would be called. At a ceremony to mark the start of construction to build a railway from Las Vegas to the dam in 1930, the secretary of the interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, had taken it upon himself to name the future dam after the then president, Herbert Hoover. His successor, Harold L Ickes, was furious.
During his own speech to mark the completion of the dam, Ickes repeated the name ‘Boulder Dam’ over and over to drive the point home.
And to be fair, Boulder Dam was how most people knew it. The press almost always referred to it as ‘Boulder Dam’, and it was the “Boulder Canyon Project Act” that President Calvin Coolidge had signed off in 1928.
After four years, the dam – whatever you choose to call it – was all but completed. Only the ‘powerhouse’ had yet to be finished by the time Roosevelt gave his speech. The dam, rising 221 metres over the Colorado River, had been completed two years early at a cost of $49m – around $850m in today’s money.
Sadly, the dam had also cost the lives of over a hundred workers, who toiled in the extreme heat in often perilous conditions. Nearby Las Vegas, a town of just a few thousand, swelled with the arrival of thousands of unemployed labourers and their families – this was the Great Depression, after all – and the town of Boulder City rose up out of the desert.
In the years that followed, the reputation of Herbert Hoover rose in the public’s estimation, and the name Boulder Dam gradually made way for the former president’s. In 1947, amid much teeth-grinding from Ickes, Congress unanimously voted to settle on the name Hoover Dam.