Thursday, July 7, 2011

Stories from the Hoover Dam: Johnny-behind-the-Rock

In 1931, with the country in the midst of an unprecedented economic disaster, thousands of Americans made their way to the Nevada desert to seek employment on what would become the Hoover Dam.  While most made their homes along the highway between the jobsite and the small railroad community of Las Vegas, forty miles away, the most desperate never made it beyond Hemenway Wash on the banks of the Colorado River.  This area was officially known as Williamsville, named for the U.S. Marshall who became the overseer of the tent community.  To the residents, it was known as Ragtown.

It is hard to imagine how hard life was for the residents.  The Dam project hired approximately five hundred men initially from the thousands that had descended on the area, leaving the majority to starve in the desert.  Starve, that is, if they survived the Black Widows and rattlesnakes, scorpions and centipedes, not to mention the bouts of dysentery experienced from lack of drinking water and, of course, the heat related illnesses and deaths.

The lucky ones had tents, but many lived under whatever form of shelter they could find: cardboard boxes, sheets strung between trees, a ply board lean-to, or just openly in the desert.

According to past residents of Ragtown, there was a man named Johnny who lived behind a large boulder.  He was too old, they say, to be employed at the Dam and he was apparently alone in the desert.  He had nothing more than the clothes he wore and he rarely spoke to anyone.  He survived on the generosity of others.  His back story is a mystery.

During the day, as the sun moved across the sky, Johnny moved behind his boulder, finding the shady spot to sit in.  And that became his life.  Sleeping behind a boulder, no chance of getting work, living in the desert, no family—nothing.  The residents simply called him Johnny-behind-the-Rock.  There is no official record of the man, and there is no account of what happened to him when Ragtown was cleared out by the government.

I’m not sure that many of us today can even imagine that kind of life.  We think the world is against us if our cell phones don’t work, or if the electric bill is too high.  But having no family, no friends, one pair of clothes and a big rock to call your home?  And sadly, Johnny was one of thousands.

When I began writing my historical fiction novel, Ragtown, I felt it important to breathe life into some of the minor characters that inhabited the area.  I wanted readers to see the individual struggles, the desperation and the horror of just living that many of these people experienced.  Although I couldn’t possibly include all of the stories that came out of Ragtown, I am happy to say that Johnny-behind-the-Rock’s did make the cut.

1 comment:

-RWWGreene said...

Nice insight and too true. It's hard to imagine we have the up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that the '30s and '40s required. We throw a fit when the cable goes out and our kids think they're impoverished if they don't have smartphones.