I'm often asked, "Why the Hoover Dam?" So I thought I would share how I first became interested in the subject. It all started with a one room schoolhouse I learned about in an archeology class ten years ago:
In the early 1930’s, construction plans for the Hoover Dam brought thousands from across the country in search of jobs. This resulted in the appearance of “shanty towns” or "Hoovervilles" in and around the area accessible to the dam. One area that was home to several of these camps was called Railroad Pass, located just south of the current day Henderson, Nevada along Boulder Highway.
Those seeking jobs brought their families. By the end of 1931, several of the residents of the camps felt a school was needed in the area. Although some monies were supplied by the state and the county toward the establishment of the school, it was the efforts of the residents of the Railroad Pass community that had the actual schoolhouse built and running by January, 1932. Through the use of volunteer labor, and loans for supplies, the schoolhouse was built: a dirty white, one room schoolhouse, approximately 14’X16’ (before the expansion), with two outhouses on the north side of the building.
The small structure filled quickly. Within two months, the need for an addition was apparent. On March 12, 1932, a School Benefit Dance was held at Railroad Pass Casino to help raise money to pay off the existing debt and to allow for expansion. The dance was met with an overwhelming response, with assistance from several Las Vegas merchants who donated prize merchandise and the Las Vegas high school whose band played in the streets of Las Vegas to sell tickets and distribute handbills.
By December, 1932, there were approximately forty-five students enrolled. At one point in the mid 1930’s the number of students reported at the small school was seventy-two. They ranged in age from six to sixteen and resided in the various camps around the Railroad Pass area, which included Texas Acres, Dee’s Camp and Showwalter Camp.
The words of one of the teachers at the school, taken from an unsigned letter archived at the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association, best describes the conditions under which she worked:
“The people were rough and tough and so were their offspring. Upon our arrival the first day, it is very hard to guess who was the most curious, the children …or us; I know we were the most frightened. When we arrived with the wind and dust all 72 of the kids were lined up to look us over. The biggest one stepped forward and told us that a couple of dames were not welcome.
In the midst of our first day, Mr. Greenwood and Art Klinger, school board trustees, came along to protect us just in case. Mr. Greenwood (was) equipped with a gallon jug of home-made corn squeezings and Klinger with a baseball bat.”
While this story may seem to many like just a tale of how a school was built in the desert, it affected me a little differently. The people who lived in these camps were representative of the most desperate our country had. They had nothing, many living openly on the desert floor with their children: no shelter to protect them from the unbearable heat, barely enough food to fend off starvation. But regardless of their economic situation, they wanted, needed to provide for the education of their children. They understood the importance of an education and as a group, this ragtag community came together to build a school.
The stories I share about the Hoover Dam aren't as much about the construction as they are about the people who built it. After learning more about the school, I continued to read about these people, our grandfathers and grandmothers, who persevered during hard times, and still maintained the values they considered important, such as the education of their children.
While the dam itself is a grand structure, for me it is a testament to the strength of a generation. A generation whose story deserves to be told.