Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: “They Died to Make the Desert Bloom” Guest Post by John Magnet Bell

I am honored to have John Magnet Bell as my guest blogger this week.  Please visit his links below. He maintains an exceptional blog and is an amazing writer.  Thank you, John for this wonderful story!  

Weeks before Black Tuesday, a vice-president of the Earl Radio Corporation went canary in a coal mine. “Last April I was worth $100,000,” he wrote. “Today I am $24,000 in the red.”

The Great Depression swept across the land like a tidal wave, crushing delusions and hopes alike. In 1931, when work on the Hoover Dam started, the average unemployment rate in the US had soared to 16.3%. That’s 8 million unemployed in a country of 124,000,000. People were living in caves and sewer pipes.
Thousands flocked to the dam site looking for work. California alone contributed more than 5,000 workers. (Out of Delaware came but one, if you can believe it.)

The first man died in June. His name was Raymond Hopland. A Six Companies clerk wrote down “heat prostration” in a book. I picture a black leather binding, and the page borders red. Also a black fountain pen with a golden nib.

Among the names of the official dead you find curiosities: Skaloud, a Czech name. Bolich, Serbian. Soderstrom, from the Swedish for ‘South River.’ Like the pyramids of Giza or the Taj Mahal, the Hoover Dam drew laborers from thousands of miles away. They hadn’t come to fulfill their destinies; they were hungry and penniless. Men, women and children rooted around in garbage heaps for scraps of food. They queued outside the soup kitchens, each man breathing down his neighbor’s neck. A contemporary reporter saw in them “a gray-black caterpillar.”
"a gray-black caterpillar"

Most of the hungry didn’t stay put. Southern Pacific Railroad threw 683,000 vagrants out of boxcars in 1931. That same year, Soviet agency Amtorg announced six thousand openings for skilled laborers in Russia. It got a hundred thousand applications.

Banks went under and businesses failed. As an after effect of Prohibition, there were no outlets for American grain. This was a country on its knees. The Hoover Dam was a symbol of renewal, and people responded to that symbol, not with their minds but their bellies. Of course, legs will carry the belly wherever it chooses to go.

I’m not saying hope wasn’t a factor. You don’t get up and start moving if you don’t believe in tomorrow.

Nowadays you can visit the dam and see a plaque there. “They died to make the desert bloom,” begins the inscription. It was put up to honor those who fell along the path.

Westward they traveled, chasing the sun.

John Magnet Bell is a translator, photographer and blogger. He churns out story prompts like there’s no tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter or Google+ and say goodbye to writer’s block.


Loree Huebner said...

Interesting post. Thank you John and Kelly!

When I was small, I heard story after story of the Great Depression from my grandparents - such a difficult time in this country's history.

I didn't realize that the dam was built during this time. Love the plaque.

John Magnet Bell said...

Thank you, Loree.

I wanted to include more about the plaque and the sculptures at the Dam, but that's a story for another day.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

@Faryna sent this to my email-couldn't post a comment for some reason:

I want MORE, John. That wasn't even a snack. And good writing is like that!

Can I have another 1000 words?


John Magnet Bell said...

Yeah, sometimes the Blogger comment system acts a little funny.

Thanks for reading, Stan.
1,000 more words on Hoover Dam -- I will consider that.

Bill Dorman said...

Sometimes people need to be reminded of sacrifices that were made to make this a great country. I can only imagine the conditions at the Hoover Dam construction site were less than desirable and dangerous as well.

All this brings us to today and how easy we now have it regardless of how bad the economy currently is. We never need to take the lessons for granted.

Interesting post and very well done. Can you translate southern into English? Just askin'.....:)

Amberr said...

You know, when I read stories like this, it reminds me that our current economic devastation doesn't even compare to The Great Depression.

Excellent post!

Natalie Kenney said...

Lovely post. Although this is a bit of our history, it sounds a note on our present economy as well. It's tragic what occurred during this era, and yet, we have a monumental bit of architecture that stands, partly because of the fall. Somehow, I can't see the same drive in present day though. I wonder, would we simply be picked off by buzzards?

Erica Lucke Dean said...

I love your posts about the history of the Dam. I've never been, but I now feel a little closer to this bit of American history. I love the pictures...the imagery...the stories. I can't wait to read your book!

Betsy Cross said...

Amazing how we can pass by structures erected and take the story behind them for granted. I was in Boston yesterday and drove past a huge wall with "1910" carved in its face. I stared and wondered. All of the ghosts of the people who passed by it for the past 101 years! That's what your story here does for me. It brings life to a dam. To a people who can teach us about suffering, hard work, sacrifice and endurance. Love it!

John Magnet Bell said...

Thanks for reading, Bill, Amberr, Natalie, Erica and Betsy.

As I wrote, I kept thinking, "I could well be writing about this day and age."

There are, however, a few things we have now that people didn't have back then:
On average, I think, everyone's better educated. Communications infrastructures are faster, more diverse and efficient than they ever were. Economies now rely on industrial sectors that didn't even exist 70 or 80 years ago.

What everyone in the world needs -- if the West is to pull through -- is smart, driven people. There's plenty of that.


How's this for history: about a mile outside Edinburgh, you'll find the village of Duddingston. There are two significant buildings there: Scotland's oldest church, still standing, built in 1124, and the Sheep Heid Inn, Scotland's oldest pub, which I think is about as old as the church.
Imagine all the people who had a drink at that pub over the centuries. And I am a small, anonymous part of that history myself. Now, you don't think about this much as you sit there with your pint in front of you, but once you return home, it's like... damn... that place has been serving people for almost a thousand years.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

People often ask me why I am so fascinated with the Hoover Dam and its story. I think you all have hit on several of those points here. I am thrilled that so many people are becoming more interested not only in the dam (and hopefully my book :) but in the history that is all around us, from the Scottish pubs to a wall in Boston to the Hoover Dam. Wonderful comments everyone. Thank you.