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.”
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.