Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: A Thanksgiving Tradition

If you are working on the largest government project in the nation, and using men that are basically starving for your labor, how do you get any productivity.  Simple. You feed them. And that is exactly what Six Companies did.  They contracted with Anderson Brothers, a well known Hollywood catering service in the 1930's, to tackle the problem of feeding the growing number of workers on the Black Canyon project, later to be known as the Hoover Dam. 

They started in a mess tent that held about 350 men, and soon an additional mess hall was set up temporarily at River Camp, two miles upriver from the site. This was in the Spring of 1931, when there were only about five hundred men on the payroll. By November of that year, the workforce had increased to about 2500, and Anderson Brothers had a full scale mess hall in the town of Boulder City that was capable of seating 1200 at a time.

Anderson Brothers Mess Hall
Because the job site was 24 hours, so was the mess hall. Food was brought in by rail and by truck and it was never in short supply.  There was always a variety--steaks, pork chops, roast beef, fruit, fresh baked pies and cakes.  Meals were served family style, and when a platter was emptied, it was soon refilled. The food was excellent and there was plenty of it.  For $1.50 a day, deducted from their wages, the men could eat as much as they wanted, which included packing their own box lunch to take to the work site.

Their families, however, weren't so lucky.  They weren't even allowed in the mess hall---until Thanksgiving, 1931.

It was on this day that Anderson Brothers decided to open up their operation to the men and their families for the holiday.  The tables were dressed with crisp linens and at a cost of seventy-five cents for adults, children ate free, the 2500 employees and their families were served an all you could eat Thanksgiving dinner served on china. And they ate. 

  • ·         2400 pounds of turkey
  • ·         300 gallons of oyster soup
  • ·         half a ton of candied sweet potatoes
  • ·         300 pounds of cranberries
  • ·         760 pies
  • ·         half a ton of plum pudding

...these are just a few of the items served on that day

It had been a hard year for the thousands that had traveled from all over the country to take their chance on the Hoover Dam. They had lived in cars, tents, openly in the desert and braved deadly snakes and spiders, sandstorms, starvation and the unbearable heat.  They had begun moving into the rickety houses in town and businesses were starting to open.  Boulder City, the only city in the United States at the time with a 100% employment rate, was starting to come together as a community.  It was a long way from the Depression-ridden cities and towns they had come from, and a long way from the desert.  It was paradise.  And they were thankful.

It was a wonderful gesture of Thanksgiving on the part of the Anderson Brothers, but this day also marked a very important event in the history of the Hoover Dam: the unofficial birth of Boulder City as a community.  From that day forward, every Thanksgiving and Christmas during construction was observed in the same way and having holiday dinner at Anderson's Mess Hall became the first community tradition.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Western Perspective by Darren Rome Leo

  In the past year, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Darren Rome Leo.  Darren is the author of Keeping Score: A Short Heroic Journey.  He is currently working on a novel  tentatively titled And We're Walking .  It is the story of a man named Finn and his search for peace and understanding as he hikes the Appalachian Trail.  His writing is profound, engaging and funny, and I am thrilled to be able to share Darren's 'Western Perspective' with you.  Enjoy!

When Kelly asked me to write about the damn Hoover, I didn’t really understand her vitriol for the vacuum.  I mean, my vacuum sucks, but that’s really what it’s supposed to do.  Then I figured out that she meant the Hoover dam and made an appointment to check for dyslexia.

Darren Rome Leo
I grew up in Utah.  I have a strong affinity for the arid land of dust and sand that permeates Kelly’s novel.  I spent much of my formative years roaming those red deserts of Utah, Arizona and Nevada.  In college, jacked up on PBR’s and the self righteous indignation of The Monkeywrench Gang, I even had a conversation on hypothetical ways to destroy that dam.  Most of them involved various purchases from Acme and the special skills of Wile Coyote.

The dam is the quintessential story of the west.  Through amazing effort and determination, and no small dose of audacity, we altered the land to suit our needs.  There are few, if any, stories of assimilation into, or coexistence with, the west.  Our history and our stories are rife with taming and conquering it.  That may be due to the very nature and ferocity of that western landscape.  As our forefathers steadily migrated across the continent, I imagine they were spurred on by welcoming environments.  They left the abundant Eastern seaboard and first arrived at the loamy Ohio River valley.  Later they reached the rolling plains and a seemingly infinite supply of bison.  Then they arrived at the towering Rockies.  I’m sure some pioneer let out an audible “Oh shit,” at that moment.  After finally struggling up and over those peaks, they looked out at the sprawling desert, and that same pioneer went, “What the fuck!”  I’m sure that certain places in the west, such as Green River, Utah, were founded by exhausted pioneers who said, “Screw it.  I’m not going any further.”

Those early western settlers had some grit in their character and a wanderlust in their souls.  They were not content with farming by the Mississippi or growing huge fields of wheat on the plains.  There was an inherent yearning to see what was over the next horizon.  Those that survived a winter in Montana or a summer in the Great Basin desert did so with the understanding that it was a pull no punches confrontation with the land.  We would eventually conquer that western land.  Rivers would be stopped up or rerouted.  We blasted tunnels right through the mountains.  We would ultimately create some unfortunate things out there like nuclear testing facilities and Phoenix.  

The unforgiving west imprinted on our DNA.  It is seen in the stories we tell.  The palpable environment is itself a significant character in a wide range of the so called “western” writers.  They find beauty where others see only a bleak and hostile land.  The characters are often less than attractive but celebrated for their implicit humanity; warts and all.  From Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey to Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas McGuane, Craig Childs, and Kelly Stone Gamble, these authors have some grit in their character and a wanderlust in their souls.  They can thank the explorers in their family trees and the vast and varied land we collectively call the West.

      I’m Darren, and I’m a writer.
From Finn's soundtrack:

Visit Thoughtvomit, where you can stalk Darren Rome Leo and follow Finn on his journey.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: Two Deaths

One of the questions people often ask about the building of the Hoover Dam is “How many people are buried in the Dam?”  There is a very simple answer to that: zero.  There is one dog, Nig, who was buried at the site, but humans?  None.   

Although the exact number of those that perished is disputable, the official number of deaths associated with its construction is ninety-six.  But I want to tell you about two: the first and the last. 

Before construction could begin, the United States government had to do a lot of pre-work at the site.  This began several years before the project was ever announced.  On December 20, 1922, an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation fell off a barge into the Colorado River during a geological expedition and drowned.  His death is considered, by many accounts, as the first death to occur in association with the Dam. 

Intake towers-during construction
The last occurred exactly thirteen years later on December 20, 1935.  On this day, a young man working on one of the massive intake towers fell to his death. 

The coincidence that they both occurred on December 20th is itself a bit of interesting historical trivia, but there is something else that connects these two deaths that make them even more fascinating. 

The first death--the man who drowned in 1922 was J. G. Tierney. 

The man who fell from the intake tower, marking the last death at the Hoover Dam?

Patrick Tierney. 

His son.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Looking for the (Next) Man in Black by R.W.W. Greene

I am honored to have R.W.W. Greene guest blogging for me this week. He awes me with his talent, always makes me laugh and is just one of those people that reminds me that the human race isn't all that bad.  Enjoy!

One day last month I found myself staring at a low, plastic toilet and thinking about music. The toilet used to belong to Johnny Cash, part of the plumbing system installed in the Man in Black's tour bus. The bus meant a lot to Cash. I made a special trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see it, so I guess it means something to me, too.

I have a home that takes me anywhere I need to go, that cradles me and comforts me, that lets me nod off in the mountains and wake up in the plains: my bus, of course.” (from Cash, the autobiography.)

R.W.W. Greene
Cash sold the tour bus in 2003, after wife June Carter Cash died. The two spent a lot of time on the bus, touring near constantly since they bought the thing in 1979. Cash put more than $500,000 and nearly a million miles into it, criss-crossing the country and sharing the songs he knew.
I'd like to think that at least once Cash sat on that toilet and wondered, “Shit. How'd I end up here?” and thought about the story he was telling.

Cash was born in 1932, taking his first steps while desperate men and women rebuilt their lives and dragged America up by the bootstraps at the Hoover Dam. The music Cash listened to on his family's radio rose out of that Depression-era, must-do spirit: hardscrabble, sparse tunes with lyrics that moaned in pain, sprawled in the dust, and left everything behind in search of something better. One of Cash's favorite acts was the Carter Family, a musical clan he eventually married into. The Carters sang a lot of songs about hard times, harder work, and looking on the “brighter side of life.”

Cash and his contemporaries – Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. – are the last generation of musicians to carry the spirit of those times forward. They were born at the end of the bad times, but they grew up steeped in the tales and the music of want and the working man. They heard the story second-hand, unlike Woody Guthrie who lived and wrote every day of it, but for a long time their music was the closest the American public could get to being there.

Cash died in 2003, Waylon Jennings in 2002, Orbison in '88, Elvis died on a toilet in Graceland in '77. Only a few bold, old men are left to tell those stories to the so-called Millennial generation, and I'm not sure the Gen Xers were paying attention when their time came to hear the tale. Who's left to make us feel the grit of the Dust Bowl and hear the scrape of the shovels at the big dam projects? You could argue that rockers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp are trying, but they heard the story third-hand at best. Their version of the tale may rock, but it's garbled. Lady Gaga, awesome as she is, likely hasn't heard it at all. Jamey Johnson? Maybe.

It's too important a story to let fade. We need to be reminded that there was a time when America was down on its luck, knocked on its collective ass, but managed to stand up stronger. It sounds like a story we could stand to hear now. (You hear that, Kelly Gamble? We're at a point where we NEED to hear that story you're telling. )

Could we do it again? Do we have the power to stand up and be better? We're good at occupying and organizing, tweeting and bitching, but could we lose it all and spend years of our lives busting rocks and digging holes to build a new world? We did once; maybe folks just need to hear about how it all worked, how it felt.

They're powerful, those songs. At times they've been my only way back, the only door out of the dark, bad places the black dog calls home.” (Cash, 2003)

The new tour, a million miles back and forth across the nation, could start here. Kelly's got a book. I know a few tunes on the guitar. Anyone have a bus we could borrow?

R.W.W. Greene is an English teacher, former journalist, and practicing (much practicing) fiction writer. Follow his exploits at and follow him on twitter @rwwgreene