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On Walkabout On: Hoover Dam

After driving out of the winter wonderland that was Las Vegas, Nevada, my wife and I plus our two Aussie friends arrived at one of America’s industrial wonders, the Hoover Dam:


When driving down the switchbacks leading to the dam we pulled into a newly constructed parking garage located on the left side of the road.  From the parking garage we walked over to the visitor center and bought tickets to attend the next tour of the inside of the dam.  Before going on the tour we walked around the inside of the visitor center to learn more about the construction of the dam:

Incredibly Hoover Dam was constructed in only five years which was two years ahead of schedule.  The construction of this dam was completed in 1936 and at the time it was the world’s largest hydroelectric dam and the worlds largest concrete structure.  As impressive as the dam continues to be to this day, it is in fact only the world’s 35th largest dam now.

1921 image of the proposed Hoover Dam site.

Something I found of interest was that the main rationale for constructing the dam had nothing to do with generating electricity.  The reason for the dam’s construction had more to do with taming the Colorado River that had wreaked havoc with frequent floods further down stream along with providing a reliable source of water for southern California.  The electricity generation was just a side benefit.

Anyway eventually we met up to go on the guided tour.  The first thing they did was show our tour group of about 50 people a short 20 minute video about the construction of the dam that highlighted some of the interesting facts about the dam:

  • Construction period: April 20, 1931 – March 1, 1936
  • Construction cost: $49 million ($736 million adjusted for inflation from 1936 to 2008[26] )
  • Deaths attributed to construction: 112; 96 of them at the construction site[11][13][27]
  • Dam height: 726.4 ft (221.4 m), second highest dam in the United States. (Only the Oroville Dam is taller)
  • Dam length: 1244 ft (379.2 m)
  • Dam thickness: 660 ft (200 m) at its base; 45 ft (15 m) thick at its crest.
  • Concrete: 4.36 million yd³ (3.33 million )
  • Maximum electric power produced by the water turbines: 2.08 gigawatts[28]
  • Approximate power output: 4 billion KWh per year [29] (i.e. $200 million at $0.05 per kWh)
  • Traffic across the dam: 13,000 to 16,000 people each day, according to the Federal Highway Administration
  • Lake Mead (full pool)[30]
    • area: 157,900 acres (639 km²), backing up 110 miles (177 km) behind the dam.
    • volume: 28,537,000 acre feet (35.200 km³) at an elevation of 1,221.4 feet (372.3 m) .
  • With 8 to 10 million visitors each year, including visitors to Hoover Dam but not all traffic across the dam, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the fifth busiest National Park Service area.

After the video we then took an elevator down into the dam.  Once into the interior of the dam we began to walk through a maze of interior passages carved in the rock.  The first location our guide took us to see was the huge pipe that water is funneled through to turn the generators that create the electricity:

The water flows through the pipe and is funneled into a smaller and smaller pipe which increases the speed of the water to turn the turbines.  It was the turbines they took us to see next which are located in a huge building at the bottom of the dam:

This building is the length of two football fields and is nearly 20 stories high.  Two of these buildings are located on each side of the river with one housing nine generators and the other eight for a total of 17 generators.  However, when we visited Hoover Dam there was fact only 16 generators operating because one generator was taken out of commission for a service:

The guide told us that these generators are serviced about every 20 years which is pretty incredible when you think about it because of how much work these generators do during that time period.  Something I found of interest was that although the dam finished its construction in 1936, the power generation aspect of the dam was completed until 1961, a full 25 years after the completion of the dam.  This just goes to show that power generation was in fact not the main reason for the construction of the dam.

Besides the main generators that were operating, each of the large power generation buildings also have a smaller generator that is used solely to provide power for all the equipment in the building.  From there we concluded the tour and went back up to the surface of the dam.  From the balcony of the visitor’s center there is an incredible view of the dam.  The dam is so big that there is no way I could fit into one picture.  You need to get quite elevated to fit the dam into one picture, such as with this nice aerial image of the dam:

This picture provides a great perspective of how the dam is situated in the Black Canyon and how it blocks the mighty waters of the Colorado River to make Lake Mead.

On the sides of the canyon you could see power lines snaking in all directions to take the electricity to all municipalities that receive power from this dam.

Here is a break down of what areas receive power from the dam:

  • Arizona – 18.9527 percent Nevada – 23.3706 percent
  • Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – 28.5393 percent
  • Burbank, CA – 0.5876 percent
  • Glendale, CA – 1.5874 percent
  • Pasadena, CA – 1.3629 percent
  • Los Angeles, CA – 15.4229 percent
  • Southern California Edison Co. – 5.5377 percent
  • Azusa, CA – 0.1104 percent
  • Anaheim, CA – 1.1487 percent
  • Banning, CA – 0.0442 percent
  • Colton, CA – 0.0884 percent
  • Riverside, CA – 0.8615 percent
  • Vernon, CA – 0.6185 percent
  • Boulder City, NV – 1.7672 percent

Our tour guide had told us that many visitors to the dam figure that much of the power goes to Las Vegas, however he said less then one percent of the dams power goes to Vegas.  Remember the dam was constructed in 1936 long before Las Vegas came to be.  The power from the dam had already been distributed mostly to southern California and Arizona.

While walking a top this great architechtural wonder, I could see yet another great architechtural wonder being constructed, a bridge across the Black Canyon.  Construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass bridge began in 2005 and will be complete in 2010.  This bridge will be about 2,000 feet long when it is completed.  This bridge should be quite a sight in conjunction with the dam.  What I find interesting though is that it is taking as much time to make this bridge as it did to construct the huge dam.

Anyway as I continued to walk across the dam I couldn’t help, but wonder how many people have committed suicide over the years by jumping off this huge dam:

Littered along the outside of the dam are few exhibits and memorials that visitors can see:

Here is the base of the flag pole at Hoover Dam:

However, these memorials and exhibits just cannot compare with the incredibly beautiful view of the Colorado River from the dam:

After finishing our walk around the dam, we all headed back to the parking garage to leave.  It was here that we would say goodbye to our friends as they prepared to head off to the Grand Canyon and ultimately Colorado for a ski trip.  My wife and I on the other hand were off to El Paso, Texas to the house we just bought there due to our recent move back to the US.  Much like with my many drives through the Australian bush, I always love driving across the American West with its dramatic scenery and open vistas.  I just hoped we didn’t get snowed on during the ride back to we could enjoy the scenery.

Next Posting: Arizona’s Highway 93

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