“This morning I came, I saw and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind,” bellowed President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 30, 1935, at the dedication of Hoover Dam. Evoking the language of Julius Caesar seemed the appropriate reference for the President to make under the shadows of what the American Society of Civil Engineers has labeled as the “Monument of the Millennium.” The transformation in some five years of “an unpeopled, forbidding desert,” he deemed, was indeed a “twentieth century marvel.” Eloquent as Roosevelt’s speech was, his grandiose assertions and swooning prose overshadowed his omission of the dam’s namesake, his predecessor Herbert Hoover, which turned a momentous opportunity for national healing into one of the greatest snubs in presidential history.The construction of Hoover Dam was unquestionably one of the most important undertakings in American history. Situated on the Arizona-Nevada border, Hoover Dam holds back the mighty Colorado River to create the largest man-made “lake” in the United States, Lake Mead. The reservoir provides water and produces electricity for over 15 million people, including those in some of the largest metropolitan areas of the country such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Tucson. Some 750,000 acres of land in California and Arizona are irrigated by Lake Mead. As a result, the Imperial and Coachella Valleys have touted the moniker of “salad bowls of the Southwest,” providing Americans with lettuce, carrots, and other crops that value upwards of $1 billion annually.
Born in the depths of the Great Depression, the sheer magnitude of Hoover Dam also gave it an enduring legacy as a symbol of American resilience and fortitude in the face of existential crisis. Its gargantuan size and overwhelming scope at a time when upwards of 23% of Americans were unemployed made it a seminal monument to the American spirit. Yet, many may wonder how this American Colossus could be named for the President that so many intrinsically linked to the anguish that engulfed American society.
The story of Hoover Dam’s naming controversy stems back to its legislative beginnings during the Warren Harding administration. In 1921, the Congress authorized a study of Boulder and Black Canyons in the Lower Colorado River Basin by the Reclamation Service, the forerunner to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Although ultimately the study would recommend construction in Black Canyon, the project would still come to be known as the Boulder Canyon Project, as it was named in legislation introduced by California Representative Phil Swing and California Senator Hiram Johnson in the 67th Congress in April 1922. Twice a year the two California Congressmen introduced the Boulder Canyon Project Act (BCPA), until finally gaining passage from the House of Representatives and Senate and signature into law by President Calvin Coolidge on December 21, 1928.
But it was Herbert Hoover who had an unsung, yet vital role in bringing the project to fruition. One of the initial roadblocks in constructing a dam of this proportion on the “Mississippi of the Southwest,” was that at least seven states could claim water distribution rights. Although the dam was to be located on the Arizona-Nevada border, fears grew that California with its political clout and burgeoning population in Los Angeles would dominate its smaller basin neighbors. Seeking to overcome the impasse, Harding appointed Hoover, who was serving as Secretary of Commerce, to be chairman of the Colorado River Commission in January 1922. The small group consisted of representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. An accomplished mining engineer himself, Hoover had developed a heroic image as a public servant for his work as head of the European relief efforts after World War One. After numerous public hearings and negotiations, he successfully guided the Commission to reach a historic water rights agreement codified in the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. He then would assist in the drafting of the BCPA’s language and play an instrumental role in promoting the legislation’s passage.
The BCPA, however, never mentioned a proposed name or title for the dam, rather lending the assumption that Boulder Dam would become the de facto name. During this time, the press also generally referred to the dam as Boulder Dam or as Boulder Canyon Dam. This, however, left open the opportunity for the first nomenclature chess piece to be moved. On September 17, 1930, now President Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, traveled to the dam site to officially inaugurate the Boulder Canyon Project by driving a silver spike into the ground marking the spot where the Union Pacific rail line would veer off towards the planned Boulder City, which would house the workers and their families. Wilbur embarrassingly missed the spike with his hammer on his first two attempts, but it was his dedication speech that would truly turn heads. Citing the precedent of naming great dams after presidents, “We have the Roosevelt Dam, the Wilson Dam, the Coolidge Dam,” Wilbur announced that the dam in Black Canyon would be named for “the great engineer whose vision and persistence, first as chairman of the Colorado River Commission in 1922, and on many occasions since, has done much to make it possible.”
To name a major federal project after a sitting president, let alone so early into his term, was unprecedented. Compounding the issue was the slight to the dam’s other founding fathers such as Johnson and Swing. Many also believed that Hoover had inflated the importance of his role and that the final product should not be tied to him, considering he opposed many elements of what would become the final design of the structure. Most of all, the cloak of the Great Depression had already begun to cover the Hoover presidency and more Americans associated his name with the shantytowns that sprung up, nicknamed Hoovervilles, than they did with any majestic marvel. Nevertheless, the name found its way into a series of appropriations bills for the dam’s construction and the water and power contracts were amended to reflect its new name, Hoover Dam.
After Hoover’s election defeat in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt, however, the stage was set for the next slight, this time against Hoover. The new Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, was an outspoken critic of Hoover. On May 8, 1933, Ickes telegrammed Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead to inform him that the dam be referred to as Boulder Dam, its “original name.” Later when speaking at the dam’s official dedication on September 30, 1935, Ickes made it clear his intentions “to try to nail down for good and all the name Boulder Dam.” Rather than focus on the monumental achievement, Ickes’ fury at Wilbur’s transgressions dominated his remarks. “And what more characteristic and appropriate name could be chosen for this monumental enterprise than the one with which it has been christened,” he questioned. “The mind appreciates that this setting and this accomplishment…would not be worthily and fittingly named by any less bold and striking designation than that of Boulder Dam,” he answered. Although a clear politically-motivated maneuver, hardly anyone in Congress raised any issue with the emerging naming fight. Hoover’s approval rating remained at an all-time low and the blame of the Great Depression still rested, whether justly or not, completely on his shoulders. It was only the Republican-leaning newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, that strove to great lengths in its editorial cartoons to give credit to Hoover.
Besides Ickes’ personal vendetta, the dam’s official dedication became the setting for Roosevelt to open a presidential legacy war. Officially dedicating the project as Boulder Dam, Roosevelt conducted a “public defamation,” as Hoover would categorize the action in his memoirs. Roosevelt’s speech from a podium on the canyon rim high above the Colorado with the colossal structure as a backdrop was no accident. His words would echo across the country via radio and his image would be on the front page of every newspaper, stamping his name to the mighty project’s completion. In his speech, Roosevelt sought to appropriate the project, envisioned and championed by previous Republican administrations, as a symbol for his own New Deal economic recovery initiatives. The dam innately fit into New Deal propaganda by creating jobs, hydroelectric power, irrigation, and flood control for a rural region under the guise of the federal government. By bringing thousands of men to work to tame a wild river in a remote desert canyon of the American West, the dam instilled the power of collectivism, of government taking a vested role in improving the livelihoods of citizens. Roosevelt thus consciously understood that he had an opportunity to control the dam’s legacy and sought to take Americans’ wonder at this engineering marvel and harness it into support for his own vision for America’s path forward.
Consequently, for all the dedicated attention Roosevelt paid to the speech, he failed to mention Hoover at all. He lent credit to just about every person and group involved with the project except his predecessor. His resentment palpable into his later life, Hoover recollected, “Roosevelt dedicated the dam under the name Boulder Dam, never mentioning that I had been especially responsible for the enterprise.” Perhaps in the greatest insult, whether done intentionally or not, Roosevelt even borrowed wording from the remarks that Hoover had made three years earlier during a clandestine visit to the dam’s construction site, following his defeat to Roosevelt. Hoover stated that, “The waters of this great river, instead of being wasted in the sea, will now be brought into use by man.” Roosevelt echoed Hoover by boasting, “The mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea. Today we translate them into a great national possession.” The difference was that Hoover saw the dam as purely a reclamation of land, while the image-conscious Roosevelt saw it also as a reclamation of the American spirit. In usurping the moment, he wanted to control the historical narrative, juxtaposing the failures of his predecessor against the progress and optimism of his administration.
So it was the Roosevelt administration, which had ridded the Hoover name physically and symbolically from the dam, that now had a stranglehold on American memory of the project and its legacy. Only a year after Hoover Dam’s dedication, construction began on the comparably gargantuan Bonneville, Grand Coulee, and Shasta dams. Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which led to the creation of twenty-nine hydroelectric dams. With the creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, more infrastructure projects blossomed and some of the country’s enduring architectural and engineering feats were completed, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Moreover, hydropower became inextricably linked to the generation of electricity for powering Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II. Roosevelt was creating a dam nation, while casting Hoover’s legacy into damnation.
In 1947, thanks to a combination of factors including the healing power of time, the first Republican-controlled Congress since 1933, and President Harry Truman’s friendship with Hoover, the dam would officially be renamed Hoover Dam. Hoover further rehabilitated his image by once again leading humanitarian efforts in Europe after World War Two. Nevertheless, the enduring association with the dam ironically rests with Franklin Roosevelt despite it bearing Hoover’s name. We must look to revisionist history to reclaim the positive legacy of his public service to this country. Roosevelt’s usurpation of Hoover Dam memory was so great that Hoover has been cast aside as a player in the American story of the 20th Century. In a 2004 University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election survey, only 43 percent of adults could correctly identify Hoover, with only four percent linking him to the Hoover Dam. It is a travesty of American politics. The dam’s dedication was a chance to begin the process of rehabilitating Hoover’s image by giving him credit for playing an instrumental role in the launching of America’s great era of public works. Instead, Roosevelt chose to further debase him into obscurity. And that is a damn shame.
Or how about his cousin Teddy?
Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century. New York: Free Press, 2010.
An Act to provide for the construction of works for the protection and development of the Colorado River Basin, for the approval of the Colorado River compact, and for other purposes, December 21, 1928; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11, National Archives.