Friday, January 1, 2016

The Story of Hoover Dam

[This book review was initially published on my Construction Law Blog: The Division 4 Triclinium] 

Colossus: Hoover Dam and 
the Making of the American Century (2010)
(Free Press, 496 pp.)
Michael Hiltzik

Michael Hiltzik is a Pulitzer price winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He has reported on the economy, corruption in the music industry, and has worked as a foreign correspondent. He previously has published books on Kenya, the history of Xerox, and the "plot" to undo Social Security. In Colossus he draws on the full range of these experiences in expanding on the tale of the building of Hoover dam. This wide ranging book offers time well spent for anyone interested in the development of West's water wars, the development of the Imperial Valley in California, and the emergence of mega construction firms in the early part of the 20th century.

Hiltzik starts with the earliest recorded discoveries of the Colorado river, he lingers with the early development of the great Imperial Valley in Southwestern California; land politics straddling the U.S. Mexico border involving the Chandlers and their Los Angeles Times, and early attempts to exploit the river by land speculators, who proved no match.

The Chandlers, Southern California Edison, and Herbert Hoover started as fierce opponents of a dam on the Colorado. The seven western states that share the river could not agree how to allocate its potential bounty until Hoover, on assignment as Warren Harding's Commerce Secretary, was able to forge a compact that ultimately allowed the political forces to align behind building what was then the largest domestic civil works project undertaken by the United States.

The dam was built by a joint venture, Six Companies, led by iconic personalities and companies that endure, and that were in many ways defined by their construction of the Hoover dam: Marriner Eccles and Utah Construction, Warren A. ("Dad") Bechtel, Morrison-Knudson, Henry J. Kaiser, J. F. Shea, Pacific Bridge. These founding fathers and iconic construction companies are colorfully brought to life, along with their project manager, Frank Crowe, the Bureau of Reclamation's Elwood Mead and Frank Young, and many others.

There is labor politics. The dam was built during the Great Depression, 1930-1935. Frank ("Hurry Up") Crowe finished the project two and one half years ahead of schedule. Six Companies was exempted from the newly enacted prevailing wage law, and from most federal regulations. They operated Boulder City that was constructed for the project as a company town and paid their workers partly in script. Safety conditions were not what they are today. Temperatures in the gorge were 130 degrees in the summer. Deaths were deceptively tracked. Officially there are 96 accidental deaths recorded on the project, but this does not include others who died of heat-stroke, and about 40 or more who appear to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning during tunnel construction--but were reported by company doctors as dying of pneumonia. [Take a look at the video, below, and you'll get the picture] Deaths from "pneumonia" were not subject to workers' compensation. Interestingly, the rate of worker's compensation depended (by a factor of three or four) on whether an accident occurred on the Nevada side of the Project or the Arizona side of the Project. The wobblies made a stand and lost. Wages were cut by substantial margins as the pool of available workers rose in the depth of the depression.

The job may have been hard on workers, but it was a huge success for Six Companies which cleared an $8 million fee on a final construction cost of $54 million. Six Companies persuaded the government to take possession of the dam early and finish the punch list, which took years. The government patiently corrected construction defects, including a dam-threatening defect in the grout curtain extending below the base of the dam. This grout curtain was designed to prevent water from pushing under the dam and jeopardizing the dam's stability. This defect was partly a design issue, and partly a construction issue because Six Companies failed to fill many bore holes with required grout. Apparently there was no litigation over this.

There were false claims with respect to overtime and Six Companies paid a $300,000 fine. There are colorful tales about litigation by workers over conditions, which includes one hung jury, one bought jury, and finally an undisclosed settlement.

The book is not perfect, but who is. Pick up a copy of Colossus; it's People Magazine for construction lawyers. It rounds out The Department of the Interior's propaganda, below. Also worth watching.

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