Introduction

"Elsewhere, the garden stands for a state of cultivation, hence a less exalted estimate of nature's beneficence...Both the wild and the cultivated versions of the garden image embody something of that timeless impulse to cut loose from the constraints of a complex society...To depict America as a garden is to express aspirations still considered utopian--aspirations, that is, toward abundance, leisure, freedom, and a greater harmony of existence.

To describe America as a hideous wilderness, however, is to envisage it as another field for the exercise of power. This violent image expresses a need to mobilize energy, postpone immediate pleasures, and rehearse the perils and purposes of the community. Life in a garden is relaxed, quiet and sweet...but survival in a howling desert demands action, the unceasing manipulation and mastery of the forces of nature, including, of course, human nature. Colonies established in the desert require aggressive, intellectual, controlled and well-disciplined people."

--Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, p.43

 

The construction of the Hoover Dam was a project firmly rooted in practicalities. For more than two decades, the benefits of controlling the Colorado River's yearly flood and storing the water for year-round use had been obvious; the added value of the hydroelectric power to be produced was not lost on city officials in the southwest nor on developers with interests from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The dam would solve problems that the average city dweller most likely did not consider on a daily basis, but that were crucial to his quality of life; these problems would be addressed by an engineering scheme that embraced the newest and best technologies. Politicians would fight over financial appropriations for the project and even the name of the dam would become a political issue, riding the waves of party favoritism.

However, the structure that rose from the floor of Black Canyon was not one that inspired thoughts of practicalities. Almost from the beginning of its construction, the Hoover Dam possessed an epic quality that animated the national imagination. Perhaps originally it was the very bigness of the dam that attracted tourists and inspired writers. Soon it became apparent that the meaning of the dam itself was beyond even that of a structure that equaled the vast landscape it inhabited; the dam, and the Americans who built it, controlled nature in a new and powerful way. The Hoover Dam, built during America's worst depression, spoke directly and profoundly to a people who were afraid and unsure; the massive structure silently addressed the power of technology, the hope for the future, and the ability of man to change the natural course of things. As it rose physically from the desert floor, damming the Colorado and altering the very shape of the land, its image rose from the desert of the 1930's and offered an alternative narrative to the that of the Great Depression.

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