Planned Living in
Boulder City

The forbidding and isolated nature of the Hoover Dam site presented its builders with a problem of housing laborers. The diaspora caused by the Great Depression and the publicity associated with the project brought workers from all over the country to the Las Vegas offices of Six Companies, Inc., the firm contracted to build the dam. Before the building had even begun, the offices had received over 2,400 job applications and more than 12,000 letters of inquiry from job seekers. Many men arrived with all of their possessions and their families, ready to begin a new life in the desert; most were forced to wait, living in tent communities and shanty towns in and around Las Vegas (Stevens, 55).

Ragtown, 1931

As soon as construction activity began in April of 1931, people rapidly abandoned the Las Vegas area and moved closer to the actual site. The cluster of makeshift homes that emerged was named Ragtown, and as the summer of 1931 passed, it became a living hell. The average temperature in July was 119 degrees; despite the availability of water from the Colorado, more than twenty-five dam workers and Ragtown family members died of heat prostration between June and July of that year (Stevens, 60). Although Six Companies quickly erected River Camp, a group of dormitories for single men on the side of the river, the population of Ragtown swelled to 1400 by the end of the summer. At the height of the Hoover Dam construction, some 5000 men would be working on it. Clearly, something would have to change.

Fortunately, the federal government had anticipated this problem and had laid plans to build a modern city to house the workers and their families near the dam site--on the federal land that surrounded it rather than on land in the jurisdiction of the state of Nevada. Joseph Stevens argues in Hoover Dam: An American Adventure that the decision to provide living arrangements for the dam workers was not only an attempt to protect health and welfare, but also to shield this very public project from the dangers that lay in an unstable workforce; a breakdown in the workforce would inevitably lead to bad publicity for the project, with the possibility of having to import a "foreign tropical labor" pool which was apparently dreaded by all. "The presence," Stevens writes, "of large numbers of blacks in Black Canyon, ‘with its implied confession that within the continental United States a task had been found too difficult for [white] American physique and morale to perform' was unthinkable, and so the blueprint for a modern community that would keep ‘3000 or more Americans, mainly of the native or northern European stocks contented and healthy' was approved" (Stevens, 121, quoting from Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead's speech of January, 1931 at the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology). The other advantage was financial: no rent could be charged in shantytowns, but Six Companies stood to collect a good profit from their workers living in company-owned housing.

Denver architect S.R. DeBoer was given the task of designing Boulder City, as the town was to be called (Stevens, 123). His plan of an lush desert oasis, built in concentric circles, embraced the progressive ideas of Ebenezer Howard, whose 1898 book, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, suggested the need for "Garden Cities" which would relieve urban congestion and surround people with small, greenbelt laden communities. Unfortunately, DeBoer's plan was scrapped as ridiculous, given the existing conditions, in favor of a more Levittown approach: build quickly, sensibly, and rectangularly, and leave the landscaping for others to worry about. The town was thrown into place with construction continuing through the spring of 1932. Eight large dormitories and a dining hall for the single men, and rows upon rows of individual houses for families were put into place, as well as the Six Companies and Bureau of Reclamation offices.

Boulder City, 1932

The blistering summer of 1931 and the visual desolation of the desert town caused those in power to realize that DeBoer had not been so wrong to purpose a greenbelt of grass, trees and shrubbery running throughout the town. The decision to bring in the aptly-named landscaper William Weed to create the garden city was certainly also a political decision; with Hoover up for re-election and strike threats from workers over conditions on the job, it would be something of a publicity faux-pas to display a model town that amounted to cottages, cactus and a few dusty streets (Stevens, 132). Weed did well; by the spring of 1932 his landscaping efforts came to fruition, and Boulder City had lawns, city parks that were more than dust lots, and trees that shaded its inhabitants from the unforgiving sun.

Boulder City home with landscaping, 1933

Somewhat to the surprise of the government and Six Companies, Boulder City forged itself into a community. Churches were built in off hours, and, to deal with the "unexpected fecundity" of the workers' families, schools--which had been entirely forgotten in the original plan--were added to open in the fall of 1932. A newspaper, the Boulder City Journal sprang up, and a library was opened, funded by Six Companies. It all seemed quite fitting with a model community; what was different was the form of government. In what was to be, supposedly, the most American of towns--a community of modern pioneers, braving the elements, taking on the monumental tasks for the good of the country--democracy was non-existent:

"Put simply, the Boulder City government was a dictatorship, benevolent for the most part, but a dictatorship nonetheless. This was the dark side of the federal bureaucracy's otherwise commendable effort to ensure that the Hoover Dam workers would have a safe, sanitary place to live. Because Boulder City was in a federal reservation managed by the Department of the Interior, the department, through the Bureau of reclamation, exercised total control over the town; the residents had absolutely no voice in how Boulder City was run." (Stevens, 142)

The town's government lay in the hands of a city manager, selected by Six Companies; during the dam construction, the city manager was a "banker-businessman-bureaucrat" named Sims Ely. Ely was initially charged with creating a business district for Boulder City, which he did, awarding the few permits through a rigid selection process; a successful applicant would pass Ely's requirements for character, personality, age, physical condition, financial fitness and past experience (Stevens, 146). Once the stores were opened, Ely fixed prices so that no conspiring for high prices could occur between the owners. However, the real competition in town for the independent store owners was the Six Companies Company store; the only store in town that offered everything under one roof, it also was the only place that dam workers could spend the scrip in which they were sometimes payed. Scrip payments were made illegal in 1933, but until then, many felt that fair competition had been completely undermined. Ely, as the "local autocrat", also took it upon himself to create the kind of wholesome living environment he felt was necessary for Boulder City. Every effort was made--and it generally succeeded--to keep the evils of Las Vegas out of town; bootlegging and prostitution made few inroads on the local environment. Any worker caught with alcohol or intoxicated was summarily fired and escorted out of town; this continued after Prohibition had been repealed in 1933 until the end of the Hoover Dam project. Interestingly though, Ely's bulldog "sheriff", Bud Bodell, ran the local gambling ring in the mess hall with Ely's knowledge, although gambling was explicitly illegal in Boulder City. Ely also acted as town magistrate, granting divorces, jailing troublemakers, awarding custody of children, and apparently attempting to instill a formal dress code in the town's citizens. Perhaps most disturbing is the antilabor activity that was promulgated openly, particularly in the early years. Any suspicion of union activity was grounds for termination and removal from the town (Stevens, 154-58).

Boulder City Police, Bud Bodell, center, 1931

However, residents did not complain:

"If there was any resentment of this twisting of the reservation rules, the forcible eviction of hundreds of workers, and the creation of a police-state atmosphere, it was not expressed loudly...Labor Commissioner Leonard Blood's list of applicants for jobs at Hoover Dam, numbering twenty-two thousand at the close of 1932, cast a long shadow...and it was evident that from the outside looking in, Boulder City, where everyone had a job, a full stomach, and a roof overhead, appeared to be the model town the government said it was, whatever the reality." (Stevens, 156-57)

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