Icon of Faith:
A Federal Works Project

 

In 1927, after several years of exploration and testing, the Boulder Dam Association published a booklet, "The Federal Government's Colorado River Project," outlining the plans to build Boulder (Hoover) Dam.

The small pamphlet outlines the history of the legislation for and against the dam project, the testing that was done, the proposed uses for the completed structure. What is most striking, however, is the political ideology expressed. In this time of a booming economy, the pamphlet argued for the government to step in quickly and commence work on the project to avoid its takeover by private industry. The fear of monopolization of water and power by private interests is prevalent; this dam, the pamphlet asserts, "shall be developed in public interest and public interest alone (p.6)". "Only the strong hand of government," it continues, "in full control of the works will assure the weaker but more important uses their proper treatment (p20)". It seems that only after the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic depression were legislators ready to promote big government; in that context, the building of the Hoover Dam as an icon of the Depression-era government was not only a confidence builder, but also a public relations coup.

The narrative that arose in the popular imagination contained all the elements that would validate and promote the government's role in such projects. The Hoover Dam became a story of putting the unemployed back to work; the workers themselves became heroic proletariats, battling the elements in order to do the job well and quickly. It is also a story of reaffirming American ideals that teetered dangerously during the lost faith of the Depression: the continuation of westward expansion, the ability to tackle a seemingly impossible project with Yankee ingenuity, the creation of monumentality that rivaled the vast American landscape. The government, in pushing this project to completion, associated itself undeniably with these popular and inviting mythologies. Much of the Hoover Dam's iconic power for the government lay in its visibility; where interest rates could be shifted or the prices of milk and corn raised or lowered, the Hoover Dam stood out as a visible symbol. It became a showcase, and indeed, a metaphor for the positive power of big government.