As any Las Vegas resident will testify, hell on earth is returning to your four-door Crock-Pot after it’s been parked in an unshaded lot in mid-July. When you open the car door, loathing of life begins: “Ugh, it’s going to take at least five minutes for the air conditioning to kick in. And even then I’m going to have to put on oven mitts before touching the steering wheel. Maybe I should just leave it running …”
If only the men who started building the Eighth Wonder of the World nearly 80 summers ago in a canyon along the Colorado River could hear us whine. They’d undoubtedly chime in with the following two cents: “Maybe you should just quit your complaining. I remember back in the summer of ’31 …”
And he’d have a good point. It was fast approaching summer in 1931 when Hoover Dam construction began in earnest, and to say the early working conditions were a little rough would be like saying the dam was a minor project. Temperatures at the job site—where the sun would reflect off the water and scorch the canyon walls—were recorded as high as 140 degrees that first July. If that wasn’t brutal enough, Six Companies—a consortium of construction and engineering firms that won the Hoover Dam contract—initially failed to provide its workers with sufficient drinking water or adequate shelter. In fact, while dormitories up in Boulder City were still a year away from completion, shelter consisted of two-story framed structures erected on stilts on the edge of the canyon.
“Men were coming off shifts and going to sleep in their ‘beds’ and the temperature never got below 120 degrees,” says Dennis McBride, curator of collections and history at Nevada State Museum. “People were dropping over dead left and right from heat prostration.”
In what was truly the ultimate game of Survivor, workers were forced to go to extremes just to stay alive. They rubbed cornmeal over their bodies and sprinkled it on their beds to absorb the sweat and prevent infected pores. They took salt tablets to replenish electrolytes (part of an experiment led by Harvard student David Dill, who was researching the effects of high temperatures on the human body). And at least one person took up residence in the only cool place to be found: the mess hall refrigerator.
“There was a guy whose job was to work on the company’s books in the mess hall, and he would bring a table and a chair and an overcoat and sit in the refrigerator and work,” McBride says. “One afternoon, he came out of the refrigerator into the heat of the mess hall and dropped dead of a heart attack.”
By Aug. 4, 1931, 26 workers had died, some the result of accidents on the job site, but many succumbing to heat prostration. Shortly thereafter, Six Companies announced it was cutting wages, and the workers—despite being in the throes of the Great Depression and in dire need of work—responded by going on strike.
The gamble paid off. Not only was the wage-cut idea dropped, but by summer 1932, working conditions improved dramatically. “Everybody moved up into Boulder City, where the dorms were completed, and they had much better control of the environment there—fresh showers, fresh water,” McBride says. “And down at the river, they put in chilled water fountains. They even had water boys walk around the project with big desert water bags to keep the men hydrated.”
Hmm, personal water boys. Now there’s a concept our lazy generation can get with!