The Docent of Black Canyon

Working as a tour guide at Hoover Dam—designed as it is for the ages—one day can run into the next. It’s hot or cold, tourists are from India or Japan, traffic is heavy or it isn’t. Routine is an occupational hazard, so changes are big, and just a little unsettling.

Oct. 21 was such a day. Only 48 hours earlier, the soaring Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge spanning Black Canyon had opened to vehicular traffic. For the first time since 1935, the portion of U.S. 93 that crosses the dam effectively became a long cul-de-sac. Now it’s now easy to skip the dam altogether when driving from one state to the next. How many people in those 75 years would have done so if they had the option?

Bill Schermerhorn (pronounced “Skimmerhorn”), the dam’s customer service manager, is seated in the cafeteria at the visitor center. Behind him, the floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a courtyard and on to the iconic Winged Figures of the Republic. He twists in his seat to glance over his shoulder at the traffic moving across the bridge.

“We’ve had indicators,” he says. “Time will tell, but as of yesterday it seems we will not be hurt by this bridge.”

Schermerhorn is a tour guide—by his own estimate he’s led about 6,000 groups in 11 years on the job—but he’s also in charge of the guides. He’s dressed in a light gray polo shirt, greenish-gray slacks and sensible black walking shoes. His voice has the calm authority of someone very used to dealing with the public. There isn’t a question about the dam—arcane, morbid or stupid—he hasn’t patiently answered.

Some of the greatest hits:

  • Q: I was here in 1958, and I saw a movie. What was it about?
  • A: Probably the Hoover Dam.
  • Q: How many people have committed suicide on the dam?
  • A: We are not a real popular place for people to end their lives.
    That number hovers around 50.
  • Q: Is the Hoover Dam man-made?
  • A: Uh, well, yes.

The unanswerable question on Oct. 21 was how many visitors the future holds. Last summer the dam welcomed its 45 millionth guest, and it’s hard to imagine that interest in what the BBC has called one of the “Seven Wonders of the Industrial World” would tail off dramatically.

“Look out there right now,” Schermerhorn says, turning again to view the cars moving slowly across the bridge, “and it looks like a normal day. Maybe they don’t believe the road is really closed.”