New bypass makes for a great dam view

Hoover Dam and the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge are two of the biggest engineering marvels in the Western Hemisphere. The dam was dedicated on Sept. 30, 1935. The bridge was dedicated 75 years later on Oct. 16.

Hoover Dam and the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge are two of the biggest engineering marvels in the Western Hemisphere. The dam was dedicated on Sept. 30, 1935. The bridge was dedicated 75 years later on Oct. 16.

By Jorge Labrador

On Sept. 30, 1935, 10,000 spectators came to Black Canyon to see President Franklin Roosevelt speak at the dedication ceremony for the project that was then known as Boulder Dam. Now known as Hoover Dam, this impressive structure has become a symbol of American ingenuity and of the changing American Southwest.

After all, Hoover Dam is the tallest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere. It provides power to cities in three states and its redirection of the Colorado River is responsible for the country’s largest man-made reservoir and the popular recreational area, Lake Mead. About 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s water supply comes from Lake Mead.

Tourists are reflected in a window at the visitor’s center while they take in the view of the Hoover Dam. Photo Courtesy of Las Vegas Sun/Sam Morris

Tourists are reflected in a window at the visitor’s center while they take in the view of the Hoover Dam. Photo Courtesy of Las Vegas Sun/Sam Morris

Hoover Dam is such an important icon that it’s no surprise when, just a few weeks after the 75th anniversary of its dedication ceremony, another public works project in the Black Canyon opened up to great fanfare.

On Oct. 16, the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge – also commonly known as the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge – was opened to pedestrian traffic for the first time, drawing about 20,000 people to walk the span of bridge as part of an event called Bridging America. The bridge opened to vehicular traffic on Oct. 20.

Located 1,700 feet downstream and 280 feet above the dam, the bridge is as much an impressive feat of engineering as the dam is: it is the longest single-span concrete arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the first arch bridge of its kind in the U.S.

Many at the Bridging America event were excited to preview the 1,900-foot-long bridge, but most were excited by the view of the dam it provides. An exhibit containing more than 30 large-scale photographs of the evolution of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge and will be on display October 29, 2010 – January 23, 2011, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily in the Patio Gallery at the Springs Preserve.

Don Harris, a Las Vegas resident who attended the Oct. 16 Bridging America event, noted the parallels between the Hoover Dam project 75 years ago and the recently-finished bridge.

“It’s great when they build new things like the [bridge],” Harris said. “It’s the kind of thing we need to see more of now, more projects that help people out like this.”

Like Harris, many enjoyed the unique view of Black Canyon and Hoover Dam the bridge provides.

“Great view,” said Ian Herzberger, a Bridging America attendee from Boulder City, Nev.

Herzberger had seen the bridge’s progress a few times over the past several years, but he said the scale of the bridge didn’t set in until he was actually walking on it.

“It’s huge. You don’t really get a sense for how big it is until you’re actually there. Really puts [the bridge and] the dam into perspective.”

Herzberger was visiting the event from nearby Boulder City, which was founded in 1931 to provide housing to dam workers. Slogans like “best city by a dam site,” “best dam barbecue,” and “hottest dam boutique” adorn local store fronts. The city’s welcome sign is even a small-scale replica of the dam with an embedded display.

“Everything is about the dam [in Boulder City], at least a lot of things are,” he said. “It’s nice now to get this other perspective.”

In addition to the bridge, the Hoover Dam Bypass consists of about three miles of roadway in Nevada and two miles in Arizona. In the past, anyone driving on U.S. 93 in the area would have to drive on the road paved over Hoover Dam, in addition to the roadway on both sides of the dam, which has many sharp curves, hairpin turns and is mostly very narrow, with one lane going in each direction.

“It’s great. Hopefully it makes [travel] a lot faster and less scary,” said Melinda Jones, a Las Vegas resident who regularly visits Phoenix and confessed to not liking “bendy roads.”

Although it will close to through traffic, the roadway over the dam will remain open to allow visitor access to the dam’s parking area.

More than one million visitors visit the dam every year and though the new bypass bridge was built with the intent of redirecting traffic, the unique view it provides of the dam will surely drive dam visitors to walk the bridge as part of a “complete” Hoover Dam experience.

It makes for a great complement to any Hoover Dam tour or Lake Mead area hike.

“I’ll definitely be back to walk it,” Herzberger said.

Of course, most visitors interested in the complete experience will want to tour the dam facilities after taking in the grand, picturesque view from the bypass.

The Power Plant Tour starts with a brief video of the dam’s history and continues 500 feet below, with an up-close look at the power plant. During this experience, guests can see the original diversion tunnels and stand above a massive, 30-foot pipe where they can feel the water of the Colorado River rumbling beneath them. This varied tour will then take you to an observation deck, giving a bird’s-eye view of the Hoover Dam facility, including a rare glimpse at the dam’s mechanical components, along with a visit to the dam’s dedication plaza, home of the famous Winged Figures of the Republic.

The best experience comes from the Dam Tour, which includes the entirety of the

Power Plant Tour, along with a more in-depth look at the dam itself. Visitors get to pass through inpsection tunnels and see actual markings made by inspectors over the decades. Afterward, guests can go deeper into the dam, viewing the seepage gallery and many facilities, which remain largely unchanged from the 1930s. You’ll even be able to see the Colorado River below.

Getting to know the inner workings of the dam is one of the most exciting aspects of these tours, but it’s important to have an eye for artistic details, as well. It makes the experience much richer to take note the subtle elegance and artistry surrounding the dam.

Many guests are awed by the artistry both within and surrounding the dam, the most apparent of which are designer Oskar Hansen’s iconic, 30-foot tall Winged Figures of the Republic. The two figures are found at the dedication plaza, on the Nevada side of the dam.

Tourists walk past the outdoor sculpture titled "Winged Figures of the Republic" at the Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Sun/Sam Morris

Tourists walk past the outdoor sculpture titled "Winged Figures of the Republic" at the Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Sun/Sam Morris

These figures eternally guard over the flag, “to symbolize the readiness for defense of our institutions and keeping of our spiritual eagles ever ready to be on the wing,” according to Hansen.

The base of the dedication plaza is embedded with a star map, depicting the Northern Hemisphere sky at the moment of President Roosevelt’s dedication of the dam, preserving the moment forever.

A lot of Hansen’s work can be seen outside of the dam: another monument, this one dedicated to the workers who died during construction, portrays a human figure rising from waves. It reads “they died to make the desert bloom.” Nearby, a relief on the Nevada elevator tower reflects the benefits of the dam, while the Arizona elevator portrays “the visages of those Indian tribes who have inhabited mountains and plains from ages distant.”

Within the dam, the walls and floors incorporate Navajo and Pueblo motifs, with Denver artist Allen True researching Indian sand paintings, ceramics and other Southwestern art to pay homage to the people that once occupied the region.

True represented both the technology used in constructing the dam along with traditional aspects of Southwestern art: water, clouds, local animals and nearby landscapes, lending them a distinct look that is both ancient and contemporary. Tour guests will be able to see much of True’s work throughout the inner dam facilities.

This painstaking eye for detail was carried on by the bypass bridge’s architects. The arch design was deliberately chosen not just for its structural advantages, but to keep it visually compatible with the dam’s own Art Deco-inspired arch design and frame the dam in a way that is pleasing to the eye from most vantage points.

Luckily, whether you’re in it, on it or around it, Hoover Dam is a picture-perfect attraction.

Hoover Dam Fast Facts

  • Construction work on the dam started on Sept. 30, 1930. The dam was turned over to the government in 1936, more than two years ahead of schedule.
  • The concrete used to make Hoover Dam was set with special cooling tubes that sped up a process, which would have otherwise taken more than a century. Some wet concrete in the lower levels is still curing to this day.
  • Despite urban legends, no one is buried in the dam. There were 112 deaths during the scouting, planning and construction of Hoover Dam.
  • The story of the dam’s first and last deaths is a spooky one: The first person to die was J.G. Tierney, who fell from a barge during a geological survey. Exactly 13 years later, the last worker to die during the project was his son, Patrick.
  • Hoover Dam is only 45 feet wide at the top, but it’s 660 feet thick at the bottom.
  • Before the bypass bridge, as many as 20,000 vehicles a day would drive across the dam.
  • Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. and contains enough water to flood the entire state of New York with 1 foot of water.
  • If you drink water from the tap at Disneyland, Anaheim or Sea World, that water is actually from Lake Mead, 300 miles away.
  • Enough water runs through the dam’s generators to fill 15 average-sized swimming pools (20,000 gallons) in 1 second.
  • There are 2,700 miles of transmission lines sending electricity from Hoover Dam to Los Angeles.
  • Hoover Dam was the first structure built that contained more masonry than the Great Pyramid at Giza.