Best Tour by a Dam Site

History of the dam

Iíve always wanted to see Hoover dam and Lake Mead. I panned my road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas to make sure that I crossed the Colorado River at the site of the Hoover dam on US 93. The highway crosses the river on the top edge of the dam in a picturesque deep gorge characteristic of the region.

When I approached the dam crossing I was not prepared for the scale of the setting. The Colorado River valley where the dam is set is much deeper and dramatic than I imagined. It is truly akin to its near neighbor to the north, the Grand Canyon. You approach from the east wending your way down breathtaking switchbacks. There are overlooks where you can stop and take in the whole view. Tractor-trailers like toy trains lacing back and forth on both side of the canyon, while eager tourists crawl all over the area like ants on a fallen candy bar.

I left my car in a multi-storied parking garage built into a sharp valley on the Nevada side of the river, and joined the tourist throng in the visitorís center and gift shop below. Saw the gallery of photos from the 1930ís construction and read about the 96 workmen who lost their lives on the project. Signed up for the two oíclock tour.  

We went down in elevators to the river level on the downside of the dam; huge turbines humming loudly churning water into electricity like straw into gold. We looked from there up the face of the massive concrete dam and were appropriately awed. Then we went up a few floors on the elevator to an in-between level, down a long tunnel carved into solid rock. At the end of the tunnel through a narrow door, we came to a grid-like deck in a room, which comfortably held the 50 people on our tour. There was subtle vibration in the room and a strange rushing sound that we could not quite identify.

A large display board with flashing lights showed us the inner-workings of the dam and the flow of water through the system. In the process of explaining the large tubes which carried water from the lake above to the turbines, our tour guide asked us to look over the railings of the platform, and Loa and behold, beneath our feet was the 35 foot steel pipe which carried a gazilliion tons per minute of water at enough pressure to propel a rocket to the moon. We were impressed, but a little uneasy. The vibrations now took on a whole new dimension and had our full attention.

The guide asked us to turn our attention back to the electric display board where he resumed his lecture about the inner-workings of the dam. But as he talked, a funny thing happened. An incredible crashing sound of steel on steel shattered the already loud hum of the water pipes below. We would later learn that a workman had accidentally knocked over a steel warning sign and it clattered against the mega-pipe. Our guide, a veteran of 20 years of tours, froze in mid-sentence and turned instantly pale. Sweat broke out on his forehead as if to illustrate what was flashing through all of our minds. Fifty pair of eyeballs turn as if on command to check out the narrow door and tunnel from which we had just come each to assess his or her chances of beating the others through the door, and wondering even if we could what would happen when the rushing water caught us in the rising elevator and sent us skyward like Willie Wonka and the glass elevator. It was a heart-stopping Kodak moment.  

Gene Ziegler