In the days leading up to our Hoover Dam visit, I’d been telling my ten year old nephew that the Dam was absolutely huge. However, when we stopped in one of the upper parking lots on the north side of the Dam and looked down on it, he didn’t seem impressed. And quite frankly, I could see why. From our view high up the narrow, steep and winding Route 93 on the Arizona side of the Dam, the surrounding dark rocks of Black Canyon made Hoover Dam look far less imposing than I had described.
But I knew that his impression would change as soon as he got an upclose look at the Dam. So we took our turn in the line of cars wending down the narrow road, found a spot in the multi-level parking garage and stepped out into the more than 100 degree heat to find the Visitor’s Center.
With just over an hour before we were scheduled to descend into the depth of the Dam on our Hoover Dam Tour, we headed for the second floor Exhibit Gallery. From the photos, maps, sound and video recordings, and other exhibitions, we learned why and how the Hoover Dam was constructed. From the sheer number of power lines we saw as we made our way down the winding road, it appeared that the Dam was built solely to generate electrical power. However, we learned that power generation was third on the priority list of reasons to build the Dam when the idea was conceived in the 1920s. The primary reasons were flood control and water conservation. The first power generators were not installed until 1939, four years after the Dam was completed. As demand for electricity grew, more generators were installed. Today there are 17 generators that supply 2,080 megawatts of electricity for use throughout California, Nevada and Arizona.
During our Exhibit Gallery visit we saw full-scale and models of the tools and equipment (buckets, hard hats, boots, ropes, drills, blasting powder cans, safety belts, and other gear) used to construct the Dam. It was helpful to study the detailed scale model (diorama) of the Dam to get an image of just how massive the entire Dam is. One of the interactive displays showed the various states of energy (potential, kinetic and mechanical) before it is transformed into electricity.
There were displays to show how power is generated, transported from the Dam power plant over high voltage transmission lines then to stepdown transformers to reduce the electricity to a voltage that can be used in homes and businesses. We learned that Hoover Dam was constructed in five years during the Depression Era and provided employment for over 15,000 men from all over the country. Some of the work was dangerous; 96 workers lost their lives during construction. We could have spent hours learning more about the Dam, but we were anxious to actually see what was once the world’s biggest dam.
After a short elevator ride to the top floor Observation Level, we got our first look at the gigantic slightly rounded, backwards leaning concrete wall that temporarily blocks water of the mighty Colorado River, uses it to generate more than four billion kilowatt hours of electrical power for 1.3 million people in California (56%), Nevada (25%), Arizona (19%), then releases it to flow downstream where it continues through Mexico to the Gulf of California.
As we leaned over the safety railing to get the best view of the Dam and the U-shaped powerplant with its two 650 feet long wings (more than two football fields), it was clear that I had regained some of my credibility because my nephew could see that Hoover Dam was indeed huge. The vehicles crossing the road on top of the dam appeared to be toy size instead of the full size cars and trucks that they were.
From our perch high above the powerplant platforms, we could see where the water flowed out of the powerplant then continued downriver and under the Hoover Dam Bypass, a yet to be completed spectacular 1,900 foot-long four lane twin-rib arch span bridge that will carry traffic between Arizona and Nevada. The bypass is located 1,500 feet south of the Dam and scheduled to be completed for vehicular traffic in November 2010. It will replace the existing route that crosses the Dam and is needed to handling the 14,000 commercial and private vehicles that cross the River at this point each day. The new bridge will have a pedestrian walkway that should provide a spectacular view of the Dam, Black Canyon, Colorado River and Lake Mead.
Read more about Hoover Dam