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Building the `Great Pyramid of the American West'

HOOVER DAM: AN AMERICAN ADVENTURE by Joseph E. Stevens, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 326 pp., $24.95 THE 1930s, despite the depression, produced some of the greatest, and most astonishing, engineering and construction projects the world has ever seen. Among them: the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) system of dams and electric systems, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the extensive public works of New York's Robert Moses.

This book is a fascinating narration of the dramatic details of building what in 1931 was the world's largest dam, involving as many as 5,000 laborers (in a 4,000-foot canyon!), thousands of tons of material and equipment, and the nightmarish task of trying to harness the untamed Colorado River.

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The Hoover Dam, named for former President Herbert Hoover, took four years to construct on the Nevada-Arizona border and was the supreme engineering feat of its day.

Joseph Stevens's narration flows, and one easily imagines he actually moved among the men and machines he eloquently describes. Stevens's writing is crisp and without any stagy sense of events.

When I first opened this book, my eye fell on a picture of a half-completed dam. It was taking shape as a series of poured-concrete, terraced slabs, reminiscent of rice fields. If they had poured continuously, the huge curing blocks would have taken 125 years to set! That was enough to make me turn to the beginning and start reading.

For the unimaginative author, this might just be a cold wedge of concrete jammed into a rock canyon, but Stevens has brought out enough drama, humor, and tragedy to make a dozen movies. Here are the court battles, the personal conflicts, the labors of thousands of men stuffed into the smallest of spaces and made to work in environments unfit even for animals.

Even today, this ``callous, cruel lump of concrete'' - as one contemporary journalist called it - inspires a sense of wonder and awe.

Stevens refers to the Hoover Dam as ``the great pyramid of the American West, fount for a twentieth-century oasis civilization.'' Architecture is civilization's strongest memorial. As much as we remember past societies by their culture or their art, the most spirited reminders are their buildings.

For the author, the Hoover Dam is one of the peaks of American civilization. There is the diverting and damming of the mighty Colorado itself. There is the day-to-day tragicomedy of men handling machinery designed to manufacture, transport, haul, dump, and place a huge assortment of material in a way that had never been done before. The chapter on the intricate system of cables, buckets, wires, and pulleys - the only way to send and retrieve men and materials in and out of that ``deadly, desert place'' - is fascinating.

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The six companies that formed the original cartel went on to become giants in their own fields, providing employment and economic benefits for decades to come.

The Hoover Dam and many other marvels like it were constructed at a time when it was still thought that man could ``control'' nature by finding a wilderness and taming it. And so it was that this giant dam reflected human ingenuity, determination, and a solid conviction that the desert could be made to bloom.

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