The unexpected history of Las Vegas and Hoover Dam

Folks in Nevada today are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Hoover Dam’s sort-of-semi-official power production.

Hoover Dam is such a dominant feature on the history of the west in the 20th century that it’s fun to contemplate what people thought about it before it happened. One of my fascinating side trips when I was researching my book was spent reading contemporary accounts from the vantage point of a nascent Las Vegas, a desert city built around some springs that was one of a hundred minor rail stops in the West until the 1920s:

The accident of Las Vegas’s geography, just miles away from the deep canyons of the Colorado River, was about to change that. The untouchable water was within reach, but the Las Vegas of the 1920s could not begin to grasp its implications.

“Action of 7 States Means Millions to Las Vegas,” the Las Vegas Age proclaimed on November 25, 1922, as it formally announced completion of the Colorado River Compact. The millions would come from building a dam that, thanks to “the Hand of Destiny,” would surely be built at the ideal dam sites in the canyons southeast of town. The Age
also trumpeted the importance of cheap power, which would help Las Vegas compete with big industrializing cities back East. If any thought was being given to the water supply a new dam might provide, the newspapers of the day did not mention it.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times, you can always begin to understand a city by considering its water – London falling at the point in the Thames estuary where it was first practical to land a boat headed upriver, for example, or New York as a port at the mouth of the Hudson. For Las Vegas it is clearly the Colorado, but in ways strange.

The leaders of Las Vegas imagined electricity to power factories and industry. Modern Las Vegas has made rather different uses of that power. They didn’t seem to think much at the time about the water at all.

One Comment

  1. It should be noted that the Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad first reached Las Vegas in 1905 The population of Las Vegas in 1920 was 2304 and 5165 in 1930 and 8422 in 1940. In the 1920s Nevada had not yet legalized gambling (1931) and quickie divorce. This greatly changed the history of the town.

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