Queho Posse Chapter
E Clampus Vitus
Boulder City , NV
April 21, 2013
Boulder City is the result of many efforts to control the Colorado River, especially to allow for agriculture in the Imperial Valley in California. In 1918, the federal government commissioned a survey to look at ways to control the river. The resulting Fall-Davis Report, completed in 1922, called for a series of large dams on the river. The first suggested by the report would be in the Boulder Canyon region in southern Nevada.
To come to an agreement regarding the use of the Colorado River, the Colorado River Commission was also formed in 1921. It included representatives from all the states (Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado) bordering the Colorado River and the federal government. The Federal representative, appointed by President Harding in 1921, was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Eventually, the Colorado River Compact was worked out and signed by six of the seven state representatives in 1922. Arizona held out until 1939.
The purpose of the Compact was to work out a fair way to share the Colorado River's water. Eventually, Hoover's suggestion of separating the river into an upper and lower basin, and deferring the individual state amounts for forty years was accepted, and the Compact signed.
This led to Congressman Phil Swing (R, CA) and Senator Hiram Johnson (R, CA) introducing a series of bills simultaneously in Congress. The bills were known collectively as the Swing-Johnson Bills. Starting in 1922, four different bills were submitted. The final bill, heavily rewritten by Hoover who had continued his interest in the project, was submitted in 1928. Known as the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it passed and was signed into law by President Coolidge.
After a public bidding process, on March 11, 1931, the Six Companies were the successful bidder. The Six Companies comprised the Utah Construction Company; the Pacific Bridge Company; the Henry J. Kaiser and W.A. Bechtel Company; the MacDonald & Kahn Company, Limited; the Morrison-Knudsen Company; and the J.F. Shea Company. These companies would go on to build one of the wonders of modern engineering, and change the face of southern Nevada forever.
When the bid was awarded, it was the largest ever made by the United States government, $48,890,995.50. It is to this day a mystery what the final .50 was for, though given the prices for bar drinks at that time, true Clampers can guess.
Now that the dam was going to be built, there were many decisions to be made. One was where the workers on this huge project would be housed. Housing was not readily available in Las Vegas, at the time a small town many miles away, and thousands of workers would be needed for the project. Even though one contemporary magazine account showing life in temporary tent housing in 125+ degree heat, noted, "Today's misery is a down payment on destiny," workers and their families were not so sure.
Not that Las Vegas did not want to provide the housing for the workers. However Elwood Mead, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, had an overriding propensity for micromanagement which came to the fore with the question of housing. He believed in the regulation of social behavior through irrigation projects, and this was reinforced by his boss, Secretary of the Interior Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur. Wilbur and Mead decided they had to visit Las Vegas to determine if it could be trusted to be the site of the needed worker housing. It was physically distant, but was an extant community.
Mead and Wilbur visited Las Vegas on June 21, 1929. The city hoped to be the headquarters for workers for the new dam. Las Vegas authorities decided the visit would show the town in the best possible light. After all, it was known that both Mead and Lyon were staunch prohibitionists, and prohibition was the law of the land, though it was not well practiced in Nevada.
Las Vegas Chief of Police Percy Nash ordered an all-out effort to not only shut down, but also disguise the saloons in town. Blocks 16 and 17 were to go dark for the first time in 24 years, to impress Mead and Wilbur with the squeaky clean new Las Vegas.
As with most plans, however, reality intervened. Shortly before their visit, the largest prohibition raid yet in the history of Southern Nevada occurred. Federal agents found nine stills and four breweries, and confiscated 3,650 gallons of mash, 228 gallons of whiskey, 571 cases of beer, and 470 gallons of other alcoholic beverages.
Though local and state dignitaries thought they might still pull the bacon out of the fire. An unfortunate incident occurred during the visit, when several newspapermen led one of Mead's party to the notorious Arizona Club. The front of the club was boarded up, the sign and windows covered, but the side door was open and the bartender inside. The newspapermen paid and the bartender served, and everyone had a good conversation promoting Las Vegas. When the man from Washington returned to the train, he regaled Mead, Wilbur, and the rest of the party with tales of the hospitality of Las Vegas, much to Mead's and Wilbur's horror.
Mead decided that a new community would be necessary for the workers, a community which became Boulder City. This became Mead's last effort at an ideal community. No alcohol would be served within the confines of the community, no gambling would be allowed, and, in the beginning, no minorities would be allowed to live in the new community. Though thankfully the first and last requirements have been removed from the community, the lack of gaming still sets Boulder City aside from all other cities in Nevada.
Though the general site for the dam was known, there was still some possibility it might be further upriver from the Black Canyon site. One major issue was the cost of getting supplies to the location. A railroad would have to be built, and there were at least two contenders for building the new spur line, and three possible routes. One was the Union Pacific, who planned to build a spur from the Arden siding, across the south end of the Vegas valley, through Railroad Pass (which had been named for a never-built railroad surveyed through the area in the 1890s), and then out through what would become Boulder City to the dam site.
The other was the Santa Fe, which proposed a route from Kingman over its Western Arizona Railroad through Chloride, and then up to the alternative dam site. Given that this rail line would be seventy miles long, rather than the UP's twenty-two mile version, it was not successful. A third option, also promoted by the Union Pacific, would have entailed a fifty-three mile line from the Moapa siding to a Boulder Canyon site, rather than the Black Canyon location. In the end the shortest line location was decided upon, and the Union Pacific built it.
Boulder City was on its way. However, before it was built, workers began coming into the area. Some men brought their families and tent cities grew in the desert. Two well-known ones were built in the vicinity of the dam, on land which would be part of Boulder City. McKeeversville, the site of the Queho Posse plaquing in April 2012, was a squatter community built below the first dormitory housing for dam workers. Today the area is known as Lakeview, but initially it took its name from the cook at the government dormitory, who built a tent house for this family there.
A second community known as Ragtown, Hell's Hole, or Williamsville (named for United States Marshall Claude Williams who lived there), was created at the river's edge in Hemenway Wash. The two camps allowed men who had brought their families to build ramshackle homes for them. The site of Ragtown is now under Lake Mead.
Other housing was created wherever possible. Reports at the time talk about families living in their vehicles, in culverts, and under sheets draped from road signage. Many individual springs in the desert surrounding the site had small groups living in the vicinity.
To build the actual community of Boulder City, a major question of jurisdiction had to be settled. This was a federal project, and the town was to be built on federal land which had been withdrawn from public use by the Bureau of Reclamation. Nevada wanted the new community to be subject to state control, but the federal government wanted it under federal jurisdiction. After an attempt by Senator Tasker Oddie (D, NV) and Congressman Sam Arentz (D, NV) to get legislation passed to put the new town under the state of Nevada failed, however, Boulder City was made a federal reservation, similar to Indian Reservations, and fell under federal control.
The Six Companies had the responsibility to provide housing for the workers, at the direction of the Bureau of Reclamation. They created the Boulder City Company, which would be in charge of building the community. Saco Reink DeBoer was brought in to design the new town. He was a well-known city planner from Denver, and developed a wonderful plan which took into account the location, prevailing winds, angles of the sun, and terrain. The resultant design was unfortunately impractical from a construction costs standpoint, and it was modified by the Bureau to become the original portion of Boulder City.
Streets were laid out and named, including ones for each of the states which were part of the Colorado River Commission. Three parks were designed, each named for early Spanish explorers of the Southwest, and one for Ray Lyman Wilbur, who in addition to being the Secretary of the Interior under President Herbert Hoover and ultimately responsible for the dam being built, named both Hoover Dam and Boulder City.
The building of the city was not without problems. Early on, members of the International Workers of the World used the slow pace of construction and low wages being paid to the workers to call for a general strike at the project. The IWW, commonly known as Wobblies, was a feared union in the west, and their efforts were fought by the Six Companies. Eventually the union efforts were broken, and all union members fired from the dam project. Many of them moved to two tent communities in the Railroad Pass area, Oklahoma City and Texas Acres.
Both were located on the southeast side of the pass, and were quite notorious. There was a much higher level of violence in the two shanty-towns, and a much higher law enforcement presence. They did survive for awhile into the 1930s, and Texas Acres actually had a roadhouse, which provided gambling for a short time.
Boulder City was to be managed by a federal employee appointed by the Bureau. This was Sims Ely, a man who took to the job with relish, and ran the community with an iron hand for ten years.
Ely was from Tennessee, where he was born in 1862. He became the editor of the Hutchinson (Kansas) Democrat newspaper. He next served as Kansas Senator John Martin's secretary, and then, in succession, editor of the Arizona Republican, secretary-treasurer of the Hudson Reservoir Company, general secretary of the Valley Bank Adjustment Company in Arizona and as part of Arizona's delegation negotiating the Colorado River Compact. He later moved to Berkeley, California, as director of the Federal Land Bank, and at 69, was appointed by Secretary of the Interior Wilbur as City Manager of Boulder City.
Ely was no modern City Manager, though. There were no elected officials to oversee his actions. He controlled the City government by fiat, directly supervised the United States Marshals who patrolled the community, and generally served as the Humbug of Boulder City. His word was law, and he controlled whether you were allowed your job at the dam and your home in the town. He also controlled whether you were allowed to conduct business on the federal reservation that was the new community.
This was necessary because of the somewhat rough and ready nature of the early workers. One traveling salesman, known only as Danny, had descended on the camp during the summer of 1931, before the town was built and while the workers lived in very primitive conditions. Being a city slicker, not to mention a refrigerator salesman, he eventually ended up in a poker game for a sale. Playing well into the night, he eventually had to relieve himself of the bladder holdings he had accumulated. Steeling himself for the walk through the pitch-dark desert 100 yards from the tent he was playing in, he was warned not to sit on a scorpion (truly a sage piece of advice). Unfortunately this unnerved the salesman, who elected to light a match to inspect the outhouse while commencing his duty. Finding himself without company of the creepy-crawly variety, he threw the match down the hole.
The resultant explosion rocked the tent the poker game was occupying. His fellow players ran outside to find out what had happened. While Danny was never seen again to explain, except as a blur running across the desert, the workers decided that he had learned enough about the effects of the methane gas given off in large quantities by superheated waste.
Sims Ely did bring his own brand of management to the community, and the dam continued being built. If you died on the job, you were at least buried, though it normally occurred only after the end of your shift. While rumors abound of workers buried in the dam itself, it must be noted that this did not ever occur. Local legend though it may be, as ours is a damn sturdy dam.
Ely served in his role as Grand High Muckity-Muck, a.k.a. City Manager, of Boulder City until 1941, when he was forced to resign for health reasons. He was 79 and had outlasted even the building of the dam itself, which had been completed in 1935. He oversaw the transformation of the community from a federal workers town to a federal community. He strictly enforced many policies, even those not truly part of the project, such as no black workers. He even tried to get a black cook fired from the Green Shack Restaurant on Boulder Highway, an action in which he was unsuccessful.
He was successful in building a gate across Boulder Highway, just past today's Railroad Pass Casino. The Casino traces its history back to a time when drinking and other pleasures which make life worth living were prohibited in the town. They were made available to the passing Clamper and dam worker by enterprising entrepreneurs just outside the gate, creating nothing short of a Clamper paradise.
In fact, the first load of building supplies to be carried on the new rail line from Arden was for the Railroad Pass Casino. This was in 1931, and the casino part of the operation was built to cover up the illegal speakeasy within the building. Of course, this was still during prohibition. The gambling, which included one table game and a few slot machines, was an effective cover for the speakeasy. If you knew the password ("Gayety") you could get past the gambling and into the bar area behind.
The casino was a thorn in the side of Boulder City authorities, who would regularly rail against "the booze business and lewd women" and threaten to shut the site. It also set the stage for the growth of Railroad Pass as a libations stop. The area was known by bootleggers, and it figured in raids by the prohi's (as prohibition agents were known) numerous times.
The area which was to be Boulder City had to be cleaned up as well. U. S. Marshall Williams was quite effective in this regard. One story about Williams shows his diligence. He saw a suspicious man outside of a tent in the Alunite shantytown. He noticed the man's right shoe was worn through in a straight line on the sole, and figured he had been doing some digging. Williams went into the tent the man had been standing next to and dug in the disturbed dirt on the floor. Finding a box of liquor, he arrested the bootlegger, and the area was safe for law-abiding citizens for a few more minutes, at least. By one count, there were 21 bootlegging sites between Railroad Pass and Las Vegas along the Boulder Highway about this time.Sims Ely was determined to keep alcohol out of Boulder City. As the town grew, if you were found with alcohol, Ely might fire you, or suspend you from your job for a time. Woody Williams, Assistant Superintendent of Construction on the dam project, was caught at a dance in town with a flask of the evil libation in his back pocket. Even though he had not been drinking it and inspite of Superintendent Frank Crowe personal intervention, Ely banished Williams from his job for 30 days without pay.
The town itself was laid out and construction started in 1931. The Railroad Depot was completed that year, as were most of the streets. Boulder Highway was surveyed and paved from the end of Fremont Street in Las Vegas through Railroad Pass and into Boulder City. Previously, travelers by auto or truck had to follow what were little more than two ruts in the desert, or a very difficult trail through Bootleg Canyon.
The design DeBoer had created called for substantial landscaping in the new community. Given the incredible heat during the summer, the landscaping was intended to ameliorate the high temperatures. Extra funds had to be provided, but by 1932 Secretary Wilbur had persuaded Congress to appropriate them, and had hired Wilbur Weed as Chief Landscape Architect. Weed was a landscape architect from Oregon. He studied the soil, and developed a selection of plants which could thrive in the town. His efforts soon made the new community a beautiful one.
Buildings started going up, according to the layout by DeBoer, as modified by the Bureau. The community was well on its way to being a home for the thousands of workers on the dam project. When the dam was finished in 1935, under budget and ahead of schedule, many of the workers moved on to other projects, and workers helping with the dam operations moved in, continuing the town's growth.
By 1932, the first Boulder City Airport, Bullock Field was built. The Boulder Dam Hotel was built in 1933. It was later acquired by Glover E. "Roxy" Ruckstell, who also owned Grand Canyon Airlines and the Grand Canyon Boulder Dam Tours. It was Ruckstell who finally forced the breaking of the color barrier for local residents, when he pushed to have Henry and Ocie Bradley allowed to live in town. They were the first black family in Boulder City.
The town in the mid-1930s was described in a reminiscence published by Frank Water in his book, The Colorado. He noted,
"â€¦Boulder City had paved streets, stores, tidy bungalows and air-conditioned barracks, enormous mess halls, garages, machine and service shops. Telephone and telegraph services were provided. A paved highway and a railroad were built in from Las Vegas, and an electric transmission line from California to furnish light and power."
During the 1940s and 1950s, Boulder City continued to be a federal reservation. In the late 1950s, a decision to close the Boulder City Hospital galvanized local residents to seek independence from their federal reservation status, and the right to incorporate as a city in Nevada. By 1960 this was accomplished, and Boulder City entered the ranks of incorporated Nevada cities.
While gaming is to this day not allowed within the city limits of Boulder City, the history of the community with alcohol was much more complicated. In 1933, after the repeal of prohibition, 3.2% beer and 4% wine were allowed in town. Stronger alcohol was available at the Boulder Dam Hotel, though this was not advertised. In 1969, hard liquor was finally legalized, and Boulder City joined the ranks of the rest of Nevada's communities.
Boulder City today is a thriving community, one which has a unique history. It is the only incorporated city in Nevada which does not allow gambling. It is still noted for its landscaping, and is the "Gateway to Hoover Dam."
The Queho Posse chapter of the ancient and honorable order of E Clampus Vitus thanks Boulder City for its hospitality and support of our 2013 Spring Clampout. Special thanks are due to City Manager J. David Fraser, for his help with this project. We are happy to present to the city a plaque for the history of the community.
What sayeth the brethren?
And so recorded.
A bibliography for those who wish further information on Boulder City.
Carlson, Helen, S., Nevada Place Names; A Geographical Dictionary, 1974, University of Nevada Press
Conklin, Paul K., The Vision of Elwood Mead, in Agricultural History, April 1960
Hall-Patton, Mark P., A History of Railroad Passâ€¦, 2009, Obfuscationist Press
Hall-Patton, Mark P., A Quickie on Boulder City, or Sims Ely's Heritage, 2000, Obfuscationist Press
Hall-Patton, Mark P., Elwood Mead; The Namesake of Lake Mead, 2005, Obfuscationist Press
Hall-Patton, Mark P., Prohibition and the River, 2004, Obfuscationist Press
Hall-Patton, Mark P., The Path of Relief, or Bootleg Canyon, 2007, Obfuscationist Press
Hiltzik, Michael, Colossus; Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, 2010, Free Press
Klueger, James R., Turning on Water with a Shovel: The Career of Elwood Mead, 1992, University of New Mexico
Lewis, Georgia, Las Vegas, The Way It Was, 1979, Las Vegas Sun
McBride, Dennis, and Dunar, Andrew, Building Hoover Dam; An Oral History of the Great Depression, 1993, University of Nevada Press
McBride, Dennis, In The Beginning â€¦ A History of Boulder City, Nevada, 1992, Boulder City/Hoover Dam MuseumMcBride, Dennis, Midnight on Arizona Street: The Secret Life of the Boulder Dam Hotel, 1993, Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum
Mead, Elwood, Selected Writings of Elwood Mead on Water Administration in Wyoming and the West, 2000, Wyoming Water Association
Myrick, David F., Railroads of Arizona; Volume I: The Southern Roads, 1985, Howell-North Books
Myrick, David F., Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California; Volume II: The Southern Roads, 1992, University of Nevada Press
Pahor, Stanley, Nevada Towns and Tales, Volume 2, South, 1982, Nevada Publications
Ruess, Martin, Coping with Uncertainty: Social Scientists, Engineers, and Federal Water Resources Planning, in Natural Resources Journal, Winter 1992
Stevens, Joseph E., Hoover Dam; An American Adventure, 1988, University of Oklahoma Press
Waters, Frank, The Colorado, 1946, Rinehart & Company
Wolf, Donald E., Big Dams and Other Dreams; The Six Companies Story, 1996, University of Oklahoma Press
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