Colossus: The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam


The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of Hoover Dam

By Michael Hiltzik




Read an Excerpt

As breathtaking today as when it was completed, Hoover Dam ranks among America’s most awe-inspiring, if dubious, achievements. This epic story of the dam—from conception to design to construction—by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik exposes the tremendous hardships and accomplishments of the men on the ground—and in the air—who built the dam and the demonic drive of Frank Crowe, the boss who pushed them beyond endurance. It is a tale of the tremendous will exerted from start to finish, detailing the canny backroom dealings by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the herculean engineering challenges Crowe faced, and the terrific union strikes by the men who daily fought to beat back the Colorado River. Colossus tells an important part of the story of America’s struggle to pull itself out of the Great Depression by harnessing the power of its population and its natural resources.


Michael Hiltzik’s “Colossus,” about the construction of the Hoover Dam, is a welcome reminder of the engineering genius that built America.

Mr. Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, tells the Hoover Dam story in the grand tradition of David McCullough, who more or less invented the idea of popular and historically sophisticated books about stupendous engineering achievements…. Mr. Hiltzik clearly explains the technological and physical difficulties posed by the dam project, but he also fixes the endeavor in its time and captures the personalities of the people involved….

But it would take two decades of politics before agreement could be reached among the seven states in the watershed— each fearful that another state might get more than its share of water—and before Congress could be persuaded to fund the building of the immense dam. Mr. Hiltzik does a terrific job of explaining these political machinations, which reached from local water commissioners to Herbert Hoover’s White House….

The author is at his best in a masterly portrayal of Frank Crowe, the central figure in the dam’s construction.

A born engineer who demanded much from his workmen, Crowe had to solve a myriad of problems on the fly as he confronted the unexpected difficulties of an unprecedented project in an unprecedented location…. Mr. Hiltzik’s engrossing narrative will help to make sure that he is not forgotten.
—John Steele Gordon, Wall Street Journal

“Hiltzik tells the dam’s tale well, with majestic sweep and a degree of detail that by rights ought to be numbing, but isn’t; every iota of material fits snugly into the narrative, which, unlike the river, flows freely.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“…detailed and vividly written…destined to be the standard history for decades to come…Hiltzik is an equal-opportunity debunker when it comes to digging into sources and finding the true story behind the dam’s construction.”
—Kevin Starr, The Washington Post

“[A] superb new history of the dam’s conception, construction and legacy… And in Hiltzik’s hands, it makes very good history, indeed.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The parade of grim particulars might make Colossus a depressing read were it not for the vigor of Hiltzik’s prose and the lively gallery of individual portraits and anecdotes that convey a wonderfully textured sense of what it was like to work on Hoover Dam.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Fascinating. A construction epic..of a beautiful immensity, a piece of infrastructure without compare..reflecting Depression-era America [and] astutely conveying the characters of its creators. Hiltzik marvelously captures the times of the Hoover Dam.”

“Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times; The Plot Against Social Security) details the creation of one of the largest public works projects in American history, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its completion in 2011. He argues that some American attributes—such as a sense of community overtaking rugged individualism (considered a postwar American phenomenon—in fact owe their origins to the dam, not to the war; likewise, for the Southwest becoming the fastest-growing part of the country. Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression to make the flood-prone Colorado River an irrigation and water source for the Southwest, and those who built it wrote a dark labor history. Engineering science has both advanced and struggled with expensive dam repairs ever since. In the end, perhaps, there is remorse for the dam’s impact, the new growing communities utterly dependent on its finite resource, and the seismic and environmental havoc it has caused. Hiltzik wonders if the dam could be built today, given what a Pandora’s box it proved to be.”
—Library Journal