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High Scalers

Photo. View of dam site before construction began.Millions of years of weather eroded the canyon walls. Water froze in cracks and crevices, splitting the rock. Before construction could begin on the dam, this loose rock had to be removed. Special men were required for the job, men called "high-scalers."

Their job was to climb down the canyon walls on ropes. Here they worked with jackhammers and dynamite to strip away the loose rock. The men who chose to do this work came from many backgrounds. Some were former sailors, some circus acrobats, some were American Indians. All of them were agile men, unafraid to swing out over empty space on slender ropes.

Photo. Surveyors on the canyon wall.It was hard and dangerous work, perhaps the most physically demanding work on the entire project. Laden with tools and water bags, the men would descend the canyon walls. Jackhammer drills were lowered to them, and powder holes were drilled into the rock. The jackhammers weighed 44 lbs. and had to be maneuvered into position by hand Once the holes had been drilled into the rock, they were loaded with dynamite. After the shot, broken rocks sometimes had to be levered free using crowbars.

Moving about on the cliffs was difficult and dangerous. Live air hoses, electrical lines, bundles of drill steel festooned the cliffs. The scalers had to carefully pick their way through the resulting maze. The danger from falling rocks and dropped tools was extreme. The most common cause of death during the building of the dam was being hit by falling objects. The men began making improvised hard hats for themselves by coating cloth hats with coal tar. These "hard-boiled hats" were extremely effective. Several men were hit by falling rocks so hard that their jaws were broken by the impact, yet they did not receive skull fractures. Because of these "hard-boiled hats," men survived accidents which would otherwise have killed them. The Six Companies contracted for commercially made hard hats and issued them to every man on the project. The use of hard hats was encouraged, and deaths from falling objects were reduced.

Photo. High scaler dangling on rope.The risk and high visibility of the job lent it a certain status which appealed to some types of men. When the foremen weren't looking, they would swing out from the cliffs and perform stunts for the workers below. Contests were held to see who could swing out the farthest, the highest, or who could perform the best stunts.

It wasn't all done for fun and games, though. For several weeks, scaler Louis "The Human Pendulum" Fagan transported a crew of shifters around a projecting boulder on the Arizona side. The man to be transferred would wrap his legs around Fagan's waist, grasp the rope, and with a mighty leap, they would sail out into the air and swing around the boulder. Fagan then returned for the next man in the crew. This acrobatic commute was accomplished twice a day until the job was finished.

Perhaps the most famous feat any of the high scalers ever performed was a daring midair rescue. Burl R. Rutledge, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, fell from the canyon rim. Twenty-five feet below, high scaler Oliver Cowan heard Rutledge slip. Without a moment's hesitation, he swung himself out and seized Rutledge's leg. A few seconds later, high scaler Arnold Parks swung over and pinned Rutledge's body to the canyon wall. The scalers held Rutledge until a line was dropped and secured around him and the shaken engineer was pulled, unharmed, to safety.

Last Reviewed: 9/08/2004