Hoover Dam

The Story of Hoover Dam - Articles

Fortune Magazine - September 1933 (continued)

One hundred and sixty is fair candy money, even for Washington. And particularly when forty-five states in the Union are not getting so much as a gumdrop. The sullen watchfulness of eastern, southern, northern, and mid-western Congressmen made a waste-proof spending plan imperative. Two set-ups were possible. The dam could be government built (cries of "No! No! The government will lose money!"). The dam could be built on private contract (cries of "No! No! The government will lose money!"). The problem was solved by compromise. The dam is under the direct supervision of the Washington and Denver offices of the U.S. Government's Bureau of Reclamation; actual designs of all its features are made in the Denver office. It is being built by a group of western contractors, calling themselves the Six Companies.

When Washington announced it had the job for somebody, a sudden low scribbling was heard in the land. This was the sound of estimating. Most of it died very quickly, s contractors realized the job was too huge even to bid on. But in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Boise, and Portland, telephones jangled and very quickly the hard heads of Bechtel & Kaiser and MacDonald & Kahn (San Francisco), Morrison-Knudson Co. (Boise), Utah Construction Co. (Salt Lake City), and Portland's J.F. Shea and the Pacific Bridge Co. were put together. They set up a joint corporation capitalized for $8,000,000, called it the Six Companies, scribbled, estimated, and bid $48,890,995, bonded the contract for $5,000,000 in cash. They got the job.

For their $48,890,995 the Six Companies must foot all construction bills - for dynamite, for trucks, for digging mud and dumping mud, for bosses' salaries, and for labor's wage. The Six companies do not pay for construction raw material - for the 5,500,000 barrels of cement consumed, or the 55,000 tons of steel plates and castings, or the turbines and generators in the power plant, or any of the permanent operating machinery of the dam.

It is not feasible to detail a month's or even a year's statement of the Six Companies, since their expenses vary enormously. They were out of pocket $3,500,000 for preliminary work before they received a government penny. Until half the work was done they received only ninety cents on the dollar. The holdback is around $2,000,000, which they will receive at the end - like an ice-cream cone for being good. It suffices perhaps to say that during the first five months of 1933 the government paid an average monthly bill from the Six Companies of $1,513,000. out of this the corporation must pay items such as a half-million a month payroll, $48,000 for gas and oil, $40,000 for electricity. At one time when the roads were roughest, they were spending $500 a day for truck and automobile tires. When the last bills are paid and the turbines begin to turn, the Six companies will have turned a profit estimated at $7,000,000 and upward for all their work.

This profit, which must be understood as a highly unofficial estimate, is the insurance premium the U.S. pays for efficiency. If the contractors spent all their money, botched the job, and went broke, the government might have to finish the dam to the tune of a great many millions. The U.S. is willing to pay a good profit for a good dam built rapidly. Thus far the scheme is paying fat dividends in speed. One of the few complaints of the men on the job is that the bosses are "highballing" - labor slang for forcing work to the limit. Their contract started April 20, 1931. To date they have "highballed" the job to a point seventeen months ahead of schedule. This speed has cost the Six Companies money in many operations - money which will be more than saved by finishing the dam an estimated year and a half before its appointed birthday, April 20 1938.

Clearly, such speed requires a traffic cop. He is on duty, a government inspector, who reports the contents of every batch of cement, the blast of every dynamite barrage, the loads on the cableways, and the depth of every hole. He even goes down the canyon wall on ropes to outline the rock to be moved, then later to report the tons of rock chipped off by high scalers. Over 150 men are paid government money to stick their noses into the contractor's business. Not until they are satisfied that the work conforms in the minutest detail to rigid U.S. specifications do the Six Companies get Washington's check for the preceding month's payroll and expenses.

Photo of Walker Young.Such a system should build a good dam. It should, human nature being human nature, breed as well some friction. No motorist likes to be asked by a detaining cop if he's going to a fire, particularly if he is going to a fire. But the friction factor at Boulder is not high. "Of course, " says Frank Crowe (General Superintendent, Six Companies), speaking of Walker Young (U.S. Construction Engineer in charge), "we like to cry at each other and raise hell. He says my foremen are no good, but he don't mean anything." "Yes," agrees Young, with such circumspection as befits a great government engineer, "sometimes we fight with each other for the fun of it."

There are two reasons why Young and Crowe are not bitter enemies. One is that the job is too big for petty human friction. Young's inspectors and Crowe's foremen know this as well as their bosses. They know that friction which slows work quietly rubs somebody out of a job. The second reason is the mutual respect of Young and Crowe. Crowe spent years in the U.S. Reclamation Service, which Young now represents. He knows Young's duties and responsibility as well as Young does. "I'd go to hell for him," says Crowe. Frank Crowe, according to close guessers at the dam, gets $25,000 a year plus bonuses. Young gets $6,375. And this government work rates no bonus, there being no American Legion of the Reclamation Service. But regardless of salary, Walker Rollo Young is the boss at Boulder Dam. The U.S. hired the Six Companies, who hired Crowe. The U.S. flag flies just outside Young's office window.

The engineering career of this quiet, sharp-eyed man who at forty-eight is commander of the government guard at Boulder Dam began at the University of Idaho. He studied mining, in addition to working most of his way through, captaining the basketball team, and presiding over the student body. He prospected for a while after college and finally took a government job as a designer on the construction of Idaho's Arrowrock Dam, the Boulder Dam of its time. On this job he met Frank Crowe, bossing a shift for the head engineer. From that day to this he has worked in the Reclamation Service as field investigator, designer, administrator. He has figured hydraulics on more dams than he call remember, twenty five of them on the Colorado alone--ghost dams which never rose from mounds of paper. He contributed materially to the first and basic designs for Boulder Dam. He wears glasses, and hasn't smoked for months. He plays the violin, and played the cornet in the days before cornets wore derbies. He likes American history and when he has a vacation, heads for the ocean. He regards engineering as an art--"The Art of Economical Construction." Combined with his great talents both as a designer and administrator is his ability to make big decisions and small ones with equal speed. When the fearful heat of the first summer at Boulder and the lack of proper accommodations combined to brew a riot, he met it by ordering everybody off the U. S. Reservation. Then he invited every man who wanted to work to come back, assuring him of the best possible living conditions in the shortest possible time. The men came back. Houses were built. Today Boulder City is incomparably the finest construction camp in engineering annals. Mr. Young is known as "Brig." "Why, I don't know," he says. "I have only one wife." With that one wife he plays a lot of contract bridge evenings, when he is not reading blueprints or engineering journals or perhaps writing a letter to his daughter Jane at Scripps College.

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Last Updated: 3/13/15