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Special Events: The Hoover Dam Tour, Boulder City, Nevada
For most of us, Hoover Dam is nothing more than a giant slab of concrete separating the Colorado River from Lake Mead. Admit it: did you even know that much? Sure, the dam provides hydroelectric power and has created a nifty recreation area on the lake side but...why did they really build this hulking thing? The Hoover Dam Tour is the place for answers.
Located southeast of Las Vegas at the Nevada/Arizona border, Hoover Dam receives over a million visitors a year, most of them during the summer months. Tours start at 9 a.m. and run at 15-minute intervals throughout the day. Since the tour is part guided and part self-guided, you should budget about two hours.
An informative video in a small theater steps from the welcome area is the first stop. Here, one quickly gets to the heart of the matter. For millions of years, the Colorado River has flowed along a 1,400 mile course in the American West. The river's penchant for flooding low-lying farmlands in the spring and drying to a trickle come fall made it a nightmare for farmers trying to harness its water for their use. In 1921, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover set in motion a plan to manage the river's waters and divide it equitably among the seven states it served. An agreement was soon signed to divide the Colorado River Basin into an upper and lower half and apportion the water to the various states in that basin. The engineering marvel that would one day be known as Hoover Dam was about to be born.
Construction of the dam began in 1931 and was completed two years ahead of schedule (and well under budget) in 1935. Seventeen power generators provide enough electricity for the Dam to pay for itself and keep the lights on from Los Angeles to Phoenix and Las Vegas. Thanks to an ample water supply, California's rich farmlands are now a year-round source of crops that feed much of the nation. Lake Mead, we learn, is one of America's most popular recreation areas, a haven for swimming, boating, fishing and other water sports.
At the end of the film, our young son, Steven, bounds out of his seat. “Mom, you HAVE to put that video on my Santa list,” he declares. The tour is a hit already.
Our tour guide, Narmo, shuttles about thirty of us into an elevator and we descend roughly five hundred feet into the power generating plant at Hoover Dam. Narmo uses a few props to explain the construction of the dam in great detail and gives us more facts and figures than we can possibly retain.
“Mom, are we in Hoover Dam yet?” Steven asks. My ears pop. I tell him we're there.
A walk to a landing overlooking the generators is next. They are painted red, white and blue and are vaguely Art Deco in appearance. The elevator ride back up leads us to a series of story boards with first-hand accounts of the construction of the dam and assorted scientific and engineering data about water reclamation. Arguably the best part of the tour for kids comes next: assorted gizmos are set out to give them first-hand experience at generating electricity. Steven cranks a wheel endlessly in order to “generate” enough power for the various rooms of a house.
The last stop on the tour is a visit to the outdoor observation deck for a magnificent view of the dam. Here, we truly get the magnitude of this undertaking. The dam's concrete wall is over 700 feet high with a crest length (the top side you can drive across) of over 1,200 feet. There is enough concrete here to wrap a four-foot-wide, four-inch-thick sidewalk around the earth – at the equator!
The strong desert sun finally gets the best of Steven so we say goodbye to Hoover Dam. We've learned a lot about water, land and the can-do spirit of our fellow Americans and Steven can't wait to return. It's a dam good time!
Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and five-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.