Birthday Party for a Dam : 4,000 Celebrate Boulder’s (Oops) Hoover’s 50th Year

Times Staff Writer

Amid parades, banners and political crossfire, a crowd of about 4,000 turned out Saturday to celebrate Hoover Dam’s 50th birthday.

In his keynote address, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel said America’s best-known dam not only “leapfrogged American technology and engineering expertise,” but also “transformed the West into the productive region it is today.”

Built to tame the unruly Colorado River and provide silt-free water for irrigating a million arid acres in the California desert, the dam’s water and energy prompted unprecedented growth in industry and population throughout the Southwest.

Under a renegotiated agreement, some of the water that fueled that growth will be diverted and shared this year by thirsty boom towns in Arizona and Nevada.

But Hodel also said he was “troubled” that such a project could not be built now because someone would surely “hogtie it” for the cost of a “filing fee in court.” Under the “current situation,” he said in an interview after his speech at Boulder High School stadium, “anybody who has his nose crooked and an argument to hang a lawsuit on” could “hold such a project hostage.”


Friday night, at a moonlit supper held near a cliff overlooking the dam and sponsored by the Construction Industry Manufacturers Assn., he leveled similar charges.

“These projects have brought enormous wealth and prosperity,” Hodel told about 200 builders and contractors in attendance. “I would like for the critics to say what kind of society we would have without them.”

Asked to identify the critics he was referring to, Hodel said, “You know who they are” and declined to elaborate.

At the stadium Saturday, Gov. Richard Bryan added fuel to a seemingly still-smoldering debate over whose political party should receive credit for the dam’s construction.

Bryan, a Democrat, excluded any reference in his speech to President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, in whose honor the dam was named. Asked if the omission was intentional, Bryan laughed heartily.

He did, however, praise the efforts of California Congressmen Phil Swing and Hiram Johnson, both Democrats, who supported the dam’s construction in the 1920s.

Audience members and political dignitaries alike laughed when Bryan referred to the 6.6-million-ton concrete edifice as “Boulder Dam.”

Called It ‘Boulder Dam’

In his dedicatory speech Sept. 30, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, also used the name “Boulder Dam,” which is what the dam was popularly known as throughout the Roosevelt years. The dam was officially designated Hoover Dam in 1930. The name didn’t stick with Democrats, however, who blamed Hoover, Roosevelt’s predecessor, for the nation’s economic collapse in 1929 and the 1930s. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s Democratic successor, settled the matter by officially naming it Hoover Dam.

‘They’re Still Fighting’

“I was here when Roosevelt said the same damn thing,” guffawed Michael Markoff, a disabled veteran on hand for the celebration. “I can’t believe that 50 years later they’re still fighting over the name.”

“They sure have a long memory,” said another Boulder resident.

After his speech, Bryan said he agreed with Hodel that the dam could not be built today--but for different reasons.

“The national Administration now in Washington has changed its policy,” Bryan said, “and no longer provides funding for reclamation projects of this magnitude.”

There was a somber side as well to Saturday’s festivities.

Dam Worker Dies

Bruce Eaton, a Boulder City resident and one of the dam’s builders, died of a heart attack Friday afternoon after delivering a speech to honor the 31’ers, a group comprised of people who worked on the dam. Eaton was 80. At 3:15 p.m., next to a rock memorial topped with a bronze hard hat, Eaton, who helped organize the 50th anniversary celebration, collapsed. He was rushed to Boulder City Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:20 p.m.

The memorial was inscribed with a portion of Roosevelt’s dedicatory address. It read, in part, “I congratulate you who have created Boulder Dam and on behalf of the nation say to you--job well done.”