Wildlife mitigation on western highways

Specialized road construction protects wildlife and people

copywrite 2011 by Joe Evancho

Wildlife crossing near Banff, Alberta in Canada. Adam Ford photo

In the Intermountain West, crashes between motor vehicles and wildlife are a threat to humans and animal safety costing hundreds of lives and more than $8 billion annually.

            Rob Ament is the ecology program manager for the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University in Bozeman. He said studies show that wildlife-vehicle collisions have doubled in the past fifteen years and transportation agencies are looking to identify major corridors with increasing levels of wildlife movement, and then engineer solutions to prevent those kinds of accidents.

            One solution involves wildlife crossings that connect habitats divided by highways thereby allowing animals to cross over or under roads safely. These crossings involve site-specific engineering and the construction of underpasses and overpasses for large or herd-type animals such as moose, elk and deer and tunnels for small mammals such as otters, skunks and badgers. There are even tunnels for amphibians and other little critters.

            Some aquatic crossings allow for fish migration and may be used by smaller non-aquatic species.

            Ament says the reasons for the collisions can vary from having high-quality habitat at the road’s edge to animals moving from winter to summer ranges with many other variables such as winding roads with poor visibility.

            Other factors such as terrain and traffic determine the type of crossing needed for specific species, Ament says.

            Gregg Servheen is the wildlife programs coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. He said that new road development or improvements will address wildlife and public safety with engineered strategies for underpasses and overpasses.   “Underpasses are probably the most common way of dealing with wildlife connectivity,” Servheen says. “It’s not only important to protect animals but it is also a public safety issue.”

         Several wildlife mitigation programs across the West are addressing these issues.

The People’s Way, Montana

            In northwestern Montana, The People’s Way is a 56.3-mile section of US-93 between Evaro and Polson south of Flathead Lake, with all but one mile on the Flathead Indian Reservation. This stretch of roadway represents the most extensive wildlife-sensitive highway design effort in North America to date  Many uncommon native species occur within the project area, including grizzly bears and gray wolves, as well as more common species such as black bear, white-tailed and mule deer, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion, elk and many smaller species including the western painted turtle.

            The Montana Department of Transportation has built 42 fish and wildlife crossing structures and nearly 17 miles of wildlife fencing.

            These mitigation measures will improve safety for motorists by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. They will also function to maintain habitat connectivity and protect animal populations by providing safe passage through specially engineered overpasses and underpasses.

            Great Western Engineering (GWE) of Helena designed the seven-mile long and southern most section of The People’s Way from Evaro to McClure Road. Their section was the most expensive, approximately $29 million, and includes a one and a half mile extension of a four-lane undivided roadway, a two-lane roadway with turn and alternating passing lanes for north and southbound traffic. The firm also engineered the relocation of one mile of Montana Rail Link line including a new railroad bridge in Evaro, three-and-a-half miles of wildlife fencing and ten wildlife crossing structures including an overcrossing designed for, but not limited to, grizzly bears.

            Dan McCauley is president of GWE and he said a lot of biological study was involved before they started the design phase. “We coordinated with the tribes and various federal and state agencies to engineer the proper structures along with road engineering. After years of study it was determined that the overcrossing at the top of Evaro Hill is located in the best grizzly bear habitat on the entire stretch of US 93,” he says.


            Of the 10 GWE designed undercrossings six are essentially big bottomless, oversized culverts over streams that include a path along the side where animals from mountain lions to turtles can get safe passage.

            On the 56 miles of The People’s Way, more than 16 total miles of 8-foot high wildlife fencing on both side of the road keep the animals off the road and steer them into the passageways.

West Vail Pass, Colorado 

            In Colorado, the 18-mile section of Interstate 70 known as West Vail Pass has been chosen as the official site for the North American Wildlife Crossing Structure Design Competition, also known as ARC.

            The location of the competition is in a unique habitat at 10,000 ft above sea level, about 70 miles west of Denver where man and wild things often collide. 

            ARC will bring together landscape architects, construction architects, engineers, ecologists, and other experts to create the next generation of wildlife crossing structures for North America’s roadways. Today, the cost of wildlife crossings prevents many of them from being built. The ARC competition will challenge entrants to design safe, efficient, cost-effective and ecologically responsive future wildlife crossings.

Togwotee Trail, Wyoming 

            The Togwotee Trail is a 38-mile section of U.S. Highway 26-287 between Dubois and Jackson along one of the country’s most scenic roadways. Today, a large wildlife crossing allows passage under the section known as Buried Bridge, so named  because the bridge is literally buried under the highway and crosses over the wildlife crossing, making both undetectable to motorists.

The Togwotee Trail is a 38-mile section of U.S. Highway 26-287 between Dubois and Jackson along one of the country’s most scenic roadways. The bridge was constructed near milepost 24 at more than 9,000 ft. along a known migration route for deer and elk.

            Cody Beers, Wyoming Department of Transportation, Public Relations Specialist for District 5, says standard bridges have a tendency to become icy during the winter, causing hazardous traveling conditions. To avoid these conditions WYDOT chose to borrow a Canadian engineering idea.

            The bridge was constructed near milepost 24 at more than 9,000 ft. along a known migration route for deer and elk. After the bridge was completed WYDOT crews covered it with five feet of dirt then built the road over the dirt. The dirt acts as insulation preventing icing of the road in the shadowy sections of the highway.

            The underpass will be fenced to encourage wildlife use and it will be quieter under the structure as it has four to five feet of dirt on top of it, and then paved highway, says Beers.

I-15 Wild Cat, Utah

            Monte Aldridge is Utah Department of Transportation Region 4 preconstruction engineer. He says that before they built the Wild Cat crossings on I-15 in Beaver County in 2004 there were on average 300 deer-car collisions per year. After the crossings and fencing were installed the incidents dropped to less than 10 per year.

            Aldridge says that UDOT installed two massive culverts that were placed approximately two miles apart. “We also placed approximately 20 miles of wildlife fencing, 10 miles on each side of the highway, to funnel the deer to the crossings and keep them off the highway yet allow them travel their migration route,” he says.

Deer on the move at night at Wildcat Crossing in Utah

            Aldridge added that the location was critical to the deer’s ability to use the crossing. “We had to locate the crossings in areas that are naturally being used by wildlife, allowing them to have a good view of the facility so they can locate it and use it. And going from 300 incidents a year to 10 is truly sensational,” he says.

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Learning to Fish with a Fly

Learning to Fish with a Fly by Joe H. Evancho

      There are as many ways to learn fly fishing as there are anglers on the water. The best way is to get in the water, cast some line, snag a tree branch, impale yourself with a hook, slip on the rocks, fill your waders with water, then try not to repeat your errors.

      The ability to read the water or send a size-20 blue-winged olive forty feet to a feeding fish doesn’t develop overnight and it doesn’t take a lifetime either. It does, however, take a certain mentality.

      Writer and artist Russell Chatham wrote in the preface of his book, Dark Waters, “With the exception of painting, nothing in my life has held my interest as much as fishing. Fishing with a fly, a bait, a hand line; I don’t much care. Fishing, in my estimation, is not a hobby, a diversion, a pastime, a sport, an interest, a challenge or an escape. Like painting, it is a necessary passion.”

      My father holds such a passion. When I was a boy he put a fly rod in my hand and explained the balance and dynamics that go into casting a fly. My first attempts seemed pitiful and worthless. I gave up too soon and continued to fish with spinners and bait. If I only knew then what I know now.

      When I was twenty-four my father and I went to my grandpa’s fishing shack on the Au Sable River near Glennie, Michigan. We drove to a favorite fishing spot in the Huron National Forest and started fishing late one soggy afternoon. I worked downstream with some Panther Martin and Mepps spinners while my father worked a few of his favorite holes. As it grew dark I thought of leaving the water.

      The sky was thick with fog moving silently and slowly through the treetops. The roiling water took on an oily sheen yet the woods seemed vibrant and alive. I stopped fishing and had the feeling that I should turn around and leave, but I didn’t.

      At the base of a steep, rock-strewn bank I watched my father weave an intricate pattern of line and fly in the misty air. The sky grew heavy and the pines on the high bank of the far shore faded into one deep mysterious backdrop.

      My father stayed at his one position in the stream and worked the hole for half an hour as I sat on the sandy bank fifty yards away, waiting for the serious rain. Watching him cast through the mist, I realized it wasn’t just the fly rod, but also a centered and powerful concentration that drove the fly through the air to a gentle landing on the holy waters of the Au Sable.

      I watched as he caught three fish. When it grew too dark to even imagine where his fly might be on the water we went back to the shack for some whiskey and burgers.

Joe the Hacker night fishing

      During the next few years I picked up a fly rod occasionally, but never with the passion it deserved or needed. I became reacquainted with fly fishing on a trip to Livingston, Montana, but my attempts at landing a trout with a fly on the Yellowstone River were as unproductive as my attempts on the Au Sable had been.

      I learned two very important lessons in fly fishing on that trip: Fish with someone who is better than you and don’t get discouraged.

      Somehow through my travels I landed in Idaho and had the good fortune to meet four anglers who were willing to share some of their secrets. John Croner straightened out my cast and bestowed a double haul upon me. “A double haul is a very unnecessary cast,” he said on the front lawn of his house during one of our informal casting lessons, “but a one-iron is a very unnecessary golf club and every golfer worth his salt has one in his bag.”

      Pat Reid who works at a local newspaper showed me that fishing is just a matter of driving to a river and getting in. Dan Evans, a trout bum who learned to fish on the banks of Silver Creek and the Wood River country, grew up in Hailey, Idaho and was chased by a Brahma bull while trespassing on private property at Kilpatrick Bridge.

     He made it to the river after a 40-yard sprint while strapped into his float tube. He still carries a few scars but he hasn’t trespassed since. Dan showed me that fishing can be hazardous to your health.

      And then there is ol’ Doc Peterson. He is in his seventies, blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and beset by an arthritic shoulder that limits his casting. He’s hunted and fished most of his life and was a professional guide in Wyoming. He ties his own flies and builds his rods and gets around on a river like a mountain goat on a steep slope. What’s more, when the fishing is slow and most people are opting for naps or waiting for the next hatch, he’s catching fish.

            Together, with my father, these four people have taught me more than any book or video. They took the time to share some of their secrets and opened my eyes to new ideas. They also possess the passion that Chatham deems necessary in such a personal activity. And in fishing, as in any other enterprise in life, there is no substitute for passion.

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McGuire and the Moose by Joe A. Evancho (The Elder)

McGuire and the Moose

by Joe A. Evancho

            It was twenty-eight years ago this past February. McGuire and I were sitting in the last booth along the wall just outside the back room at Mack’s Inn, a longtime watering spot in eastern Idaho not too far from Yellowstone. We were sipping a bit of the stuff that warms the innards, while outside more inches were being added to the snow piled road-sign high along the lonely highway. Sub-arctic temperatures held things pretty much in their icy grip. It had been a long winter, with no January thaw and no hint of a letup. A few citizens sat on their stools at the long, solid mahogany bar, feet resting comfortably on the big brass rail, sipping beer and joined in quiet conversation. Now and then, a gravelly old-boy laugh would rise above the drone of their conversations.

            Mack’s Inn had opened in 1882 and not much had changed in the old, high-country saloon in the last hundred or so years. Not much, that is, except, for the addition of a huge moose head which owner Mack Jorgenson had hung on the wall in the mid-seventies. Along with the moose head, an ancient menagerie of nearly-mummified forest critters peered down on the patrons from their perches along the walls. Staring with unblinking eyes were squirrels, deer, elk, raccoons, rabbits, pheasants, grouse, the inevitable jackalope and a very large bison head. They were fusty enough to have been there since the place opened.

            We were making plans for the most important day of the year—the opening of trout season. As we talked, McGuire kept studying the moose head hanging over the door to the back room. “I know that fella from somewhere,” he would mumble. Staring bemusedly at the huge head, he would refill his glass, puff deeply on his pipe and rejoin our conversation. Despite these interruptions, by closing time, McGuire and I had firmed up plans for the Memorial Day weekend, but he still hadn’t figured out where he and the moose had crossed paths. The next morning he headed back home to Ketchum.

            McGuire was then and is now that rarest of creatures, a never-married bachelor. His mistress was fly fishing and he knew instinctively that no woman would put up with the whore that owned him. Good luck and good investing instincts provided him with the wherewithal to lustfully pursue the thing he loved most. And the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River was his perennial choice for opening day in Idaho.

            There was no mention of the moose in any of our phone conversations as March roared in on the wings of an Arctic blast and sent Island Park temperatures below zero for a week, then began slackening its grip. By the first week of May, the air was still nippy, but spring was definitely in the offing. The week before the opener, McGuire called to say he’d be up on Friday and that he had a surprise for me. I had a hunch it had something to do with the moose, but knew better than to ask. McGuire liked to surround events in mystery and the moose was the perfect vehicle.

            The week before the opener was cold and murky with evening temperatures down in the twenties, but the outlook for Saturday was good: sunny with temperatures in the forties. Friday afternoon, the black and white Blazer rolled up our muddy driveway. McGuire stepped out. He was wearing his L.L. Bean travel chinos with  pockets down to the cuffs, his soft-leather day hikers, an Orvis official opening day shirt, a three-hundred-dollar waxed cotton field coat, all topped with his olive drab Clancy hat. The Blazer was jammed with enough rods, reels, waders, fly boxes, vests and assorted gear to make an outfitter blush. Among other things, McGuire was pathological about owning every new piece of fly fishing equipment that came on the market and some before they got there.

            A bit later, we were sitting in front of the fire in the family room, sipping Southern Comfort manhattans with McGuire about to reveal his big news. But not before building the suspense by stirring the fire with the iron poker, digging into the wood box for another log and ceremoniously placing it onto the grate. By now, even my wife was interested and she stepped into the family room as our guest filled, tamped and lit his pipe. He blew a smoke ring the size of a bowling ball as the firelight played across his face, then cocking his head toward us, announced,  “The head of that Alces alces Americana hanging in Mack’s Inn is a world-class trophy.” The smoke ring drifted slowly across the opening of the hearth, became caught in the draft and dissolved. “It’s all that’s left of the only moose ever taken on a fly rod.”

            “Yeah, right,” I snorted, convinced he’d been sniffing head cement. But McGuire persisted. “Hear me out. When I was a kid, back in the 30’s and 40’s, my dad would take me to a lodge way up in British Columbia. He loved to fish those streams up there and so did I; he with a fly rod and me with an old metal casting rod and worms.” McGuire worked his way over to the La-Z-Boy, sat down, raised the leg rest, leaned back and puffed his pipe load of tobacco back to life, then continued. “The main room of the lodge had a huge stone fireplace and above the mantle hung a very large moose head. The cook at the lodge was an old sourdough named Amos and he took a liking to me. One night Amos and I we’re sitting on the porch and he got to talking about the moose head.

            “Did ya ever notice that number fourteen Adams stuck in the mountin’ board of that big feller? he asked. No, I told him. Well, says Amos, there’s a feller comed up here every year for a long time name of George Watson. He was a fly fisherman, like yore old man. Nice feller, but he’s passed now. Well, one evenin’, ole George was fishin’ Cadaver Creek, tryin’ out some new fangled fly he’d heard about called an Adams. He was enjoyin’ hisself just fine when a very large bull moose happened along. Now, no matter how big a moose gets, it can walk through the woods without crackin’ a twig, so George had no idea the moose was behind him, just a munchin’ and watchin’. On a long back cast, George snagged the number fourteen Adams he was usin’ right smack in the butt of that there ole moose. When he turned around an’ saw what he’d snagged, he headed for shore, pronto, leavin’ that there fly stuck right where it was. Then the strangest dang thing happened: that there moose backed up to a big ole oak and started rubbing his butt up against it. He stood there snortin’ and rubbin’, snortin’ and rubbin’ until George, even taken as he was with all he was a seein’, gave in to his system callin’ fer a drink and dinner and headed back to the lodge. When he told the other fellers about the moose, they told him he better stop takin’ his flask with him to the creek.

            McGuire’s pipe had gone out and his glass was empty. Dinner was ready, but my wife made him another drink. As McGuire relit his pipe, I threw another log on the fire and he continued with Amos’s story:

            Well sir, the next mornin’ ole George heads over to Cadaver Creek for a look-see. He gets to the oak and there is bark and fur piled up all about, and the ground near the tree all torn up. Lyin’ next to the tree is the moose’s head. Everthin’ else had been rubbed away, And there, caught in the bark of the that there tree was that there number fourteen Adams. Now ole George knew a trophy when he seen it so he hauled the moose head out of the woods,  had it mounted and donated it to the lodge with that number fourteen Adams stuck right there in the mountin-board. The lodge owner gave it the place of honor over the fireplace. The only moose ever taken on a fly rod.

            My wife laughed and went back into the kitchen. I groaned as McGuire sat there with that gloating grin on his face. He had gotten me again.

            Saturday morning we were on the river and, as usual, the opener was fun. We hooked four or five nice rainbows apiece, returned home satisfied, spent Sunday talking about Saturday and by mid-afternoon, McGuire was on his way home.

             A few days after McGuire left, I stopped in at Mack’s Inn and I took a close look at the moose. Near the base of the mounting board was a small hole. I took out the number fourteen Adams I had clipped inside my jacket. The hook fit perfectly into the hole and the Adams perched jauntily beneath the huge head. The last time I stopped in at the old saloon before the fire, the Adams was still there.

            Mack’s Inn burnt down a few years later. Some say it was a disgruntled employee that had been fired for being drunk on the job who started the blaze. Others say it was caused by embers from the huge fireplace that hit the tinder-dry oak floor and she was gone before you knew it. Today, all that remains is the three-story brick chimney and the empty fireplace.

The End

Moose moss

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Introduction to FISHING IDAHO by Wayne Walker

Introduction to FISHING IDAHO, An Angler’s Guide

by Wayne Walker

            I left Idaho in 1958 to play football for the Detroit Lions, knowing I would return home for good someday. And though it’s taken quite a while, I’m back. Over the years and in all my travel as a football player and sportscaster, my desire to return never dimmed.

As a youngster in Boise I didn’t have far to go to enjoy the outdoors, and one of the things I loved most was fishing. During my high school and college days, my work with the Forest Service gave me the unbelievable opportunity of spending most of my waking hours in the midst of Idaho’s woods, mountains and waters.

“Ol 55 dancing along on the gridiron

  Since then I have traveled, hunted and fished all across the North American continent. And though there are certainly a lot of beautiful places out there, none are more beautiful than those found right here in Idaho. That’s why when Joe told me about the book and asked me to write an introduction, I happily agreed.

            This book is more than about where to catch fish in Idaho. It’s filled with information about rivers, lakes, streams, and reservoirs that can’t be found in any other single source. It offers tips on fishing equipment and techniques. It provides access information about areas where fish are to be found. When used with topographical or U.S. Forest Service maps, it opens limitless opportunities to not only fish Idaho, but to see its natural attractions as well—from its geological wonders to its awesome wilderness areas.

            One of life’s real enjoyments is sharing. Some things can only be shared with family and close friends, of course, but there are things of common interest that can sometimes be shared with others as well. To me this book is one of those. It’s a way of sharing the natural wonders of this beautiful place called Idaho with people who can appreciate it, who will enjoy its outdoor pleasures to the fullest, but who, hopefully, won’t abuse it.

            So use this book and enjoy yourself. And while you’re out there, be careful with the fish, be kind to the land and take time to smell the syringa.

Wayne Walker

Boise, Idaho — December  1995

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Beetle Mania

Wyoming’s Carbon Power & Light leads the fight

against bark beetle devastation in the state

 by Joe H. Evancho

Although of no direct cost or consequence to Carbon Power & Light customer’s utility rates, the infestation of the mountain pine bark beetle has proved costly to the southeastern Wyoming electrical co-op.

David Cutbirth is the operations manager for CP&L headquartered in Saratoga, Wyo. He says that “After everything is said and done we will have spent half a million dollars on our time, studies and consultants and between $1.5 and $2 million on the project itself before it is complete.”  

After three years of studies and testing, the utility finally started cutting dead, bug-infested trees on U.S. Forest Service land this spring.

Pine Bark Beetles are reeking havoc in the West

According to the USFS, by 2012 the beetles will have killed nearly all of the mature lodge pole pines in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming and a recent survey by the service’s Rocky Mountain Region (Region II) showed bark beetles have killed 700,000 acres of trees in southern Wyoming and 2.9 million acres in Colorado. The final acreage will probably be closer to 4 million acres according to forest service officials.

Several Problems and Solution

Patricia Hesch is the USFS Region II realty specialist based in Laramie. She says the dead trees pose a number of problems across the region. “We don’t want a tree to fall across a power line and start a big fire. In the meantime the preventive maintenance costs the CP&L has incurred over the last 3 to 5 years is getting pretty high,” she says.

There is also the danger of dead trees falling on property or individuals, she adds.

Cutbirth agrees that there is more to the management problem than first appeared. “We thought we could maintain our 30-foot right-of-way along the line and not be liable if a tree fell on a line outside of 30 feet,” he says. “But we were wrong. The forest service said we would be liable so we decided to widen our right-of-way to 150 feet. We are now cutting from 75 feet on both sides of the power line,” he says

According to Cal Wettstein, Rocky Mt. Region bark beetle incident commander for the USFS, utilities will be able to cut up to 200 feet on either side of transmission lines and 75 feet on either side of distribution lines. “It’s up to the electric companies to determine how far they need to go,” Wettstein says.

Cutbirth says CP&L’s program is unique “This project is the first of its kind in the nation so we want to do it right. It sounds like other utilities with similar beetle problems are getting interested in this project so they are probably going to use our program in the future. We are the guinea pig,” Cutbirth says.

Hardest Hit

Hesch says the problem is being looked at very closely. “The three forests that have been hit hardest in Region II have been White River, Medicine Bow/Routte and Arapahoe/Roosevelt national forests. The USFS is finishing the environmental analysis to allow other utilities to do a similar type of tree clearing that Carbon Power and Light is doing in the Medicine Bow National Forest right now.

Trees are cut away from power lines are to eliminate future trouble.

Shawn Taylor is the executive director Wyoming Rural Energy Association and he says other co-ops will to have to follow CP&L’s lead.

“CP&L is the most effective co-op in the state right now and our co-op in the Jackson Hole Valley is going to have to start to deal with this problem soon,” Taylor says. “Hopefully the work that Carbon Power & Light has done will help make it a little smoother operation for other co-ops.”

Two Years and a Long Way to Go

Cutbirth says that none of this has been easy. “We worked with the forest service for more than 3 years before we got approval to cut,” he says. “We have about 35 miles of U.S. Forest Service boundary power lines that we have to widen and we just cut our first tree last June. Now we have two years to finish this project.”

            Wettstein agrees that it is a long road they are traveling. “A lot of work is needed to address this daunting situation created by millions of dead trees because they need to be used within five years of dying or they lose value.”

            According the USFS the cost of removing trees along power lines and roads will average about $2,000 an acre.

Decline in Lumber Mills

Public sentiment seems to be swinging back in favor of allowing logging in national forests, Wettstein said, but the number of large lumber mills in the region has declined from 10 or so a decade ago to just one in Colorado.           

Wettstein adds the situation is unprecedented. “It is expensive work and there is very little return value. Some mills are coming back into operation but what we are seeing is alternative uses such as pellets mills and specialty products like fencing and other landscape products. Because the lumber market remains low, and there is a glut of deadwood, it is still not economical for companies to start up new saw mills right now,” he says.

            For more information, contact your region forest service office or Carbon Power & Light @ 307-742-3779.

The mountain pine beetle (MPB) is the most aggressive, persistent and destructive bark beetle in the United States and western Canada Lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, whitebark pine, limber pine, and western white pine are most frequently killed in the Northern Region.

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Building the Hoover Dam



A construction project like no other


Building the Hoover Dam

by Joe Evancho

Overview: In the early 1930s, Harry Winford Morrison, president of Morrison-Knudsen, a Washington Group Heritage Company, organized a joint venture involving six companies with the sole purpose of constructing the Hoover Dam—one of the engineering wonders of the world, referred to by many as the largest and most difficult civil construction project of the 20th century.

Project Scope: In constructing an arch-gravity dam of such gargantuan proportions, Six Companies faced two daunting tasks. They not only had to build the dam, they also had to build a highway and railway to transport the largest volume of material and equipment ever gathered for a construction project to a lonely, desolate and inhospitable slot on the earth’s surface.

A Colossus

Rising 726 feet above the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona, Hoover Dam has been revered as a testament to human achievement, and reviled as a temporary tribute to man’s ego. Whichever opinion you hold, it cannot be denied that this massive man-made structure, deep in the desert of America’s southwest, has a history like no other project of its kind on earth.

The Untamed River

In 1869, four years after his release from the U.S. Army, Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran (he lost his right arm to a bullet at Shilo), led the first expedition to successfully run the Colorado River through what is now known as the Grand Canyon. That trip was followed by a second expedition in 1871 and those trips convinced Powell of the potential, and power, of the mighty river. On his first trip he mapped and unveiled the Grand Canyon, which up to that time had been unexplored but was filled with wild rumors. On his second trip, Powel mapped the canyon further and confirmed his theories about the canyon’s creation.  After his second trip he became the founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey and then the director of the Bureau of Ethnology.

To Harness a River

Diversion of the Colorado began in 1896 when the California Development Company began constructing irrigation canals that would send Colorado River water to farmers’ fields in southern California’s Imperial Valley. But the river was unpredictable. Runoff from the surrounding mountains often caused it to run high in the late spring and early summer, flooding the land. The occasional drought would have the opposite effect. The canal system was unreliable, at best, and the floods of 1905-06 proved too much for the people of the region. Untamed, the Colorado had limited irrigation value and the land was unproductive.

Enter Arthur Powell Davis, the nephew of John Wesley Powell. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he would have a far greater impact on the Colorado River than his more famous uncle. Davis worked as a topographer for the U.S. Geologic Survey from 1884 to 1894. He was promoted to hydrographer in 1895 and three years later oversaw the hydrographic examination of the Nicaragua and Panama canal routes.

In 1902, Davis began his own exploration of the Colorado River and for the next twenty years he would pour all his energies into the belief that it was possible to build a dam that would hold back and control the waters of the mighty Colorado. The idea of building a dam across the river created scores of hotly debated issues from coast to coast—political, social, financial and technical.

In 1906, Davis became the Chief Engineer of the Reclamation Service and was appointed director in 1914. While director, he was the first to recommend the construction of multipurpose dams and power plants on the Colorado River. In 1922, he outlined a development plan for the Colorado River Basin before Congress. By 1923 the political haggling had become so heated he resigned. Ten years later he would return to the Hoover Dam Project as a consulting engineer—one month before he died in 1933.

Six Companies

In 1930, the U.S. Government announced plans to build a dam across the Colorado and sought bids for the job. After a rush of initial interest it became apparent that no one company could accomplish the task. Even the largest construction companies at that time agreed that no single firm had the resources, or capital, to do the job.

Harry Winford Morrison, president of the Idaho construction firm Morrison-Knudsen, followed through on an idea that had been on his mind for a while. If the job was too big for one company, why couldn’t several companies get together and do it. Morrison, a tall, squarely built man with a fondness for singing cowboy songs, knew this was the only practical way to get the job done.

He went to California to seek the financial backing of prominent San Francisco banker, Leland Cutler. Cutler declined Morrison’s offer, telling him that anyone who obtained the Hoover Dam contract would be obliged to provide a $5 million surety bond, a staggering sum in the midst of the Great Depression. Both men agreed that the only way to get the dam built would be through a cooperative effort and Cutler gave Morrison the names of some other builders who had expressed interest in the dam.

One of the most important assets Morrison was able to acquire early on was the participation of Frank T. Crowe, a former Department of Reclamation superintendent considered to be the premier dam-builder in the country. With Crowe’s help, Morrison approached and convinced the Wattis Brothers of Utah Construction to join the now-forming group. Utah Construction had been an early builder of railroads in the West and Mexico. Morrison then went to Charles Shea, a well-known tunnel-builder with plenty of capital. Shea agreed and said he would bring his friends at the Pacific Bridge Company on board as well.

Morrison’s next consideration was Felix Kahn of San Francisco’s MacDonald and Kahn, a successful builder who had erected several of San Francisco’s largest structures. After Morrison made his pitch, Kahn agreed to join and added $1 million for the project. Morrison then approached Henry Kaiser who agreed to the deal and brought along Warren Brothers Paving and W.A. Bechtel Co. The Six Companies venture now became a reality.

Wrestling with the Desert

In March of 1931, the group was awarded the contract to build Hoover Dam, setting the stage for the largest construction project ever attempted on the planet. Workers from around the nation came to the dry, hot spot along the Nevada/Arizona border looking for work. The Depression was in full swing and every type of worker imaginable rushed to the work camp 23 miles west of Las Vegas. The area was desolate, wild and hot, with an average daily temperature of 119 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and the thermometer dipping well below freezing in the winter.

Before construction could begin, certain logistical concerns had to be met. First was the housing shortage.  Boulder City was erected to house both government and contract employees (while Boulder City was under construction workers lived in tent cities dubbed rag towns). A two-lane highway seven miles long was built from Boulder City to the dam site. A railroad from Las Vegas to Boulder City was laid, along with a ten–mile spur from Boulder City to the dam site. A 222-mile-long power transmission line was built from San Bernardino to Black Canyon to provide power to the construction project.

When Boulder City was completed in 1932 it had large dormitories for single men and one-, two-, and three-room cottages for families. Every week 12 tons of fruit and vegetables were shipped in and an enormous mess hall served 6,000 meals a day.

During the four years of construction, five million barrels of cement, 18 million pounds of structural steel, 21 million pounds of gates and valves and 840 miles of pipe were hauled by rail to the dam site. Specialized machinery was built specifically for the job. This included dump trucks with capacities ranging from 16-cubic yards to 50-tons. Vehicles capable of transporting 100 to 150 workers at a time to the dam site were also brought in.

Before actual construction of the dam could begin, the river had to be diverted around Black Canyon. To accomplish this, four tunnels, two on each side of the river, were cut through the canyon walls around the dam site. Once the river was diverted, work on the dam and power plant could begin.

Tunnel excavation began in June 1931 and was completed in less than two and a half years using the traditional drill and blast method. Each blasting episode required punching holes in the rock with jackhammers and drills and loading dynamite into the holes. Each electrically fired blast broke loose up to 1,000 cubic yards of rock and advanced the tunnels an average of 17 feet. Debris was hauled out by truck and dumped into side canyons.

During one 24-hour period, 256 feet of tunnel was excavated and the highest total for a single month was 6,848 feet. Building the four tunnels, each 56-feet in diameter, required more than three and a half million tons of dynamite to remove one and a half million yards of rock. The completed tunnels had a combined length of approximately three miles.

In late 1932, the two tunnels on the Arizona side were completed. A coffer dam was built to direct the river flow into the Arizona tunnels and on November 14, 1932 the mighty Colorado River was diverted and work on the dam itself could begin. Shortly thereafter, the Nevada tunnels were finished and things moved at an accelerated pace.

Every possible step was taken to ensure the dam’s structural integrity beginning with the base of the dam. The first order of business was to excavate to the river bottom. Using power shovels and working around-the-clock workers removed more than half a million cubic yards of mud and muck, digging down 40 feet to reach bedrock.

While the muckers were clearing the way below, high scalers worked the canyon walls from ropes anchored on the canyon rim. Using jackhammers and explosives, high scalers blasted the canyon walls then went back into the canyon wall with crow bars to remove any loose rock. This created a smooth joining surface for the dam. This line of work was probably the most dangerous job on a jobsite full of hazards.

Though the high scalers took great care to protect themselves, deaths were not uncommon and the most common cause was falling rock. With necessity being the mother of invention the men began to protect themselves with hard-boiled hats. By simply coating their cloth hats in tar the men could protect themselves from all but the deadliest falling rock. The hats worked so well that Six Companies ordered the first commercially made hard hats for the high scalers, and they were soon standard equipment on the dam site.

On June 6, 1933, with the river bottom cleared to bedrock the first concrete was poured and construction of the dam itself was underway. That August, the two inner diversion tunnels were plugged, leaving the river to flow through the two outer tunnels. Crews poured concrete around-the-clock until the crest of the dam was reached in March of 1935. That summer all the concrete, more than six and a half million tons, was in place.

The powerhouse is located at the base of the dam and contains the largest generators and turbines yet installed in this country. The power plant alone covers an area large enough to contain three football fields.

In mid-summer 1935, 1,000–ton steel gates were lowered over each of the tunnels upstream and the river began coursing towards the dam.

By using the personnel and equipment efficiently and creatively, Six Companies was able to complete their contract two years ahead of schedule. At the dedication ceremony in September 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “As an unregulated river, the Colorado added little value to the region…This is another engineering victory of the first order—another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination.”

The huge dam stands today as an astounding feat of modern engineering and construction, providing flood control and irrigation water for the lowland valleys of southern California and southwestern Arizona.

The Colorado River now supplies domestic and industrial water to more than 125 cities, municipal and county water districts, county water authorities and utility districts. Through a series of tunnels, conduits, siphons and pumping stations, it delivers water to more than 13 million people in southern California.

The major benefit of the dam, especially to the Southwest, is pollution-free, low-cost electrical energy. The Hoover power plant supplies many cities with power. Transmission lines carry hydroelectric power from the dam to homes, farms, stores, factories, mines, smelters, pumping plants and refineries in southern California, southern Nevada and Arizona.

In less than two years, 5,000 men, with new concrete technology, had built a structure greater in volume than the largest pyramid in Egypt. According to the Greek philosopher Herodotus, that structure took one hundred thousand men twenty years to complete. While the pyramids are inert monuments to ancient kings, Hoover Dam is a productive monument to modern man’s imagination, ingenuity and tenacity.

Would the Hoover Dam would have been built if Harry Morrison had failed to get a group of rugged, experienced western builders together to work as one team. Probably, but it would have been years later. As it was, the dam eased the pressure of the Depression, even if ever so slightly, by providing employment for four years for more than 5,000 workers. Its waters and electrical power also rejuvenated California’s Imperial Valley, making it one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.

The Hoover Dam was the zenith in the career of the man Time Magazine said did more to change the face of the earth than anyone else. During his career Harry Morrison, and his men, moved mountains, tamed rivers, built scores of dams, tunnels, power plants, railroads, highways, bridges and airfields around the world. In a feature article in the May 3, 1954 issue of Time Magazine, Morrison said that looking back, he couldn’t help thinking that every dam since Hoover has been an anticlimax. “It’s the glamour dam,” he said wistfully. “I still can’t go down in the elevator and step out on the intake and look up without being inspired.”


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