Orbital View: All the Hoos Down in Hoo-ville

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of President Herbert Hoover’s more pleasant namesakes, the Hoover Dam:

PBS’s American Experience details Hoover’s role in the dam’s creation, first as a Cabinet official:

During the time in the early 1920s when legislation was being crafted to authorize a dam on the Colorado River, Herbert Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce for President Warren Harding. Hoover was present at many of the early meetings that focused on how water would be allocated among the seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) involved in the project. There was much disagreement over what constituted a fair distribution of water. … Hoover was congratulated for his skill and efficiency in handling the matter. At this point in his career, Herbert Hoover was growing used to such praise.

Then later, as president:

As unrest caused by the Depression increased, Hoover’s interest in what was then being referred to as the Boulder Dam project increased. Eager to diminish the unemployment rolls, Hoover pushed for commencement of the project.

On September 17, 1930, Ray Lyman Wilbur, Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, journeyed out to the Nevada desert to drive a silver railroad spike to mark the project’s official beginning. In doing so, Wilbur issued a statement that would be a source of derision and controversy for the next 17 years. Proclaimed Wilbur, “I have the honor and privilege of giving a name to this new structure. In Black Canyon, under the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it shall be called the Hoover Dam.” Those who were convinced that Hoover’s inaction had worsened the Depression scoffed at what they saw as political showboating and opportunism.

Dam construction did indeed create thousands of greatly-needed jobs, but it was not enough to rescue the political fortunes of Herbert Hoover. In the 1932 presidential election, he was soundly trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eight days after his defeat, Hoover traveled to visit the construction site of the dam he had done so much to make possible. Whatever solace Hoover took in knowing that a remarkable monument of industrial genius would bear his name was short-lived, however. In 1933, newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes renamed the site Boulder Dam. Not until 1947 would Congress pass an official resolution declaring the site as Hoover Dam.

If you’re interested in the Colorado River and the water politics of the region, check out Abrahm Lustgarten’s piece in the current issue of The Atlantic, “A Free-Market Plan to Save the American West From Drought.”

(See all Orbital Views here)