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Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century

A-ColossusPulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik is the author of The Plot Against Social Security (2005), Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (1999), and A Death in Kenya (1995).

The Topic: The Hoover Dam, one of the largest public works in American history, represented the transformation of the United States from an individualistic nation "into one that cherished shared enterprise and communal social support" during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Hiltzik documents not only the engineering ingenuity necessary to dam the wildest of rivers to provide water and power to the semiarid West but also the social forces, the unjust labor practices, and the political maneuverings by President Theodore Roosevelt, William Mulholland, Herbert Hoover, Frank Crowe (the dam’s master engineer), FDR, and others, which made the dam a reality. In the end, the dam, a "perfect melding of form and function, a landmark of engineering, architecture, and muscular industry," became a potent symbol of national pride and America’s future.
Free Press. 496 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416532163

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Some of the most chilling stuff is how the workers died, their lives tossed away with what seems these days to be a cavalier disregard on the part of the Six Companies and a reluctance of state and federal regulators to enforce even the few safety rules then extant. ... In short, Hiltzik tells as true a story of the dam as he can, and if it is something less than the gleaming alabaster tribute to the Machine Age that we grew up with, it’s all the more fascinating and human a story." John Foyston

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Michael Hiltzik tells the dam’s tale well, with majestic sweep and a degree of detail that by rights ought to be numbing, but isn’t; every iota of material fits snugly into the narrative, which, unlike the river, flows freely. ... It’s not easy to make 3,500,000 cubic yards of concrete sing, but he comes close." Peter Lewis

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Hiltzik ... tells the Hoover Dam story in the grand tradition of David McCullough, who more or less invented the idea of popular and historically sophisticated books about stupendous engineering achievements. ... I think Mr. Hiltzik buys in too much to the idea that Hoover was a do-nothing president as the catastrophe of the Depression overwhelmed the country." John Steele Gordon

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Thankfully, Hiltzik, a fine writer and judicious sifter of evidence, does not let his indignation at [labor exploitation and worker deaths] spoil his account. ... [In] Hiltzik’s hands, it makes very good history, indeed." Jean Dubail

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this detailed and vividly written study--destined to be the standard history for decades to come--Michael Hiltzik ... struggles with considerable success to bring it all together. ... Herbert Hoover gets on Hiltzik’s nerves, to put it mildly, and provokes his investigative instincts." Kevin Starr

Critical Summary

"Fittingly," noted the San Francisco Chronicle, the history of Hoover Dam is "just as roiling and dirty as the silt-laden Colorado." Critics felt that what could have been a dry, technical story of the creation of the dam became, in Hiltzik’s hands, a fascinating social, political, and labor history. Although Hiltzik spares readers few engineering details, he also looks closely at key political compromises and issues and captures the colorful personalities of the main players. He also offers new insight into the tragic worker deaths. A few reviewers commented that the book doesn’t live up to the promise of its subtitle; that quibble notwithstanding, Hoover Dam is a standout popular history.