The Controversial Naming Of The Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam just prior to completion Photo: waterandpower

Hoover Dam just prior to completion
Photo: waterandpower

When the first talks of building a dam on the mighty Colorado River started back in 1922 most people referred to it as the Boulder Canyon Project. This was because land surveyors felt that the best place to build a dam was in Boulder Canyon due to its solid granite floor. However shortly after it was determined that Black Canyon would be much better because it had a much lower elevation and therefore wouldn’t requite the dam to be as tall.

Ray Lyman Wilbur Photo: wiki

Ray Lyman Wilbur
Photo: wiki

During the legislative process that took place over the next few years the project was known as the Boulder Canyon Project and naturally the damn adopted the name Boulder Dam. But in September of 1930 Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur was sent out to the build location where he was to “drive the spike” which would officially mark the start of construction. It was reported that when Wilbur arrived he was clearly out of his element. He was wearing a wool suit which he was profusely sweating through and appeared to be miserable. He made an announcement stating “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.”

Ray Lyman Wilbur (dark suit) receiving the fist spike . Photo: unlv

Ray Lyman Wilbur (dark suit) receiving the fist spike .
Photo: unlv

Wilbur named it after Herbert Hoover, which happened to be his current boss as well as the President of the United States. To the people that had been working on getting the dam built over the past 8 years this was a complete shock. Reporters that had been covering the story were completely surprised by this as well. Especially because this was at a time when Hoover wasn’t exactly a crowd favorite. The country was amidst a crippling depression and many people placed the blame for that directly on the shoulders of the President. It appeared as if the naming of the dam was meant as a cry for help in public relation.

Black Canyon Photo: lasvegas

Black Canyon
Photo: lasvegas

Even though Wilbur’s naming of the dam was somewhat unofficial most reporters and locals still referred to it as Boulder dam. However when it came to any sort of official documents or congressional appropriation bills it went by Hoover dam.

Now this is when things get interesting. Hoover lost the Presidency when Franklin Roosevelt took over in 1932 which also meant that Wilbur lost his position as Interior Secretary. A gentleman named Harold Ickes took over and it was very clear that he wasn’t a supporter of Hoover. Quite the opposite actually. It was reported that he began referring to the dam as Boulder damn almost immediately when talking about it around the office. He took it step further and officially changed the name in May of 1933 and when asked why he would defend his decision with “The men who pioneered this project knew it by this name.” The only issue with that was Hoover was actually part of the group that pioneered the whole project.

Harold L Ickes Photo: sciencepole

Harold L Ickes
Photo: sciencepole

It was clear that Ickes decision was purely based of personal reasons and had no political merit whatsoever. But that didn’t stop him. He continued doing so until the dam dedication on September 30, 1935. Even in his speech he went as far as to say “This great engineering achievement should not carry the name of any living man but, on the contrary, should be baptized with a designation as bold and characteristic and imagination-stirring as the dam itself.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of the dam Photo: cnn

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of the dam
Photo: cnn

By that time there were at least three dam sites across the country that carried the name of a President, but Ickes must’ve forgotten that. Former President Hoover would get the last word however when the House Resolution 140 was introduced and then passed by the 80th Congress just over twelve years later. Some of the key parts of that resolution were as follows “as President, Herbert Hoover took an active part in settling the engineering problems and location of the dam in Black Canyon…” and also “the construction contracts were signed under his administration, and when he left office construction had been pushed to a point where it was more than a year ahead of schedule.”

President Truman  Photo:  encyclopedia

President Truman
Photo: encyclopedia

President Harry S Truman would sign the resolution that would reinstate the name Hoover dam to the structure on April 30, 1947. This would require that any regulation, document or record in the United States that once referred to the damn as Boulder dam would need to be changed to Hoover dam. That is how the Hoover Dam got its name.