Good popular history combines the rigor of academic historical scholarship with accessible, lively prose. Good popular history is about telling a story with heroes, villains, drama and resolution. Popular historians can situate their subjects within broader historical questions. Most importantly, good popular history takes a complicated story and renders it in human scale. Popular history excites readers and makes for a wonderful read, informing and engaging.
One of my favorite sub-fields within popular history is engineering history. David McCullough did it very well, for example, in books on the the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. Colossus – The Turbulent, Thrilling Saga of the Building of the Hoover Dam is Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Michael Hiltzik’s popular history of the creation of one of America’s largest engineering projects. A lengthy, workmanlike book, Colossus focuses on the politics that led to the government contract and the construction of the dam, much the way McCullough did in The Great Bridge. The size and scale of the Hoover Dam truly is colossal and of tremendous importance to the development of the Southwest. At its heart, it is a fascinating subject that in the right hands should lead to an outstanding work. Unfortunately, Hiltzik never finds the approach or angle to make it memorable. There are few heroes – no Roebling – and Hiltzik is lukewarm about the Frank Crowe, the construction manager who brought it all together. Even though we glimpse individual workers, we never get a handle on the interplay between labor, management and monument in the book. Multiple perspectives are offered, but they do not frame the history. At the the book’s conclusion, we are left in awe of the scale but without a perch to comprehend its enormity.
Truly gigantic, Hoover Dam is more than 700 feet tall, 1200 feet across and more than 650 feet thick at its base. It created Lake Mead, which covers more than 145,000 acres. The budget was nearly $50,000,000, the largest domestic appropriation in United States history up until that time. The key period of construction took five years, 1930-1935. Las Vegas owes its growth to the project.
The dam was the outgrowth of multiple states and visionary leaders looking to control the Colorado River. Funded by the federal government under President Hoover, the dam’s construction was of unprecedented scale and an engineering marvel. It was also brutal, dangerous, and exploitative. The Dam was built during the heart of the Great Depression and it offered economic opportunities to tens of thousands and later to entire regions. Hiltzik pulls no punches in his criticisms of the Six Companies, the group that oversaw the dam’s construction for the Bureau of Reclamation, but avoids the more difficult questions and arguments that labor history might raise. Nearly 100 official fatalities occurred in the dam’s construction, but because of misrepresentation of carbon monoxide poisoning as pneumonia, and callous disregard of heat stroke, the full number of deaths was higher. Hiltzik greatly enjoys recounting the construction problems and solutions, but does not take advantage of the arguments advanced in the history of technology or the history of construction. Various pieces are picked up, but the narrative is without an overarching theme.
This is not to say that Colossus is a bad book or unworthy of one’s time. It is informative and solid. Rather, it falls short because it is fairly easy to identify a much better book between the lines and in Hiltzik’s notes and asides. Burdened with the subtitle “And the Making of the American Century,” perhaps the project never resolved itself to the author’s satisfaction. It is frustrating, for the men and women who toiled building Hoover Dam were acutely aware of its value and historical importance.