What’s in a Name?  The Saga of the Hoover Dam

Secretary Wilber driving the silver spike on Union Pacific Branch line from Las Vegas to Boulder City, 09/17/1930
Secretary Wilber driving the silver spike on Union Pacific Branch line from Las Vegas to Boulder City, 09/17/1930

by Spencer Howard

On September 17, 1930, Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur journeyed to the Nevada desert to drive a silver railroad spike, marking an end and a beginning.  The spike commemorated the completion of a railroad from Las Vegas to Black Canyon, which was to be the site of an enormous new dam on the Colorado River.  The ceremony that day also marked the official start to the construction of Hoover Dam.

For many years, residents of the American southwest had dreamed of taming the unpredictable Colorado River.  Early plans called for the dam to be built in Boulder Canyon.  During the design process, it was determined that Black Canyon was a better location, but the project was still called the Boulder Canyon Project.  Herbert Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, played a key role in the negotiations that led to the authorization of the dam.  As President, Hoover hoped the Boulder Canyon Project and other Federal construction projects around the country would generate good paying jobs as the nation grappled with the Great Depression.

In his speech that day, Wilbur made a statement that would be a source of controversy for the next 17 years.  Wilbur proclaimed, “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.”  Wilbur followed a long-standing tradition of naming important dams after the President who was in office when they were constructed, such as Wilson Dam and Coolidge Dam, but he also wanted to honor the man who had done so much to bring the new dam to fruition.  After Wilbur’s announcement, the dam was called Hoover Dam in all official documents and Congressional appropriations bills.

President Hoover lost his bid for reelection to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and when Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Harold Ickes replaced Ray Lyman Wilbur as Secretary of the Interior.  Ickes wasted no time removing Hoover’s name from the Boulder Canyon Project.  On May 8, 1933, Ickes issued a memorandum to the Bureau of Reclamation, which was in charge of the construction project, stating, “I would be glad if you will refer to the dam as ‘Boulder Dam’ in this pamphlet as well as in correspondence and other references to the dam as you may have occasion to make in the future.”

Legal scholars debated whether Ickes could officially change the name of the dam without an Act of Congress, but the effect was the same:  all reference to “Hoover Dam” vanished in favor of “Boulder Dam.”  Government documents, as well as tourist and other promotional material now called it Boulder Dam.  When President Roosevelt dedicated the dam in 1935, he too called it Boulder Dam.

Roosevelt died in 1945 and Harold Ickes retired in 1946.  In 1947 California Congressman Jack Anderson submitted House Resolution 140 to “restore” the name Hoover Dam, which was quickly adopted without a dissenting vote.  A companion resolution was soon approved by the Senate, and on April 30, 1947, President Harry Truman signed Public Law 43 which read:  “Resolved … that the name of Hoover Dam is hereby restored to the dam on the Colorado River in Black Canyon constructed under the authority of the Boulder Canyon Project Act …  Any law, regulation, document, or record of the United States in which such dam is designated or referred to under the name of Boulder Dam shall be held to refer to such dam under and by the name of Hoover Dam.”

Many years later, Hoover wrote to Truman, “…you undid some disgraceful action that had been taken in the prior years.  For all of this and your friendship, I am deeply grateful.”

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