On Sept. 30, 1930, when construction began on the dam at Black Canyon, 40 miles southeast of Las Vegas, Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur ordered that it be called Hoover Dam, after America’s 31st president. By an act of Congress on Feb. 14, 1931, five years before it opened and 93 years ago this week, the dam’s name became official.
Construction progress at the Hoover Dam, which would create Lake Mead on top of what used to be Black Canyon, is shown on Sept. 11, 1934. (Image:
Though the whole project was still called, incorrectly, the Boulder Canyon Project after its originally proposed site 20 miles upstream, the dam itself only ever had one official name.
This is according to the US Bureau of Reclamation, which should know because it created the damn thing.
President Herbert Hoover. (Image: whitehouse.gov) Damming Herbert Hoover
When Hoover lost the White House to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, Wilbur lost his job to Harold Ickes and Hoover lost his dam. On May 8, 1933, Ickes declared that the monumental engineering achievement should heretofore be referred to as Boulder Dam.
And that’s exactly how FDR dedicated it. And if newspaper reporters didn’t happen to include the incorrect name in their stories, a sign he had placed in front of him included it in their photos: “Franklin D. Roosevelt — President of the United States — Dedicating the Boulder Dam — Sept. 30, 1935.”
The name Boulder Dam is a fine, rugged, and individual name,” Ickes said at the time. “The men who pioneered this project knew it by this name.”
President Franklin Roosevelt dedicates Hoover Dam on Sept. 30, 1935, intentionally mislabeling it “Boulder Dam” and spelling it out on a sign placed in front of him. (Image: UNLV Special Collections)
Ickes neglected to mention that one of those pioneers was
Herbert Hoover himself. As Secretary of Commerce in 1922, he played a major role in formulating the Colorado River Compact, without which the dam couldn’t have been constructed.
Ickes also argued that Wilbur acted inappropriately in naming the dam after his boss since the legislation that led to its creation had been passed during the Coolidge administration in 1928. This was technically true, except that Hoover was already president-elect by then, and much more importantly, the dam had already been given a different name by an act of Congress that was never rescinded or amended.
The Dam Truth
Roosevelt, a Democrat, despised his Republican predecessor and presidential rival for many reasons, most of which were political and not within the purview of this column to get into.
Franklin Roosevelt, right, looks decidedly happier than Herbert Hoover as they ride together in a convertible to Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration. (Image: loc.gov)
Suffice it to say, Hoover and the president-elect failed to cooperate on any matter during their four-month transfer of power amid the Great Depression. And, neither president is believed to have ever even spoken to the other again after Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933.
FDR, who died after just beginning his record fourth presidential term on April 12, 1945, became one of America’s most beloved presidents, credited with lifting America out of the Great Depression and out of its former isolationism to declare war on the Axis powers in World War II.
In the Siena College Research Institute’s most recent Presidential Expert Poll, FDR ranked No. 1 among all American presidents,
ahead of all four carved into Mt. Rushmore!
Hoover, meanwhile, ranked 14th, just behind Zachary Taylor and ahead of Millard Fillmore.
President Franklin Roosevelt, right, visits the Hoover Dam a few hours before attempting to rename it Boulder Dam out of spite. (Image: FDR Library)
Though its official name was always Hoover Dam, the name Boulder Dam began to creep into newsreels and onto area businesses. The Boulder Dam Hotel, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary, opened nine months after FDR’s presidency and the misinformation campaign began.
So, the 80th Congress deemed it necessary to “officially restore” a name to the dam that had never been officially removed from it.
House Resolution 140, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Harry Truman on April 30, 1947, described Hoover’s active part in creating and financing the dam and noted: “After Mr. Hoover left office, the Interior Department, for reasons that need not be referred to in detail here, avoided the use of the name Hoover Dam where possible, and used the names Boulder Canyon Dam or Boulder Dam.
“After hearing testimony relative to the need for clarifying the present situation with regard to the name of this dam, it is apparent to this committee that affirmative legislative action by Congress is desirable.”
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