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US 95 Vegas to Blythe, Part 3: Boulder Hwy in Henderson and the Hoover Dam (US 93/US 95, Old US 95/US 93/US 466, NV 582)

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[NV 5 through Las Vegas, 1939.] We continue on the Boulder Highway (modern NV 582), out of Las Vegas and into the city of Henderson. Henderson has now displaced Reno (US 395 Parts 13-14) as Nevada's second largest city, with 240,614 [2006] inhabitants, and as mentioned previously is part of the large Las Vegas population centre.

Originally established as a township (first as Midway City, later as Pittman and then in 1943 named for the late Senator Charles Belknap Henderson [D-Nevada]), Henderson was most noteworthy for the Basic Magnesium Plant of World War II. Considered the "miracle metal" for its importance in aerospace, the plant produced magnesium for the US War Department which in turn used it for airplane parts and munitions. After the war, however, the town fell on hard times and was in fact offered for sale as surplus by the United States War Asset Administration in 1947 when most of the former employees (almost 14,000 strong) moved on. Worried by the exodus, the Nevada state legislature unanimously voted to put the township under state administration and purchase the industrial plants. Aided by an influx of capital from local industry, the modern city was incorporated in 1953 (although it was not actually chartered by the legislature until 1965); thus, on our historical US 95 map to the right, Henderson doesn't appear at all!

At the conclusion of the Boulder Highway, we will continue on US 93 to the Hoover Dam to look at a great engineering feat, one of America's most recognized structural landmarks, with another feat yet to come before we head down US 95 again in Part 4.


Junction Tropicana Ave (NV 593). Again, this is another unsigned junction of state routes. However, ...

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... stuck to a pole at the intersection is this Nevada postmile showing SR 593, and ...

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... on Tropicana approaching the intersection is the END NV 593 shield. So why not sign the junction on Boulder Hwy, guys?

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A nice angle, showing the Hwy stretching into the distance.

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Entering Henderson.

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PM 21, at the city limit marker.

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Sunset Rd, NV 562. Just take my word for it.

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Turn-off for Henderson business.

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Downtown Henderson along Water St. Although it is tempting to say that this was an old US 95 alignment, the chronology doesn't jive well since the Boulder Highway existed even before US 95 did in this area.

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City Hall along Water St.

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Back on NV 582. The only JCT and true trailblazer on the route is here with NV 564, Lake Mead Pkwy. Formerly Lake Mead Dr, it goes to the Lake Mead Nat'l Recreation Area through Henderson (to the left). It replaces portions of NV 146, which now only exists between I-215 and I-15. We saw the end of NV 564 in Part 1.

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Some more vintage distance signage, this time for Searchlight (which we'll visit in Part 3) for a change.

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You know, there are those folks who get through life the Hard Way. But for everyone else, there's the ...

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This is the more or less official turn off for US 95/US 93 south, shown here as an exit.

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NV 582 ends a little ways south, revealed by a postmile at the intersection of Wagonwheel Dr and Boulder Hwy. The "named" Boulder Hwy south of this point is unrelated to old US 95 and is not the original Boulder Hwy. We turn right and get on the freeway south. For some reason, however, the postmile still says 14 miles.

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Exit for Boulder Hwy and (unsigned) NV 582 from the NB I-515/US 95/US 93.

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End freeway, again, and advance signage for the truck restriction over Hoover Dam. All trucks must use US 95 south -- we'll see that in Part 4. Meanwhile, the historic Boulder Hwy designation continues to the US 93/US 95 split.

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Advance signage for US 95.

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Coming around the bend into Railroad Canyon.

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Boulder City limits. Boulder City was built by the US Bureau of Reclamation's contractor companies as a 'company city' for workers building the Boulder Dam, or the Hoover Dam as it is better known. Both the city and the dam get the Boulder title from the Colorado River's Boulder Canyon (itself presumably named for an abundance of rocks) where the Dam was planned for construction, but the Dam is actually in Black Canyon eight miles downstream where the engineering was judged more favourable. More on the naming controversy in a bit.

The city itself, which we will see only briefly as US 93 mostly bypasses it today, was not ready for the first workers who arrived in 1931 on an accelerated construction schedule. Thus, the first Boulder City was actually a tent camp, pejoratively labeled by its residents as 'Ragtown' and leading to a strike later that year due to the poor conditions (which was broken up in a violent clash). Living quarters finally were built by 1932, but gambling, prostitution and drinking were strictly forbidden during the dam construction. To this day Boulder City is only one of two municipalities in Nevada to not allow gambling (the other is Panaca, which is also a "dry" zone), and alcohol was not sold legally until 1969. The Bureau relinquished control of the city in 1958 and the modern city was incorporated in 1960, in which 15,005 [2006] live today.

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Separation US 95 and the end of the Boulder Hwy. We'll come back to this in a bit.

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Detour: US 93 and the Hoover Dam (Nevada Highway)

US 93 continues on with old US 466 towards Boulder City as the Nevada Hwy, mostly bypassing the city to the west; the former alignment in town is largely Nevada Way. Here, we start to see Lake Mead in the distance, the largest man-made lake/reservoir in the United States with a capacity of approximately 28.5 million acre-feet. It is named for Elwood Mead, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1924 to 1936 (during the Boulder Canyon Project which built the dam, and subsequently the lake, out of the Colorado River which the dam blocks).

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Buses without luggage actually can cross, but no trucks. We mean it.

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Entering the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Past this point, the frequent work zones and loss of shoulder space meant a lot of shooting from the hip, so I apologize for the abrupt drop in quality. There are no US 93 shields from here to the Arizona border.

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So why no trucks? Well, after 9-11, you can imagine the Feds got very leery of large loads crossing the Dam -- a couple moving tons of Nobel's finest detonated at the right spot and we get to redecorate most of the downstream region in Colorado River blue. Thus, the trucks get to drive way, way south before they can come back around (the US 95 diversion we saw above); the truck bypass itself will be explored more in Part 4.

This wasn't the only problem with US 93: you can see in this image the single-lane-per-direction alignment with tight curves and unstable rock faces that have led to many accidents and frequent traffic standstills. It may have been a real feat in 1935 after the dam was built, but it is definitely inadequate today.

However, losing such a vital truck route (especially between Phoenix and Las Vegas) and replacing it with another much longer one is clearly no solution either. Thus the Hoover Dam Bypass Project, which will construct a massive bridge 1,500' downstream of the Hoover Dam and move US 93 to the straightened and wider two-lane-per-direction new alignment, hopefully solving both the security and the safety issues all at the same time. We will see pieces of this project as we go along, with an estimated pricetag of $235 million and a completion date of around 2010.

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Traffic will deviate here onto the widened alignment; some of the approaches are already under construction.

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This is about typical for all the dam traffic on this route (narf narf narf). The new alignment is on the overpass.

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We will now learn three new words in Turkish. Bath. Delight. Border. May I see your passport, please?

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This section is slightly widened for the uphill traffic.

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Some of the power transmission infrastructure. Forget about listening to the radio around here.

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Entering the Black Canyon, with a vista point.

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[1950s view of the Dam. Click for an enlargement.] View out the driver's side, now showing the dam. US 93 is seen snaking up the other side into Arizona on the far right. At left is the parking garage (which must have been quite a chore to build) and the public entrance to the interior is the copper-coloured structure near the middle.

As the 1950s linen postcard at right demonstrates, very little of the road or routing has changed since the Dam's early days.

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Pulling into the vista point, we get a better view of the dam itself. Hoover Dam was built and opened in a remarkably fast five years (1931-5, opened 1936), two years ahead of schedule. A large gravity-arch dam (which is to say, its stability is achieved by a combination of its great mass ["gravity"], and its curve ["arch"] which directs the water forces towards its strong abutments on the canyon sidewall), it is 1244' (379m) long and 726.4' (221m) high. It is still maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation.

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Some of the construction on the east face of the canyon, with the piers in place.

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And now the west piers. The unforgiving nature of the rock terrain is apparent, but this is actually what made Black Canyon a good choice for the site: not only is the channel nice and narrow, but the rocks are able to handle the water load (since that's where much of the load will be borne due to the arch).

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One of the famous very tight turns.

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Underside of the west piers and scaffolding. The piers are 840'.

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Coming around the turn. The remainder of these pictures will be on foot.

Notice the gating on the right for people exiting the dam tour to stop someone bypassing the security check.

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Visitors from the Nevada side are heralded by the two 30' Winged Figures of the Republic, part of the unique Art Deco styling of the dam. Formed from four tons of statuary bronze, sculptor Oskar J. W. Hansen had a specific purpose in mind for their representation. In Hansen's words, Hoover Dam was "a monument to collective genius exerting itself in community efforts around a common need or ideal. [...] In each of these monuments can be read the characteristics of these men, and on a larger scale, the community of which they are part. Thus, mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures at Hoover Dam."

Positioning the statues with conventional heavy equipment would have damaged their finish, so they were encased in ice and positioned that way, allowing the ice to melt off once they were in the correct place. Their base is made out of black diorite. Here is a nice essay on the statues, from the BoR.

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In the middle is this star chart, on the ground, which marks the exact celestial date of the dedication of the Dam by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (30 September 1935). The star positions are valid for the next 14,000 years. The central monolith carries a 142' flagpole and these words: "It is fitting that the flag of our country should fly here in honor of those men who, inspired by a vision of lonely lands made fruitful, conceived this great work and of those others whose genius and labor made that vision a reality."

Some of 'those men' in fact gave their lives; 112 lives have been claimed in the Dam's maintenance and construction, from surveyor J. G. Tierney who drowned as the first attributed death to the last one, his own son Patrick W. Tierney, perishing 13 years to the day later. Ninety-six of the deaths were during its construction.

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Viewing the Nevada-side intake towers. In this view the Lake Mead 'bathtub ring' is visible, the high water mark from an extremely wet 1982-3 rainy season. As the water receded, the deposited minerals were left on the previously submerged lake walls.

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The intake towers' most notable features are their twin clocks, one for Nevada (Pacific) time and one for Arizona (Mountain), although because Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings the times are often the same. This was one of the ideas of architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, who was hired to do the exterior design of what was previously a very large but otherwise unadorned public work. Kaufmann added much of the Art Deco styling (more seen in a bit), the turrets we saw on the dam face and the clocks.

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State line and a 1955 plaque commemorating the Dam as a 'Modern Civil Engineering Wonder of the United States' by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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The Arizona side and intake towers.

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The Dam and powerhouse. A structure this large requires a large amount of concrete, or in this case, more than five million barrels of Portland cement and 4.5 million cubic yd of aggregate material, enough to pave a 8" thick, two-lane road from San Francisco to New York. Unfortunately, pouring that much concrete at once would have yielded a highly unstable structure because of the thermal stress caused when concrete cures, i.e., it heats up and contracts. Furthermore, there was a time issue: the BoR computed that the structure would take 125 years to reach ambient temperature if created in a single pour.

The solution was refrigeration, but none of the six contractor companies had ever undertaken building and operating a cooling system of that complexity and Union Carbide Corporation was called in to consult. The resulting plan was ingenious: build interlocking columns, pouring them around cooling tubes, and run river water and refrigerated water through them to quickly chill the concrete and carry away the heat. Each interlocking trapezoid block was five feet high and anywhere between 25'x25' to 25'x60', poured in 3"-6" portions of a special low-moisture mix which were individually packed down to eliminate bubbles. (The small depth of the individual pours makes it virtually impossible that anyone is actually buried in the Dam itself.) After each block had cooled sufficiently, its tube was sealed with a pneumatic grout gun; the blocks had interlocking grooves in which they joined with their neighbours, and additional grout was forced into these joints after cooling to make a unified structure. The BoR has pictures of the process.

Hoover Dam was the first man-made structure to exceed the masonry mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which required extraordinary precautions to prevent flooding while it was assembled. Diversion started with drilling two tunnels on each side, their combined length measuring nearly 16,000' (56' in diameter each). Twin cofferdams were placed in 1932 and excavation down to solid rock started after the river was completely diverted, removing 1.5 million cubic yards of debris (with "high-scalers" perilously clinging to the canyon walls blowing off loose rock with dynamite and jackhammers), after which the concrete pouring started on 6 June 1933. When the dam was complete, the diversion tunnels were each partially sealed with the remainder of the outer tunnels becoming part of the spillways and the remainder of the inner tunnels part of the intake system.

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Looking downstream along Black Canyon and the piers of the new river crossing. The Hoover Dam Bypass project has christened the new bridge the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, named for former Nevada governor, Las Vegas Sun executive editor and Korean War veteran Mike O'Callaghan; and fallen Army solder Pat Tillman, who gave up a career for the Arizona Cardinals NFL football franchise to fight in Afghanistan and died in a controversial friendly fire incident.

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Power generation is accomplished using the entire flow of the Colorado River; very rarely are the spillways in operation and in fact the last time as of this writing was the 1983 overflow. Intake goes through a series of gradually narrowing penstocks to generate a speed of 85 miles per hour, powering up to seventeen turbine generators for a maximum output of 2,074 megawatts. Most of the power goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the states of Nevada and Arizona, and the city of Los Angeles.

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As work started on the project in 1930 it was still called the Boulder Dam, but then-President Hoover's Secretary of the Interior, Ray Wilbur, announced that in the tradition of naming important dams after the sitting President it would henceforth be called the Hoover Dam. By 1932, however, Hoover was no longer the sitting President and FDR was in the White House instead; bringing Harold Ickes along with him as the new Interior Secretary, Ickes promptly put back the old name and phased the Hoover name out (which is why Boulder Dam appears on the map inset from 1939). After Roosevelt died in 1945 and Ickes retired in 1946, California Congressman Jack Anderson submitted a resolution in 1947 to restore Hoover's name. To Ickes' great chagrin, Congress approved the bill by a large majority and President Harry S Truman signed it into law that April; thus, this plaque.

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Some more of the art deco styling can be seen in these stylish buildings and overlooks, with this plaque alongside.

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Even the bathrooms look pretty nice. Here's the men's room,

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up the stairs,

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and the nicely maintained stalls and style. Not even much graffiti.

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Now that we've taken our pitstop, back to US 95. (The bypass is signed as TRUCK 93, which is ironic because of the truck bypass!)

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End Detour

Wending our way off the US 95 separation we left above and the Truck Bypass signage at the exit.

Continue to Part 4

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