Remembering the legacy of “those dam women”

LAS VEGAS – What we now know as Hoover Dam was one of the most impressive and recognizable feats of engineering of the 20th Century. It spans the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas and it creates one of the most important reservoirs for the southwest, Lake Mead.

Construction of the dam began in June, 1933, and was completed in May, 1935.

But some of the people who helped build the dam and its related city are not as well known: the women.

Dennis McBride is director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas and has been researching the role of women in the massive construction project. He calls the project, which explores the legacy of how women helped make one of the largest infrastructure projects in American history possible, “Those Dam Women.”

“The stories of the women that were involved in various roles has been overlooked,” he told Nevada Public Radio on the show State of Nevada.

McBride said women may not have done actual construction work on the dam, but that is the only thing they didn’t do for the project and the town.

He said they created businesses, schools and sports organizations — everything a town with nothing in it would need.

“We can’t forget that one of the most important roles that women played were as wives and mothers,” he said, pointing out that “traditional” doesn’t mean insignificant or unimportant.

McBride said that women came out to an empty Southern Nevada and made homes out of tents, as well as shacks made of powder boxes and even the backs of cars, while their husbands worked on the dam.

“That can’t be underestimated — the importance and the effort that that took,” he said.

Construction of Boulder Dam. It was renamed Hoover Dam in 1947. (Photo courtesy of Nevada State Museum)

Boulder City was supposed to be built before construction on the dam started, but the stock market crash and the Great Depression meant workers started pouring into the area before the town was actually built.

McBride said workers pulled off the side of the road and set up tents, creating a community out of nothing.

The first female in the Boulder City townsite was Edith Powell, whose husband was working on the water tank at the top of the dam. The workers for that project set up tents before there was anything else there.

He said the people in charge of creating that community were primarily the women.

“The [phrase] that comes to mind is ‘it takes a village,'” he said. “It was the women that made Boulder City the village that was necessary to create lives and homes and futures for the people who chose to stay on there.”

While many women came out with their husbands who were looking for work, there were others who came out to start businesses of their own.

“But there were many women who came out to be entrepreneurs and business people,” McBride said. “So, there was a nice mix. It just depended on where you were when the Depression hit.”

If an unmarried woman who had to earn a living on her own came to Boulder City, McBride said she would find plenty of work to do.

The women who came here to set up a home and raise a family found a very tough life because nothing had been established.

One of the women who came out to Boulder City while the dam was being built was Ida Browder. McBride said she was a widow from Salt Lake City who set up the first commercial business on the Boulder City townsite: a lunch counter called Browder Lunch.

From there, Browder became a politically powerful woman — who was eventually dubbed the unofficial mayor of Boulder City.

Another political powerful woman from the time was Teddy Fenton. Fenton was essentially a mail-order bride from North Dakota. Fenton eventually ended up owning a lot of property and became extremely influential.

“People like [former Nevada governor] Mike O’Callaghan would come out, and they used to call it ‘to kiss Teddy’s ring’ to get her endorsement, because they knew if they got Teddy’s endorsement they had Boulder City,” McBride said.

There is a park named after Fenton, which is now at risk of disappearing, McBride said. Besides that park, he said, there is very little in the way of anything memorializing the women who helped build the community and keep the Boulder Dam project moving forward.