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Depression Pioneers of Boulder City

by Phyllis M. Leavitt
The Historical Society would like to thank publisher Stanley Paher 
of Nevada Publications for permission to reprint the article from Nevada's "Official Bicentennial Book," © 1976.

It was a hot, dry June day in 1930.  In the blue shadows of evening we arrived in Black Canyon.  The rugged terrain surrounding the camp was covered with gray brush and greasewood and black porous lava rock pushing through th e sun-baked earth.  Here I was to take my place among the housewives who had followed their men to the dam construction site.  We had left Payson, Utah, a depressed area with no available jobs, and had come to the construction camp of Boulder Dam.  This area we would call home for the next six years.

Cooking was done over an open fire with a black skillet and dutch oven.  Brush and driftwood provided fuel.  Breakfast usually consisted of bacon, eggs, or flapjacks with canned milk and syrup.  My husband built a wooden box to hold our perishable foods.  Two feet wide and about three feet high, it was covered with wet burlap and served as our first ice-box.  After breakfast the camp was set in order.  We carried water from an old railroad car.  I washed our clothes on the scrubbing board in a round tub, and ironed them with flat irons heated on the fire.  We bathed in an old tin wash tub.  Our drinking water, stored in ten gallon milk cans, was hauled in by a trucker at no cost to us.  A coal-oil lamp with a reflector hooked on the tent wall was used for lighting.

The children around the camp seemed to fare better than anyone.  They enjoyed running and playing among the rocks but had to be watched carefully because of the many hazards including tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, and open mine shafts.

 To keep the big, hairy tarantulas and poisonous scorpions from climbing onto the beds, my husband filled four empty coffee cans with coal-oil and set a post of the bed in each.  If a pest were able to reach the top of the can, it would fall into the oil and drown.  Another precaution was to tuck the bed covers tightly under the mattress. 

The women in the camp were all extremely friendly and a pioneer spirit prevailed.  Every family tried to look out for one another and to make the best of the hardships.  The intense heat was probably the hardest condition to endure.  Daytime temperatures of 100 to 115 degrees became tolerable by frequent dips in the Colorado River.  The heat at night posed a different problem.  We moved mattresses outside of the tent to take advantage of any cool breeze that might come from the canyon.  The heat would cause us to perspire profusely, and by morning the dye from the mattress was imprinted on our backs. 

After a few months of living in Black Canyon, my husband gathered enough scrap lumber to build a small one-room cabin 12 ft. wide and 27 ft. long.  How wonderful it was after living in a hot tent!  A man who was leaving Boulder City sold us a used coal cook stove with four lids and a little oven.  What a happy day for me; I was so overcome with emotion, I sat down and cried for joy.

Saturday was special because everyone went into Las Vegas, thirty miles away, to buy supplies for the week.  Our old car had gasped its last breath when we first arrived, so we were at the mercy of helpful neighbors to give us a lift into town with them.  We bought our groceries at the Sewell Market on Fremont Street.  Bread was 10¢ a loaf, margarine 19¢, sugar 10 lbs. for 49¢, eggs 15¢ a dozen, a pair of shoes cost a dollar, and unbleached muslin was 15¢ per yard.  All day long we shopped, played a game or two of Bingo, or visited the El Portal Theatre which was then showing the new "talkie" pictures.  Supplies that we forgot to buy would have to be borrowed from our neighbors or we would go without until the next week.

When the townsite of Boulder City was established, we moved our cabin to Avenue L.  We then hooked on to the city sewer and water, and life became more comfortable.  My husband enlarged the cabin by adding two rooms and built a dresser, wall table and a kitchen cabinet with three drawers.  I ordered a washing machine, a kitchen table and four ladder back chairs from the Sears catalogue.  In spare moments I sewed curtains, sheets, and pillow cases, and all clothing for my little girl.

Many men were getting tired of their own cooking, so we decided to take in boarders.  This venture proved to be quite an undertaking because the construction of the dam was now in full swing and men worked around the clock.  Our six boarders worked three different shifts which meant that I had to prepare seven meals each day.  Soon after feeding day shift men at 6:00 a.m., I prepared breakfast for the graveyard men coming off shift.  At 9:00 a.m. the swing shift men would eat.  Lunch and dinner also had to be prepared for the shift workers, as well as my family.  I baked about eight loaves of bread every other day, in addition to hot biscuits and pies.  The table was set with just plain good food that men like, mainly meat, potatoes, and gravy, corn bread, cakes and pies.

My husband had several jobs during the six years that we lived here.  His first job was that of a laborer at the dam, for which he received $4.00 per eight hour day.  He then worked as a cement washer and was paid $4.50.  Soon he graduated to the job of a high scaler and earned $5.60 a day.  He also worked as an orderly at the Boulder Hospital and as a gardener on the grounds of the administration building.  He delivered mail and helped build the first LDS church in  Boulder City.

We had neighbors from all over the United States, Hawaii, Alaska, and Australia; many were engineers at the dam.  We worshiped in different religious denominations such as LDS, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal.  Several families of the latter faith lived near us and we were awakened many nights with their bonfire services.

I had plenty of good company, especially from Utah.  It seemed as if everyone I ever knew in my entire life came to visit the dam.  I would provide old army cots for them to sleep on the lawn, feed them, visit the dam with them, and send them on their way.

In the fall of 1936, Boulder Dam was completed and only a small crew stayed on.  As hundreds of construction workers left, many thought that the Boulder Dam boom was over and that Las Vegas, the small oasis in the desert, would revert to a railroad village.  We packed our belongings and returned to the greener pastures of Payson where my husband might be able to find another job, without giving any thought to what would happen to the land we pioneered.

 
 
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