I-Team: Separating fact from fiction at the Hoover Dam

LAS VEGAS - Without the Hoover Dam, there would be no Las Vegas, not as we know it anyway. It is considered an engineering marvel and draws more than a million visitors each year.

If you live in Las Vegas and have never taken the tour, you're missing an unforgettable experience.

So much has been written about the dam since it opened in the 1930s, but it still harbors many secrets, so the I-Team went out to dig into a few of them.

The face of the dam is an iconic image known all over the world. Close up, it is overwhelming. The story of the dam is often told in numbers. How big it is, how many tons of concrete went into it. The 96 men who lost their lives building it. It was tough, dangerous work but contrary to the legend, not one of the workers is buried in the dam. Nor is Jimmy Hoffa. But there are plenty of other wild tales that survive online.

"I've been with reclamation for about 17 years and I'm like a kid in a candy store when I come down here. I learn something new every time," said Doug Hendrickson, Bureau of Reclamation.

Standing at the base of the face of Hoover dam and looking up, Hendrickson calls it the money shot. It's a magnificent view of an inverted pyramid built on a scale ancient Egyptians would appreciate. Few visitors are allowed there. Maybe the occasional president, but elsewhere, more than a million people shuffle through Disneyland style lines, march through darkened tunnels that slice thru volcanic rock and grab cell phone images of the enormous turbines that power the Southwest.

They're the original turbines, by the way, still purring more quietly than your A.C. at home. The very first turbine, still running, was started when President Franklin Roosevelt flipped a switch 80 years ago. On the day it was dedicated, the dam got its own 3-cent stamp -- one of those philatelist secrets.

The bowels of the dam, well more like the spleen, fluctuate wildly from 68 degrees all the way up to 72. Might as well be Maui.

Here's one you may not have heard. There's a four-story office building inside the dam. Its hallways lined with historic photos. Dam staff work here on dam business, and yeah that joke never gets old. The boss has quite a view from the window in his office.

Okay, secrets. Here's one. Banner headline, the dam leaks. You can see evidence of seepage in many places. Leaks are a good thing for a dam, Hendrickson assures us.

Cranes at the dam are strong enough to lift the Statue of Liberty, or up to 300 tons in case she puts on a few pounds. Here's another one -- that concrete poured eight decades ago is still hardening.

"Concrete continues to strengthen as it cures, so yes, concrete is still curing inside Hoover Dam," said dam tour guide Angelina Johnson.

She points out the immaculate granite tile throughout the dam which is 121,000 square feet and 3 inches thick, culled from eight states, and looks like dam workers clean it with toothbrushes daily.

"They are unbelievably proud of this facility; the tour routes, the floors glisten. It is absolutely spotless," Hendrickson said.

Overlooking the dam is a machine gun nest. A pillbox built during World War II when the Axis hatched plans to disable the dam. Since 9/11, security has been upgraded, sensors installed. Put it this way, your homemade submarine will not be able to penetrate the perimeter. Another little-known fact -- if a disaster took down the power grid -- the dam is where it could re-start. It has a cool code name.

"We're able to do what's called black start capability," Hendrickson said. "If the whole Western power grid went down, we could bring the power grid back up."

The dam is no stranger to fictional carnage. Real-life transformers obscure the Hollywood fact that the dam was built to hide megatron, supreme robotic bad guy transformer and remember that time the dam crumbled because of a massive earthquake in San Andreas? Thank goodness Superman was around when this little incident unfolded.

The biggest cinematic disaster of them all? Clark Griswold's Vegas Vacation. Clark opened a door and nearly launched himself off the dam. In reality, that door actually goes to a bathroom.

As for the rumor about bodies being buried in the concrete.

"Not at all," Hendrickson said. "That's a fallacy. There are no bodies buried."

And then there is the pyramid that's 15 miles underneath the dam.

"No sir," Johnson said.

What about a Stargate portal?

"Not that I'm aware of. If there was, I'd like to see it," Hendrickson said.

He also denies there's a tunnel from the dam to Area 51, a likely story. One inspiration for all the Internet scuttlebutt is the art deco masterpiece designed by sculptor Oskar Hansen. It includes astrological symbols and astronomical codes -- a star map, if you will, which, according to the display, would allow humans in the far distant future, or aliens, to figure out the date when the dam was dedicated. 

The 30-foot tall beings which guard the entrance look vaguely familiar -- like the engineers from "Prometheus," maybe? It's meant to be a tribute to the workers who built it and allowed the desert to bloom.

"People said it could never be done, you could not build a humongous structure on the Colorado River, and then humans built Hoover Dam. They rose to the occasion," Johnson said.



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