• Wesley Sessenwein

Some things change, most things stay the same: A look at Bechtel and The Hoover Dam

I’ve recently started reading the book The profiteers – Bechtel and the Men who Built the World.  The beginning of this book takes you through the early stages of the building of one of the greatest construction feats of all time: The Hoover Dam. If you haven’t already read it, and are passionate about mega construction marvels like this one, I highly recommend it. Think about all the moving parts,  the shear caliber of the project teams, and coordinating tens of thousands of tasks. That alone is enough to make most people cut and run. What I found most fascinating about this mega project was the fact that this was just a starting point for Bechtel, who like many at the time were struggling with the downfalls of the great depression.  But what started as an attempt to control the Colorado River, turned into a hell of a starting point for Bechtel and his men, as it ended up turning a staggering profit. Here are some more highlights dealing with money or contract work that I thought were worth sharing.

  • The Hoover Dam was awarded to a consortium of 8 contractors, the corporation was named Six Companies Inc

  • W.A Bechtel Co. (San Francisco)

  • Henry J Kaiser Co. (Oakland)

  • Morrison and Knudson (Boise)

  • The Wattis Bros from Utah Construction Co. (Ogden)

  • MacDonald and Kahn Co (San Francisco)

  • J.F Shea Co (Los Angeles)

  • Pacific Bridge Co (Portland)

  • General Construction Co (Oregon)

  • Six Companies Inc could barely scrounge up $5M to cover what was, at that time, the largest construction bond ever written

  • Frank Crow, who was initially the General Super for the Federal Dept Of Reclamation, left his job to join Six Companies Inc. Crow was certainly their secret weapon. He knew the contract, design and execution better than any of the other proponents

  • Crow led the tender to a submission price of $45.8M, $24K above the engineering estimate and a whopping $10M below the price of the highest bidder

  • By the time the project was turned over to the owner, Six Companies Inc had turned an estimated profit of $7M (over $100M in current day)

  • Interesting unit rate #1, the unit rate billed by Six Companies for a cubic yard of dirt excavated was $8, their cost was estimated at $5.50. This margin grew over the contract as the Great Depression kept pushing the cost of labour,  equipment and material down

  • Interesting unit rate #2: the contact provided $800 for each staff house built, Six Companies built each for $145

  • The average cost per man-day was $4

  • General info: 6 million tons of concrete were required to build the dam, enough concrete for a 16’ wide highway from San Fran to NYC. The government  plan also called for Six Companies to move 10 million cubic yards of rock

  • Quality Info: General Electric constructed the most tech advanced X-ray machine of its day to photograph over 25 million square inches of pipe weld for the dam

  • HR Info: Six Companies and Frank Crow would need to start the project with 1,500 bodies, their first hiring effort was in Las Vegas (pop. 5000 at the time). This was in the middle of the Great Depression when unemployment rates surpassed 25%. When Crow arrived he was shocked to see that 10,000 men had traveled from around the country just to try their luck at gaining employment

  • Safety Info: Summer days had temperatures reaching 130 degrees on the floor of the canyon, with that came many fatalities

  • Schedule: at one point Six Companies was so far ahead of schedule, they were returned the surety bond and provided with $1M in contract incentives

Given the scope of mega construction projects currently underway around the world (many of which are in Canada!), how much do you think projects have changed vs stayed the same? Feel free to share in the comments below! Wesley Sessenwein

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