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Hoover Dam: The Dam So Nice, They Named It Twice

Q: What do the Hoover Dam and the Boulder Dam have in common?
A: Everything. They’re the same dam.

(My apologies for the worst riddle ever.)

In 1928, Congress authorized a project out west that would produce hydroelectric power for millions while also controlling floods and providing ample water for irrigation. At the time, it was common practice to name new dams after presidents—Calvin Coolidge, for example, dedicated the Coolidge Dam in Arizona on March 4, 1930, a year after he left office.

But Coolidge wasn’t commander-in-chief during the country’s most crippling economic depression ever. Hoover, of course, was. As a result, people weren’t too pleased when Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur announced at the project kickoff in September 1930 that it was his “honor and privilege” to name the dam after his boss. Even the press greeted the dedication with indifference, continuing to refer to the project as "Boulder Dam" even as official government documents referred to it as Hoover.

To no one’s surprise, Hoover lost re-election in 1932; Ray Lyman Wilbur was ousted as well. New Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was quick to reverse his predecessor’s decision—you can practically read the shrug in his statement: “The men who pioneered this project knew it by this [Boulder Dam] name.” Ickes tried to back up his decision by saying that no living man should have a dam named after him, even though presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt all had namesake dams constructed while they were still around. Hoover was not invited when FDR dedicated Boulder Dam in 1935.

Twelve years later, however, public opinion had changed. People seemed to forgive Hoover, partially because of his commendable works during WWII and partially due to the simple passage of time. Perhaps feeling it was time to restore honor to the 31st president, Congress passed a bill on April 30, 1947, to bring back the dam’s intended name. (Though according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the official name never changed from Hoover Dam.)

Harold Ickes was still around at the time, and though he was no longer in politics, he still staunchly believed in the “Boulder Dam” title. After the re-renaming, he released this statement, which smelled strongly of sour grapes: “I didn’t know Hoover was that small a man to take credit for something he had nothing to do with.”

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