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Morgan H. Mills interview, March 26, 1981: transcript






On March 26, 1981, Matthew A. Carr interviewed Morgan Mills (b. July 27, 1914 in Grand Junction, Colorado) about his life in Boulder City, Nevada and his work at the Boulder (Hoover) Dam site. Mills speaks primarily about his time working on the dam as a mechanic with the United States Bureau of Reclamation, as a tourist guide with the Boulder City Tourist Bureau and as a musician in local bands. Moreover, Mills speaks about attending the University of Nevada, Reno and playing music there. Lastly, he talks about the Great Depression, how it affected Las Vegas and Boulder City, the development of different infrastructure and the speakeasies in Boulder City during the Prohibition era.

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Mills, Morgan H. Interview, 1981 March 26. OH-01304. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 1 An Interview with Morgan Mills An Oral History Conducted by Matthew A. Carr Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 2 © Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2020 UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 3 The Oral History Research Center (OHRC) was formally established by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada System in September 2003 as an entity of the UNLV University Libraries’ Special Collections Division. The OHRC conducts oral interviews with individuals who are selected for their ability to provide first-hand observations on a variety of historical topics in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. The OHRC is also home to legacy oral history interviews conducted prior to its establishment including many conducted by UNLV History Professor Ralph Roske and his students. This legacy interview transcript received minimal editing, such as the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader's understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. The interviewee/narrator was not involved in the editing process. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 4 Abstract On March 26, 1981, Matthew A. Carr interviewed Morgan Mills (b. July 27, 1914 in Grand Junction, Colorado) about his life in Boulder City, Nevada and his work at the Boulder (Hoover) Dam site. Mills speaks primarily about his time working on the dam as a mechanic with the United States Bureau of Reclamation, as a tourist guide with the Boulder City Tourist Bureau and as a musician in local bands. Moreover, Mills speaks about attending the University of Nevada, Reno and playing music there. Lastly, he talks about the Great Depression, how it affected Las Vegas and Boulder City, the development of different infrastructure and the speakeasies in Boulder City during the Prohibition era. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 5 Okay. (Unintelligible) All right. Yeah, just go ahead with, you know, whatever. So you lived in here. You actually—when, when did you move to town here? My father came down here in the late ’30 or ’31, early ’31. Mm-hmm. He was the Chief Clerk of the Air Reclamation. And what's that now? Well, the bureau—United States Bureau of Reclamation is the ones who were instrumental in building the dam. Oh, I see. It's under the Department of the Interior. Mm-hmm. Well, he came down here before there was a Boulder City. They had their offices in Las Vegas. If I remember correctly, it was in the Beckley building, or one of the older buildings since been torn down on Fremont Street. And he was here alone until Boulder City was built, until our home was built there. See, the government built a lot of homes out there for their employees. When our home was built my mother and I came down, this was in April of 1932. Mm-hmm. And I worked for the Bureau of Reclamation there until September 1933 when I went to the University of Nevada, Reno. Did you know—now were you involved with building the dam over there or what? Yes. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 6 What, what were you responsible for doing? At that—when I first came down, I was a mechanic in the bureau’s garage. Mm-hmm. And one summer after that, I was surveying done in the canyon (unintelligible) on a warehouse crew, you know, just checking warehouse materials, etcetera. Right. So then, for all the holidays I used to come home from the university. I worked for Earle brothers who owned the Boulder City Tourist Bureau. Oh, I see. And I’d act as a tourist guide. (Laughs) (Unintelligible) didn't seem like there would be much tourism. I mean without the dam, it seemed like that's what brought them. (Unintelligible) during construction see thousands of people every day wanted to see the construction. On a regular tour, guides would take four or five cars. Unknown speaker: There’s your dinner. (Laughs) Thank you And show them the dam and so forth. This was before the Bureau of Reclamation had the tour guides that they have now. Right. Yes. They had the lookout point out there that’s still there. You could take the people various places up the canyon (unintelligible) construction. Yes. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 7 A lot of people were interested in the construction (unintelligible). It was rather interesting taking (unintelligible) summer of ’34 and ’35, a couple of years, ’34 and ’35 I did a lot of that. Did—I heard there were a lot of people that got injured on that—. Well, there were quite a few injuries yes. The stories about thousands being killed are untrue. Really? My dad happened to be involved in keeping track of all accidents, mortal accidents you might say. Unknown speaker: You don’t want coffee? (Unintelligible) less than a hundred. Yes. Something like ninety were actually killed on the job. (Unintelligible) It wasn't (laughs) nothing like some of the stories. Yes, I've heard they—like about hundreds and maybe a couple thousand. No, a lot of people started this story that there were a lot of them buried in the concrete. (Laughs) None of those stories about the startup (unintelligible). And, let’s see, I used to get down there for all the vacations. When I was here I was always playing in the various bands, mostly American Legion and then the dance bands of course. Here in town now? This was still in Boulder City. Oh, I see. Oh, so you—did you do a lot of playing, like casual playing around? UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 8 Yes. Mm-hmm. In fact, this was the marching band you might say for Legion. We also had the, Legion Halls was where they held their weekly dances. Right. I used to play for all those with the various musicians. Here a week or two ago the Review Journal had an article on Tommy Nelson, who's a trumpet worker. Right. I think I saw his picture in there. He’s still in Boulder City. Oh yes. And he mentioned in there Otto Littler, who was also one of the band leaders, and the name of Chip White, who was bandleader out there. They always had the same band, but whoever got the job was the leader. Right. Yes. It seems like—now, what's the population of Boulder back then? Last in, I think was around seven thousand. Oh, is that—big, that big? I didn't—. Nearly as big as Las Vegas. (Laughs) Yes. There wasn’t much in Las Vegas those days either. Yes. Was there—now, do you recall like the crowd or musicians that came into town or was that after that sometime? Or like when did they start? Oh this was long after that. See, Las Vegas didn't have any of those real big hotels or anything in those days. Yeah. There were a couple of clubs Downtown. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 9 Mm-hmm. (Unintelligible) club and the Boulder Club. I have some pictures here of those. But there was nothing like that. Far as I know, all of the musicians in Vegas were local— Right. People and they hadn't imported any land ‘cause Vegas was still a small town. And as far as I remember, I think about the only dances I ever went to were in Vegas. It was what they called Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes. There used to be a big dance hall out there, sort of like a barn. They had dances up there. And small bands and big bands. Yeah. (Unintelligible) so those it was. Well, Las Vegas just wasn’t anything like it is today. Yes, I’m sure of that. This is a picture of one of the dedications of the dam. You can see the small dance band type that we— Oh, so you played at the dedication of the dam? That was that was a dedication of, oh this memorial for the workers who were killed it to dam. Wow. Uh-huh. Oh, I see. Boy, that is really interesting. This little flyer here, all the information. What time, what year did the construction of that dam begin? Do you remember that or? Thirty-one. And it took ‘em how long to build that? Oh, I think it was pretty well completed before 1936. I think is all done in ’36. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 10 But you—were you there that entire five years of development or? No, ’36 was the last time I was here, earlier than ’36. Mm-hmm. My father left here when most of the work was completed, they were just finishing up on (unintelligible). I see. This might be of interest to you, that program shows who was at that. Hmm. I was away at the time President Roosevelt was here for the dedication of the dam. I believe that was in ’35. I was in school at the time. Oh, I see. You moved up to Reno then, shortly after that (unintelligible) No. When I got out of the university, I went to Southern California. Oh, I see. But you did—how long did you attend Reno, the university up there? Four and a half years. And did you, what was your degree? Did you get—? Electrical engineering degree. Oh, I see. What—so you like you just got a degree there and then went to California? Yes. And basically worked on—? Fortunately, unfortunately, I graduated in December. Uh-huh. And Reno, you couldn’t find a job in the winter time. Course this was in 1937. Mm-hmm. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 11 We weren't quite over the depression yet, either. Yes. Jobs weren't too easy to come by. I couldn't find anything in Reno. I wanted to stay there because of the music business. Right. Casual (unintelligible). Did you play—or did you play yourself or your school a lot? Oh yes. That's great. I had my own band there at the university. With played for, ‘course all the fraternity and sorority dances, a lot of the casual jobs around town. (Unintelligible) pretty good income, I want to say. Yeah. Musicians get pretty, get paid pretty well. Now, after Reno did, did any really significant things may have happened or do you remember being up there during your four years or? Well, lots of things of interest to me, nothing of great interest to—. Historical value, you mean? Of great historical value, other than Reno was developing a little faster than Las Vegas was. Really? In those years. Now, like the Tahoe area up there, was that developing at any grade? Yes, I think there was the one club up there, Stateline. Uh-huh. It was there then and just starting to do business. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 12 Yes. Hm. I was pretty young, I didn't get into most of those places in those days. Yes, yes. Well getting back to down here I guess since this is where you spend most of your early years. You lived here, at what age did you like come here to live? What—how old were you? That would be ’32, I was about seventeen. Let’s see, eighteen. Eighteen when you came here? Mm-hmm. And you stayed here ‘till about? Two solid years and then two more years, just coming back from vacations in summer. Oh, I see. I was about twenty-two I guess, about the last time I was here. Oh, I see. And then—but then you, actually then you moved to California. And how long did you live in California then? It was thirty-five years. Thirty-five? Wow. Whereabouts? It was in Bellflower, Lakewood, Long Beach area. Oh yes? Yes. I went to work for Southern California (unintelligible) company. (Unintelligible) I was supervisor of maintenance for years and substation engineer. And I was in charge of their research program. (Unintelligible) current equipment testing and so forth. So I decided to retire early. Edison built a substation down here El Dorado, south of Boulder City. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 13 Right. Don’t know if you know where that is, towards Searchlight. Now did that have anything to do with the dam or the electricity? Not really other than that it takes power passing through there. Some of it comes from the dam. Uh-huh. Other power now is coming from our steam plant at Mojave. And also, we have a tie with Arizona. When they started this bill here, I guess it must be ten, twelve years ago now. I used to get out here quite often (unintelligible) company. That’d come out here for several days at a time so the wife and I'd come up. We got to liking it pretty well up here, course I liked it when I was here before. So we decided this would be a good place to retire. Hm. We both like good shows, entertainment. Plus, there’s always something to do here. (Laughs) Oh yes, always keep you busy. So we decided this would be a pretty good place to retire. I wanted to get out of the Los—out of the Los Angeles area because of the smog. Yes, it’s getting bad. The fog gets terrible down there so. We came up here for several weeks at a time, you know, try it out and we liked it so I bought a place out here. We've enjoyed it ever since. That’s great. We get to run back to see our children in California quite often, they’re close enough. Yes. Well, good. So I've seen Las Vegas grow from a little railroad town. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 14 Yeah. Now when, like when you say a little railroad town, like is that—like do you recall like what exactly existed in Vegas itself or? Just a couple blocks on Fremont Street for most of— Really? That was it, huh? No permanent structures like or was it like a lot of (unintelligible) structures? The what’s now the Golden Gate Hotel, Sal Sagev it was called. That was there right on the corner of Fremont and Main. There was another hotel, I forget the name of it, across the street what is now the Las Vegas Club. Right. And there was another little hotel, Spanish name, just a block or so down Fremont. Yes. The Union Pacific Railroad Station was in the middle of a park Wow. Where the union Plaza now sits. (Unintelligible) In fact, I’ve got some pictures that you might like see. Yes, that'd be interesting. They, they had—now, when you—did you spend much time in Vegas or did you ever run into town here? Or was it, did you mainly spend most of your time in in Boulder where you—? Well, most of the—Boulder of course but we'd come into town. See, Boulder City was a government operated town. Right. There was no booze of any kind. Not even beer allowed out there originally. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 15 Wow. That's really strange. I think it was 1933 that they let 3.2 beer come into town. (Laughs) But for many years there were no cocktail lounges, even after all the liquor was legal. Boulder City wasn’t (unintelligible). (Laughs) They had it here in town, huh? Oh yes. There were speakeasies here even before (unintelligible). Is that an old—now, speakeasies then are the same as it is now? Just like old jazz clubs or something like that? No, they were just holes in the wall really. Of course, as soon as well, well Las Vegas here pretty wide open. (Unintelligible) they had their booze down there. Do they have a, like accessible roads between here and Boulder City? (Unintelligible) was a good highway. Well, gravel. Yes. Two lane gravel. That was built for the dam. The railroad was built from here. The spur was built in Boulder City. And they brought like supplies from into Vegas and then ship them to Boulder from here for the dam? Right. Mm-hmm. I see, yes. They had to build roads, highways and everything out there. (Unintelligible) Boy, that's, that's sort of funny to see that. (Laughs) (Laughs) To you. I bet. Yes. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 16 Yes. Yes. It's kind of a small—now this is a speakeasy here? I guess you'd call it that. Actually, see this was during Prohibition that they had that type. Mm-hmm. It was pretty much wide open here except every once in a while, they’d get word that the feds were coming in. Yes. When they did everybody’d close up tight. Now did they—did the Depression really affect, did you notice the Depression affecting the area and all that? Well, yes. See, we were in the depression when we started the dam, really. Yeah. And Las Vegas had a terrible influx of men looking for work, of course. Yes, I'm sure. Coming out from the Dust Bowl. Thousands of ‘em sleeping in this park. Now, that's the old Union Pacific Railroad station. Sitting right where the Union (unintelligible), Union Plaza Hotel now is. Oh man! That's quite a lot different here. They just ripped them trees out and threw in some—. (Unintelligible) (Laughs) (Unintelligible) Kinda hated to see that go. When did they—when did they tear this out? Do you remember? No, that wasn't till much later. Oh, I don’t know. The Union Plaza can't be, can't be twenty years old. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 17 Yes, probably (unintelligible) I guess. See, they stopped most passenger trains out here. Yes. Now here’s looking from there down—here’s from the railroad station looking out toward the intersection of Main and Fremont. Man, these are some classic pictures. (Laughs) Yes. I'm surprised you can't get any money for these or you probably wouldn't want to sell ‘em. Oh, I don't know. I told the young lady I talked to at the university I’d give them to the university if they wanted them, she said some day. Oh man, they don't—I’ve seen the pictures that they have and they're not, they're nothing like this. Yes. This is about the same thing, isn’t it? Yes, I think it’s about the same picture. Well now here is Fremont Street from the corner of Main, looking away from the Union Station. Wow. That is—that's incredible. That is incredible. Did they have—did, did gambling just all of a sudden start up or how? I wonder how all that got started. I understand they had it at Block 16, before they headed anywhere else. I think it was in ’30, when was gambling was legalized in the state? It was in the early 30s. Yes. I don’t remember if it was in ’31 or ’32. But the Boulder Club is shown there, the Northern Club. Those are really the only two clubs that I can remember in town. Boulder Club, Northern Club. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 18 (Unintelligible) Did they have acts in town and things like that back then or was it just? No, no. Just— I tell you what those clubs were. They had a few gambling tables in the middle of a great big room. Mm-hmm. And they'd have these what we now called captain's chairs and (unintelligible) chairs all around the— Right. Edge, so people can sit and watch. And during the Depression, I started to tell you, there were so many men here looking for work. They heard about the dam of course. And they were all flocking into Las Vegas looking for work. Yes. Well, they couldn't hang out in Boulder City. So they all hung out here in town and sleep in that park. And these clubs would let them sleep in those chairs at night. Really? So all these (unintelligible) or whatever you want to call ‘em. Yes. Would sleep in the park and these chairs and these clubs at night. And the clubs would usually give ‘em a meal. Yes. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 19 But that was about as, far as I know, the gambling was pretty much limited to those two after it was legalized and, before that, down Block 16. Now, you know what Block 16 was. No, I don't. Oh, that was the prostitute district. Oh, really? Oh, I didn't know that. Instead of having ‘em scattered all over town like— Like they do now. (Laughs) They do now. They were all in this one block. It was legalized, they were controlled. They were inspected by backers and so on so forth. Right. Now I was too young to get in there but we used to ride up and down the street, just to get a kick out of hearing the girls calling to us. (Laughs) They still do that to me (laughs) so I know what you're saying. So anyhow, that's where the gambling and drinking was prior to the legalization. Yes. Except there were a few little places like that one I showed you. Yes. This is (unintelligible) picture of the Bureau of Reclamation office for us in Las Vegas the first year before Boulder City was built. I think that was the Beckley Building (unintelligible). So—yes, looks like it might be. Was this, did they—did they actually build Vegas before Boulder or vice versa? Oh yes, Vegas was here. Yes. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 20 It was a railroad division point. Mm-hmm. (Unintelligible) parts left down there. The old building, the old ice house, you know, on Main. Yes. They used to ice the refrigerator cars as they went through here. Yes. At that plant. In those days, of course, refrigeration cars were running ice (unintelligible). Here’s another picture—if I remember correctly, this is coming into Las Vegas from Los Angeles. Oh wow. This is like the main—might, might be the old Strip, huh? Maybe? Well, that highway was—is the Strip now. Oh it is? In those days there was nothing out there. I came back here in 1946 after the war and Las Vegas had gone out as far as the (unintelligible) now where Main Street separates from Las Vegas Boulevard. That was in Las Vegas then. Wow. That was from ’37, the last time I saw it until ’46. In that period it had gone on out as far as that. So, here there was really nothing here except Downtown—what’s now Downtown, several blocks around. I'm surprised that there's so much, you know, greenery. You know, because, you know, it's just, it seems like everything is so prefabricated, you know, you gotta keep everything watered or it's just gonna die. I'm surprised that they're able to keep up such, you know, trees like this. That’s amazing. They had the water here, of course. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 21 Yes. It all came out of wells. This is the American Legion Hall there in Boulder City. They had all the social functions there. The rest of these are all, oh I got—see that box is full of pictures. Oh man, you got all kinds of stuff in—. Boulder Dam, (unintelligible) all the big wigs (unintelligible). Yes. Okay. You must be interested in those pictures because they're quite historical. I figure the university have all that stuff. Well, they may have, they may have but, you know, whether they do or not it's you know, they just interested in gathering you know new information and they’re usually the judge of, you know, what they have because I really don’t know. I think that ought to do it, really, as far as that—really is really interesting. You have quite a background on that dam, you know, especially being around it like that. You know, I didn't even know about anything about the construction of the dam. I've gone over and seen it and all that but it's a little different now. Well, it’s really—have you ever seen that movie that they have tourist view out there now? No, I don't think so. They have an interesting movie of the construction work. It took over from the very beginning. And they still show that movie, it's free. It's running all during the day. You might want to walk in and see it. It might be interesting for you because— Mm, I’ll go check that out. If you're interested in the history of the place, especially the dam, that’s a good spot to get it. All right. Well, I think we'll just stop right there then on that. UNLV University Libraries Morgan Mills 22 (Unintelligible) All right. Thank you very much. You're welcome.