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Transcript of interview with Ray Cutright, April 22, 1981




On April 22, 1981, Ray Cutright (born 1902 in French Creek, West Virginia) provided brief a narrative-style oral history about his work as a boater in the Colorado River during the building of Hoover Dam. Cutright talks about his experiences in operating a boat that carried both tourist passengers and workers to and from the site of the Hoover Dam. He also provides a few specific experiences, including what it was like navigating the river.

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Cutright, Ray Interview, 1981 April 22. OH-00468. [Transcript.] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

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UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright i An Oral History by Ray Cutright UNLV University Libraries Oral History Collection Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright ii © UNLV University Libraries Oral History Collection University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2018 UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright iii 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. 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 Ray Cutright iv Abstract On April 22, 1981, Ray Cutright (born 1902 in French Creek, West Virginia) provided brief a narrative-style oral history about his work as a boater in the Colorado River during the building of Hoover Dam. Cutright talks about his experiences in operating a boat that carried both tourist passengers and workers to and from the site of the Hoover Dam. He also provides a few specific experiences, including what it was like navigating the river. UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 1 This is Ray Cutright speaking of Loveland, Colorado, April the 22nd, 1981. This tape is being made for the express use of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in whatever way they wish to use it. This narration is made in relation to my being in Las Vegas at the time of the construction of Boulder Dam, now known as Hoover Dam. Mr. Davis and I arrived in Las Vegas August the 1st, 1930. We had left Chicago with the express idea of coming to Las Vegas to help build Boulder Dam, which I am sorry to say I never worked one day on the dam proper. History is a peculiar thing. Little did I realize at that time that one day I might have a part in the history of the Boulder Dam, now known as Hoover Dam. Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas, I obtained work operating a boat on the river which was owned by Mr. Ayers. Our principal work was to take tourists down to the dam site and bring them back safely at the landing. In the process of that, it was almost my job many times to carry the engineers who worked plenty of construction of the dam back and forth. I carried them upriver as far as Fort Callville and where the future gravel plant would be built on the Arizona side of the river, and downstream almost as far as needles. I never knew who these engineers were—just accepted them, what their job was, and picked them up, take them where they needed to go. The boats we used were homemade. There was no such thing as buying a ready-made boat, as they were flat-bottom boats with tunnels constructed up in the side of the bottom of the hull in which the propeller and the rudders sat so that you could go over sandbars or rocks without damaging them. The tunnels were constructed according to the speed that you wished to go. The flow of the water made the curve of the tunnel. As we would pick passengers up, the boat dock, which was about three-and-a-half miles above the dam site, we would start explaining it to them some of the process that would go into the construction of the dam. UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 2 Now, the river at that time was thick and muddy, and quite often we would dip off fifty-gallon barrel of water, nighttime, and in the morning, the bottom would be covered with anywhere from ten to twelve inches of sediment—the water was that thick. You could not see the bottom of the river, you couldn’t see through the water at all. You navigated the boat just but the side of the current in front of you. You didn’t head from one point to the other exactly; the water and the motion of the water governed where you went with the boat. So we would tell the people about this as we drifted down the stream towards the dam site, and explained to them about what the process was of building the dam, that the idea of building the dam was to stop the silt from going on down in the Imperial Valley and raising the riverbed even higher than what it is down there. At the present time, then, I think the river was some forty or fifty feet above the level of the Imperial Valley, which was causing a serious flood problem. Also, it was estimated by the engineers, it would take fifty years to fill Lake Mead half full of the sediment, which was then, at that time, going downriver. So, we'd give them an idea of what the construction was for. Electricity at that time was sideline, but not now. As we would arrive at the dam site, we’d swing the boat around in the middle of the river and let them have a good view of where the dam was going to be built. Now, on the Nevada side of the river, high on the cliffs above where the center of the dam is, there was a white flag mounted. If my memory serves me right, it was something like 1,200 or 1,500 feet above the river itself—I can’t remember exactly—and we’d point out to them that flag up there and give them an idea of how high it was. By relating to them something that they could grasp, we would give them an idea of the height of the dam, where it would be. If they were from Chicago, we’d explain to them that they could take the Wrigley Building and the UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 3 Palmolive Building and set one on top of the other and still not reach that flag. This would raise some eyebrows as well as other things. So, to further illustrate to the people about the size of the complex, we would generally carry a few fair-sized stones on the boat, and offered to anyone that could throw a rock ashore from where the boat was sitting at that time, that we’d give everybody their money back if they could throw a rock ashore—well there’s always somebody willing to try it. So, somebody grabbed a rock and give a big heave, and apparently about fifty feet out from the boat, you see the water ripple where the rock hit. So, they’d make another big heave. By that time, you had no trouble convincing them that the width of the river at that point was anywhere from 600 to 700 feet across, and nobody can throw a rock 350 feet that I ever seen. Anyway, we done our best to impress upon their minds the size and the scope of the project that was going to be built. Then, as we turn around and start back upstream, we do as we always did, we request everybody to sit down and remain seated because the boats being flat-bottom, you had to carry the load just about even all the time. If you got too much weight on one side, one side of the boat would act as a keel, and you lost your steerage. So, we asked everybody to sit down and remain seated as we went back upstream. Now, sometimes, the river would form sandbars—I even had a sandbar formed clear across the river one day when I was down there and had to try three different times to get across that sandbar on the way back up. The water would only be about eight or ten inches deep, and with a load in the boat, we were riding deep within that. But it wouldn’t last very long, the sandbar would go away and it had no more trouble in that respect there. Remember, at this time, there was no way to get into the canyon except by boat. There was no road, no railroad, no other way at all. Everything had to go in by the river. And while our UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 4 principal activity was carrying tourists down to the dam site and back, nevertheless we were also busy taking the engineers to various points along the river so that they could do whatever survey work was needed for the future construction. Now on all the trips that I made back and forth carrying passengers, I never at any time had any problem, no accidents of any kind at all. However, before very long, Six Companies moved in and started working on the dam proper, and when they did, the tourist business was cut out completely—no more tourist trips down the river. So, at that time, we started carrying materials back and forth across the river for whoever wanted it on the other side of the river. So, one day, I had carried a load of dynamite from the Nevada side of the river over to the Arizona side—it was real hot that day—and those fellas started throwing that dynamite around just like it was so many sacks of flour. So say I was scared was making a small statement, but they did, and we did get through it. Then we returned to the Nevada side of the river and loaded the boat up with a big bunch of storage batteries. Well, at that time, they were running high scalers on the wall, knocking loose rock down, and dynamiting at lunchtime. And during that time, nobody went into the canyon at all. So, the boat sat there all during lunch hour, loaded these storage batteries. And after the lunch was over and the dynamiting was done, we headed for the dam site proper and took the batteries down there and unloaded them. And two of the fellas remained on the boat with me, we started back upstream—got back up between the rock walls, were just smooth and slick, no place to land, and one fella said to me, “Hey, your floorboards are floating.” Sure enough, I looked around and they was floating all right. Well, no place to land, so I turned the boat around, headed for the dock where we had just been a few minutes ago—got the boat back to the dock, and just as it got there, it just set down on the bottom and sunk. Well, it didn’t completely sink, it sank UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 5 enough to where it sat on the bottom. So, got a bunch of buckets and stuff and bailed the thing out, cleaned it up, started up, went back upstream again. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to getting a bath in the river without asking for one. A very short time later, one particular boat that I was operating burned up one night for some reason or another. Now, you have a picture in the group that I gave you showing this burned up boat. So, I was out of a job. Then, after a while, they got a little more work done down the canyon, and the Anderson brothers started a mess hall down the canyon, so I went to work at Anderson Mess Hall down there and worked there for a short period of time. And then by that time, they had Boulder City going pretty good up there, some of the streets in and some of the buildings in. And I went to work for Archie Grant up there in Boulder City at his garage. After working for Archie there in the garage for a while, I went to Las Vegas and rented a garage at the corner of fifth and Charleston, where I eventually purchased the land and the property. And there, I stayed there in that garage all the rest of the construction of the dam. Now, during this time, most of my customers were men who worked on the dam: the high scalers, the dynamiters, the truck driver, the cat skinners, and so forth—I knew many of them. And my brother-in-law was busy out there taking pictures of the dam. And so I stayed in touch with the thing pretty constantly all the time. I didn’t lose touch of it, and being able to go with Mr. Davis as he photographed out there many times, I had access to places which the public no longer had. Some of these pictures that you have in the group, I helped Mr. Davis take those pictures, because sometimes it would take two of us to carry his equipment. You didn’t have cameras and photographic material like you have today. You had speed, your graphic five by seven contact camera, which done a very good job as you tell from the photos that he has. UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 6 At this point, I wish to go back a little bit. On the way up the river towards actual Boulder Canyon itself, before you get to Fort Callville, the river spread out very wide at one point and was very rocky. It was quite a tricky proposition to either go up or down over those rocks, especially when the water was low, and low water at that point there was around 5,000 cubic feet a second. In the springtime when the floods was on, the flood would run as high as 200,000 cubic feet of water a second, and you went over all those rocks. But in the wintertime, when the water was down, those rocks were quite visible. And just above there and just before you got to Fort Callville was one big rock ledge which ran clear across the water and acted like a dam and like the water flowing over the crest of a dam. And there was no way around it except to hit right for that dam, and you could run the boat right into that water coming over the flow of the dam, so to speak, and by giving the throttle at the correct time, immediately you’d rise up about four or five feet over the crest of that dam, and there you’d be up in still water—a great sensation. Also a great sensation as you came down because you just weren’t too sure where the bow of that boat was going to go to. We never took any passengers up that far—only the engineers. And these engineers, I don’t know who they were, but I feel sure at this point that somewhere along the line, it was my privilege to transport not only Mr. Young but Mr. Wilbur two at the same time, because we had people there, but at that time, I had no recollection of just who they were. But I can realize how interesting it must have been to them to have me, the boatman, didn’t know anything about at all, try to explain to them what was going on or what was going to happen. Now, in closing this narrative, which doesn’t take up much time, but does cover a span of quite a few years, let me say in closing that I appreciate very much that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is interested enough to take those photographs that I saved all these years and UNLV University Libraries Ray Cutright 7 to make good use of them. I am sure that the students and the university, as well as the people of Las Vegas, must get a lot of amusement and enjoyment in the history out of seeing some of those photographs—places which are no longer available, never to be photographed again. And some of these photographs, I’m sure, are the only ones that there are in existence. So, thank you, Las Vegas, Nevada, for accepting these photographs and putting them to good use. [Recording ends. Second recording is a rewording of the same details provided in the original recording]