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Transcript of interview with Edna Jackson-Ferguson, April 15, 1975






On April 15, 1975, Edna Jackson-Ferguson (born 1897 in Overbrook, Kansas) provided a narrative-style oral history about her and her husband Jack’s experiences during the building of the Hoover Dam. Jackson-Ferguson provides many details about the way of life living in the camp with workers of the dam, the tasks required of those workers in building the dam, and some of the actual processes of pouring the concrete for the structure. She also talks about food, transportation, weather, and entertainment during the time. To conclude the interview, Jackson-Ferguson mentions some of the other job positions her husband held and their pride in being a part of the Hoover Dam’s construction.

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Jackson-Ferguson, Edna Interview, 1975 April 15. OH-00571. [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 Edna Jackson-Ferguson i An Oral History by Edna Jackson-Ferguson UNLV University Libraries Oral History Collection Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson ii © UNLV University Libraries Oral History Collection University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2018 UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 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 Edna Jackson-Ferguson iv Abstract On April 15, 1975, Edna Jackson-Ferguson (born 1897 in Overbrook, Kansas) provided a narrative-style oral history about her and her husband Jack’s experiences during the building of the Hoover Dam. Jackson-Ferguson provides many details about the way of life living in the camp with workers of the dam, the tasks required of those workers in building the dam, and some of the actual processes of pouring the concrete for the structure. She also talks about food, transportation, weather, and entertainment during the time. To conclude the interview, Jackson-Ferguson mentions some of the other job positions her husband held and their pride in being a part of the Hoover Dam’s construction. UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 1 I am Edna Jackson-Ferguson. The date is April the 15th, 1975. Fifty-two years have elapsed since my husband went to work on the Boulder Dam project. I have been asked by the American Association of University Women of Boulder City to tell you of my husband’s work and about our lives in those early days for their living history project. To begin, it was the latter part of December, 1922. Clarence Jackson, known to most people as (unintelligible), had just finished a job in Utah and was returning to Los Angeles to seek more employment. Stopping in Las Vegas overnight, he decided to try his luck at finding work on the big dam that was going to be built on the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation had offices in Las Vegas directing the preliminary investigations to the building of the dam. The man in charge was Walker R. Young. After a short interview, Jack was hired. Investigations were being made at both Black Canyon and Boulder Canyon to see which place would be more feasible for such a giant piece of construction. The work being done at this time was at Boulder Canyon, which I remember being eighteen or twenty miles upstream from Black Canyon. Jack was told to report for work at the camp (unintelligible) at Boulder Canyon. It was approximately fifty miles from Las Vegas. To reach this camp, one travelled the main highway towards Salt Lake City, which is now Interstate 15, for a few miles, then he turned to the right on a road used and maintained by a large (unintelligible). This dirt and sometimes gravel road was followed for about two-thirds of the distance. Then, the seventeen miles to go to Boulder Canyon, on (unintelligible) over hills and the tracks (unintelligible) before. This last seventeen miles was long, and the first part of the Strip (unintelligible). Anyone familiar with (unintelligible) in the desert would understand how the (unintelligible) but they have (unintelligible). The road, if one can call it that, was so narrow in places, and sometimes, in making a turn, one had to make a complete circle, crossing their own UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 2 tracks to negotiate the turn and able to get started up the road ahead. All of the supplies pertaining to the work and for the subsistence of the men working there had to be brought from Las Vegas over this route. One can imagine the work in planning that was entailed just to get things going. When Jack arrived at the camp, he found it well organized with a field office mess hall, sleeping quarters for everyone, and the necessary equipment to (unintelligible) of about thirty men. There was no buildings; only tents were used. Investigations had been going on for several years, but because of the intense heat in the summer months, the fieldwork had only been done when it was cooler—I would say from early fall to mid-March. From the data gathered at this time, the figures were assembled and studied by qualified engineers in the office so as to determine how and where the dam should be built. The main office was in Denver; there, the important decisions were to be made, and the facts would be presented to Congress for its approval. But back to the job in 1923. My husband was given the responsibility of measuring the flow of the water in Boulder Canyon. That is how many cubic feet of water per second was rushing through the canyon. This information was necessary in the planning of the dam because of the strength that would be needed to curb the flow of water. Besides measuring the flow of the water, surveyors were mapping the terrain, and geologists were studying the formations of the earth’s structures that would have to be dealt with. Every man there had a very important piece of work to do. Boulder Canyon was a beautiful place. The cap itself was situated probably one-fourth to one-half mile from it. At the camp, large willow trees lined the riverbank, and there was plenty of desert vegetation to make it attractive. Boulder Canyon Gorge was very narrow, and the hills of solid rock towered to high on either side that one could scarcely see the tops. UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 3 If I may get ahead of my story, may I tell you that I had the opportunity to go down through this great chasm in a boat that was piloted by an expert who knew the river well, where the rocks and eddies were, and it was an awesome sight. At the time, they said I was the first woman to have gone through there and that very few men had made this trip. Since then, only a few expeditions were made before it was inundated by the waters of Lake Mead. In March, with most of the work at hand concluded, the camp was broken up, and the men went their separate ways to compute their findings or to other projects. Only a skeleton camp remained, with my husband and an assistant remaining to carry on their work. The volume of the water would vary depending on the weather from as far as away as the source of the river and its tributaries to it. Mention should be made here that every fall when the men came back to proceed with their work, there was always Tom to do the cooking. Right now, I do not recall his last name. He was an excellent cook, and the men all loved him. He did everything, making many specialties and plenty of homemade bread. In March, he would go into Las Vegas and wait for the work to open up in the fall. Later on, when construction began, he moved to Boulder City and spent the rest of his life there, where everyone knew him. After camp had broken up in March, every day Jack and his helper would walk the distance of perhaps one half mile from camp to the place where they took their measurements. At this point was a heavy cable across the river. Attached to this cable was a mobile tram into which they would climb with their instruments. Of the course, the weight of the car made the cable sag in the middle. They would coast to this point, then by hand, crank themselves up to the far side. From there, they came back slowly, dropping their meters, which were attached by wires to the tram into the water below. One of the meters measured the rate of flow of the water, the other the depth of the river. The meters be drawn up, read, and left down a little further on. This process UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 4 continued until they were back at the point from which they started with the tram. One the return trip, again when they reached the middle of the stream, it was uphill the rest of the way, and they had to crank the machine forward as well as take the readings. When reaching the place from which they had started, the tram was secured, and back to camp they went to compute and record their figures. These were sent to the office in Denver for their use. As an interesting sideline to their going to their work, the camp dog would always go along. There was an eight- or ten-foot ladder on the trail that the men had to climb. The dog would maneuver up the ladder, then would wait for the men to finish their work, but he would have to be helped down on the return. Sometimes when it was so hot, men tried to sneak away without him, but it wouldn’t work. When they returned to shore from doing their work, there he was grinning at them as if to say, “A-ha, I’m smarter than you think.” This dog was very special, and a lotta company. He was so homely, he was cute and quite a character. Jack and I were married in Las Vegas May the 17th, 1923. At that time, the population of this town was approximately 800 people. I had been teaching school in Idaho, and the snow was barely gone from the ground when I left there to find two days later a temperature of 104 degrees. It was in this heat we travelled to Boulder Canyon, a distance of approximately fifty miles to our first home. We had in the back of the Model T pickup a 300-pound keg of ice and enough groceries for three to last about a week. It was a hot ride and a slow one—a slow one because, first, the Model T could not travel very fast at its best, and second, most of the way was up one dry wash and down another. Many places, there were only faint ruts or tracks where someone had gone before. I remember one narrow wash where the pick and shovel had to be used before we could get through. The final wash before we reached camp was wider, and the UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 5 hills became much higher on either side of us. It was nearing six p.m., and the shade from the hills was a blessing after so much hot desert. Looking up on the mountainside, we counted close to forty mountain sheep, scattered here and there eating desert shrubs. One, quite close to us, was standing on a rocky pinnacle with his back arched—what a sight. We never saw so many at one time again; maybe they were there to welcome us home. Our camp was near the river at the mouth of a wide wash. We had an office tent which doubled for the helpers’ living quarters, a kitchen dining room tent, and our living quarters tent, which stood on a knoll near the cooking tent so that it could catch the cool breezes—when and if. Later, the boys put up a small tent with a steel drum rigged up over it for a shower tent. Water was pumped into the drum, and the sun warmed the water. Sometimes it would be too hot to use. Who knows—this may have been the original solar heating system. For our drinking water, there were several barrels which were pumped full of water from the river. It would take a day, at least, for the silt to settle before we could use the water. I’m afraid, in this day of environmental consciousness, it would be considered deadly to drink, but we survived. The summer was very hot. More than once, the temperature rose to 120 degrees in the shade. To keep cool, we would wear our bathing suits. By keeping them wet, we were able to be more comfortable. Really, it was a pretty good system. One might wonder how food was kept from spoiling in this climate. A cave, approximately five feet square, had been dug into the side of the hill near the mess tent and timber ducked inside to keep it from collapsing. The front was walled up and was about a foot thick. There were two doors leading into it; the first one was an ordinary door, the inner one was about six inches thick, made so it was insulated but so that no heat could get through it. When the groceries were brought, there was always a 300-pound keg of ice. The ice went in first, and UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 6 all perishables were placed on and around it. One had to be very careful not to leave the doors ajar when entering, so as little as possible heat could get through. A flashlight or lantern had to be used, as there was no light in there. You know, in those days, everyone thought the living was great. For transportation, two Model T Ford pickups had been left for use. This seemed adequate for trips to Las Vegas for supplies and the mail. It was very necessary that reports be sent to Denver regularly. These Fords were far from being in tiptop condition, and driving over the so-called roads didn’t help them any. It wasn’t long until the men were having to borrow from one to fix the other. Consequently, they soon had only one that was in working order. One Thursday morning, our ice was about gone, and we needed other supplies. The helper left long before daybreak for Las Vegas in the only car that would run, expecting to be back by evening. He did not arrive; he did not come Friday. We were practically without food. Saturday morning, he still was not there. So, with a canteen of water, a couple sandwiches, a can of peaches, and a couple of lemons, we started out for the Borax Mine for help. It was seventeen miles, and we thought we would be there by noon. By noon, we had probably covered eleven miles. At this point, just off the road was a spring. It looked very inviting, but we knew we could not drink it, as it was Epsom salts water; however, there were trees, and we rested in the shade and bathed our feet in the cold water. We finished our food there and had only a small amount of water left in the canteen. To make a long story short, we would walk five or ten minutes, then crawl under the meager shade of a mesquite bush and rest twenty minutes. On this trip, we killed a rattlesnake. We finally ran out of water. We did reach the Borax Mine about seven p.m. We couldn’t have made it much farther. They took care of us, UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 7 and the next day, took us into Las Vegas. We found the helper who had been living it up. Needless to say, he was given two weeks’ notice, and a new man had to be hired. One day, Jack and I started out for Las Vegas. We had gone several miles when something went wrong. The car refused to move any farther. We were dressed in our best because we were going to town. So as not to get his clothes soiled, my husband removed his clothes except for his underwear and crawled underneath the car to see what he could do. Not being a mechanic, I don’t know exactly what he did, but I know he used an old leather glove and a couple of bobby pins, and we were on our way. We made it to a garage and had it repaired properly and was ready for another crisis if it should arise. Very seldom did we have any cars come to the canyon during the hot weather. But as my husband was under the car, two carloads of men and women went by us going to the river. In those days, being caught with only your underwear on was practically as bad as streaking is today. Another unusual incident comes to mind. Hearing some shouting one day, we looked up the river, seeing three boatloads of men coming around the bend. They had started at the source of the Colorado River, travelling through the Grand Canyon, running rapids, avoiding eddies and whirlpools, and had travelled several hundred miles. They stopped and told us of their trip, and we served them coffee. This was the first expedition to accomplish this feat. I have forgotten the name of the expedition, but the National Geographic carried a full account of their dangerous journey, which was illustrated with pictures. For entertainment, we used to trap for wild animals. We caught coyotes, fox, skunks, and other small desert animals. The boys would skin them and collect bounty on their hides. We roamed the hills and canyons hunting agates and other rocks. On these forays, we were quite often accompanied by our cat. He had been taken to the canyon in the beginning of the UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 8 investigation several years before. During the summer, when no human habitation was around, we foraged going south, living on small desert animals and whatever he could find. I have seen him eating lizards and grasshoppers. It was said that he had been seen eating rattlesnakes. When camp was opened up in the fall, he would make his appearance at the mess hall the first day for his rations, a very tired and thin cat. We often wished he could tell us of his experiences during the hot summers there alone. We knew something had happened to him because, when we would go for our walks in a certain direction, he would only go so far, let out an awful yowl, and wait there for our return. When we left there, we tried to take him out with us because there would be no one coming back, but we could not get him into a crate to put him into the car. Perhaps it was just as well; he probably would not have been able to adjust to civilization. How long he could survive, we had no idea. I claim the distinction of being the first white woman to have lived in this area, and I doubt if there were many after me. Now, all of this territory is covered by Lake Mead. We lived there until December, the last two months of which my husband had no helper. So, I helped with the book work and reports required for information at the office in Denver. When we left, everything was dismantled, as that was the end of the investigation in Boulder Canyon. Early in 1930, Congress appropriated money for the building of the dam to start on July the 1st, 1930. It had been decided from the data at hand, Black Canyon would be the logical site, being closer to the railroad and highways, making it more accessible to being in the needed supplies for the construction and for the living conditions. Although the dam was built at Black Canyon, for several years it was known as Boulder Dam. It is still hard for the old timers to think of it as Hoover Dam. Immediately after money was appropriated, men, including my husband, UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 9 were sent to this area to do further surveys in relation to the dam and also map a new town site which would be named Boulder City. On July the 1st, 1930, the Jackson family—there were two boys by this time—was on its way to Nevada. A few days later, we went out to the town site, which would soon be bustling with work, building the homes and streets and everything that goes into the making of the town. We were not able to move to Boulder City until October of the next year. Most of the families lived in Las Vegas. A camp was set up for the government employees near what is now Boulder City, and they came home for weekends. Now, that is within easy commuting distance. Our house was on Park Street near the hospital, and one of the first ones ready for occupancy. For many months, we had not improved streets, but they were working on them, and houses being built at a rapid rate. People began moving in as fast as they were ready. Then it was realized no school had been provided. However, there was a beautiful jail. The Six Companies admitted the offered two of their houses, and two qualified teachers volunteered to take over. Each family paid, as I remember it, five dollars per month per child to the teacher of his child. Later on, I believe there were more volunteer teachers, as was needed, until a schoolhouse was built. These so-called schoolhouses were also used for Sunday school and church until the contracted mess hall was offered for church. Parson Tom Stevenson came to Boulder City early and took a great interest in the youth and all activity in the town. In a year or so, a beautiful elementary schoolhouse had been built. High school students had to be bused to Las Vegas, however. Ground was broken for the community church in the fall of 1932, of which I was a charter member and its first organist. I am wondering if the little pump organ is still in the church basement, as the old timers hoped it would be. UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 10 In the early day, the sandstorms were really bad. One day, our older son was in school down at the other end of town, and the wind began to blow. It grew worse and worse. By noon, it was like a sand blizzard. There was so much sand because of all the activity and construction, street building, and so forth. The sand was all stirred up, and nothing to hold it down. We knew our son could never make it home and were getting ready to go after him when his teacher’s husband delivered him to our door. They had dismissed school and were taking all of the children home safely. The bad winds came from the south. Our house, being at the north end of the city and on a side hill, caught a lot of the sand that blew up that way. The government gardeners tried so hard to get the lawn started, and sandstorms would come along and cover up the new grass. One time, they had to dig down a foot to find the grass level. They tried four times before the grass could hold its own against the elements. But as streets and buildings were finished, and parks with grass and shrubs put in, the sand as gradually under control. Finally, Boulder City became a beautiful place. No doubt anyone seeing it now would never guess what sweat and toil went into the making of this beautiful oasis in the desert. Jack’s first assignment was as resident engineer on the highway that runs from Boulder City to the dam site. He was quite proud of that piece of work, and our sons always called it (unintelligible). It had some very steep grades on it for those days, and cars found it difficult to climb. However, today, these grades probably are nothing. Also, heavy cuts had to be made through solid rock to locate it around the hillside. At one place on the road, there was a lookout point made which was my husband’s idea. From here, today, the public can view beautiful Lake Mead and the mountains in the background. After the road was finished and the railroad track had been built from Las Vegas, construction could begin. The dam site was now connected to the outside world. The needed UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 11 supplies for such a huge project could be brought in. When the actual work on the dam began, Jack was placed in charge of one shift as chief engineer. There were three shifts, and work went on around the clock, each shift working eight hours. These shifts rotated every two weeks so that no one had to work the nighttime shift more than any of the house. In a way, it was harder for the men, as they were no sooner used to one shift, then they would have to change. Their duties were to inspect the concrete that went into the dam. It had to meet certain specifications, had to be the right texture, not too dry, not too wet. If it did not come up to specifications, it was rejected and sent back. The dam was divided into cribs, or boarded up areas. I think these were probably forty or fifty feet square When a crib was built so high, the moved to another area. The first crib had to be thoroughly set before the boards were removed and another crib could then be put poured inside it. The concrete was kept cool by evaporating systems spraying water over it. I know there’s a better explanation of this, but being of the female sex, I have to tell it as I saw it. This concrete was mixed at the mixing plant nearby and carried in huge containers or buckets up over the area to be poured. Everything was run by machinery. When a signal was received that it was over the crib they were pouring, it was let down neat the spot, and by remote control, the bottom opened. It was dumped into the exact spot where it was needed. The contractor’s men would puddle it to be sure no air pockets existed and to ensure a smooth mass of concrete. All of this was the responsibility of the inspectors to see that it did meet the specifications. There were many fine men on this job, and the best of engineers were there to guide the progress of the work. Some of the men my husband worked with were Walker R. Young, Ralph Lowry, John Page, Grant (unintelligible), Arby Williams, Jack Roar, W. A. Dexheimer, Paul Jones, Victor Rant, and Don Walters, to name a few. Don Walters’s father, at that time, was the UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 12 chief of the U.S. Reclamation Service, and my husband knew him well. There was not all work and no play; we had our diversions. The government employees lived in this northern part of the city, and the contractor’s employees in the southern, but they intermingled in church and club work. There were three churches: Grace Community, Latter-day Saints, and Catholic. Those who participated in the activities in church and school grew to know each other, and many lasting friendships were formed. Then, there were the bridge clubs and parties. Here, too, the townspeople would get together, and many good games filled in the hour. We were charter members of the American Legion and its auxiliary. I was leader of the Girl Scout troops for some time, which was sponsored by the American Legion. We made trips into the desert looking for purple bottles and beautiful rocks, having picnics in the shade of a cliff or under a willow tree by the river. We explored old mining towns, we visited Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion, and the Valley of Fire, In those days, we had to go by way of Las Vegas when we wanted to see the things to the north of us, which made it much farther than it is today. The highway along the west side of the lake wasn’t built until much later. Our street was a short one. As I remember, only eight homes were there then. We had potluck dinners in the backyards, which were all beautiful in a year or so after we went there. We were like one big family. The hospital, which was at the end of our street, was built primarily to care for the casualties from the construction and had its own staff. This was under the jurisdiction of the contractor. A group of doctors in Las Vegas opened an office in Boulder City and placed one of their doctors in charge. These patients were hospitalized in Las Vegas. Later, we had a telephone, but it was on an extension of the government’s switchboard; it really was a business phone. Later, a telephone system was put in, and we could make any calls we wished. UNLV University Libraries Edna Jackson-Ferguson 13 In April 1935, the pouring of the concrete was finished, and Jack was transferred to the All-American Canal with headquarters in Yuma, Arizona. Leaving Yuma in 1938, he went to the Shasta Dam project in Northern California. In April 1944, he was returned to Boulder City to take charge of repair work in the spillway tunnels, which had been made necessary by the force of the water eroding and tearing away the concrete. Again, we lived on Park Street, but our sons were both in military service. We have none of the same neighbors that we had in construction days. The repair work was finished in 1947. Jack had a couple more assignments with the Bureau of Reclamation and then retired in 1951. After retirement from this branch of the government, Jack went to Africa as a consultant on a dam being built there by Great Britain. Later, he had a (unintelligible) job in (unintelligible). He spent about a year on each overseas project. Jack passed away in January 1961. To our family, Hoover Dam holds a place dear to our hearts. We have always been proud when we have visited there to know that we had a part in it, and to see my husband’s name on the bronze plaque by the left elevator going down into the dam.