Hoover Dam High Scalers
Were They Thrill Seekers, Motivated By Money or Crazy?
Some would call these guys crazy or at least driven by the adrenaline rush of exposure to extreme danger, or motivated by money. They were paid about 75 cents per hour versus the average of 50 cents for regular Hoover Dam construction.
They were called “High Scalers” and carefully selected with consideration given to fitting backgrounds. Each had to be fearless, agile and extremely physically fit. Some were former sailors and even circus acrobats. And many were Native American Indians that lived in harsh terrains.
The job was to climb down canyon walls on ropes to remove loose and weakened rocks along the canyon walls where the dam walls would join. Descending down the cliffs with the weight of tools, water and food, others would lower jackhammers to drill powder holes. The High Scalers would fill the holes with dynamite and after hand maneuvering out of the way of explosives, they went to work with crowbars to remove loosened rock.
Danger from falling rocks was extreme which was the most common cause of death among those that died constructing Hoover Dam. Initially, hard hats were not distributed to dam workers, but High Scalers improvised by coating soft cloth hats with hot coal tar. This improvising undoubtedly saved many lives.
High Scalers had nerves of steel, but this is why many thought most of them were merely thrill-crazy. When foremen weren’t looking, they would perform death-defying stunts as entertainment of those dam workers below. They would compete to see who could swing the furthest, the highest and perform the most thrilling acts high above the canyon floor.
There was a particularly brave Scaler named Louis Fagan who was known as the “human pendulum”. An obstructing large boulder protruded from the cliffs on the Arizona side. While hanging by rope, the transferring High Scaler would wrap his legs around Fagan’s waist, grasp the rope and together with a mighty leap, they would swing way out and around the boulder to reach scaling requirements on the other side. This acrobatic transfer took place twice daily until the job was complete.
Thrill seeking, entertaining and death defying, the High Scalers were perhaps the most interesting of all dam workers.
Photos compliments of: Boulder City Museum
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