Most folks figured out a long time ago that the Boulder Highway is so named because it's the road to Boulder City. What is less obvious is how Boulder City got that name.
Dennis McBride, an expert on Boulder City history and curator of history and collections at the Nevada State Museum, wrote an extensive article on the name changes of Hoover Dam and Boulder City titled "How Hoover Dam Got Its Dam Name." It can be viewed on the Boulder City/Hoover Dam website, bcmha.org.
When the great dam that created Lake Mead was being planned in the 1920s, there was no Boulder City, no Boulder Highway and little reason to be in that area. A meandering road led vaguely southeast through the valley for drivers who needed to get to the Eldorado Valley and Searchlight.
Originally, the dam was going to be built in Boulder Canyon, about 40 miles up the Colorado River from Black Canyon, where it was actually built. Through much of the 1920s, the best location for the dam was debated, with Boulder Canyon seeming the most likely spot.
When the St. Francis Dam above Los Angeles collapsed in March 1928, killing more than 500 people, speculation about the location went out the window and science came into the equation in the form of a board of engineers appointed by Congress to settle the matter once and for all. The board filed a report on Dec. 3, 1928, recommending Black Canyon as the dam site. Despite that, the act of Congress authorizing construction signed on Dec. 21, 1928, by President Calvin Coolidge was called the Boulder Canyon Project Act.
"They changed the location, but they never changed the name of the project," said McBride. "So there's Boulder City, Boulder Credit Union, the Boulder Dam Area Council of the Boy Scouts, but the dam is in Black Canyon."
The nomenclature was further complicated on Sept. 17, 1930, when Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur Sr. came to Las Vegas to attend a ceremony opening construction of a branch railroad line to the Boulder City town site. According to a Sept. 18, 1930, Las Vegas Age article, Wilbur said that in accordance with many requests, the project being built under the Boulder Canyon Project Act would be called the Hoover Dam.
President Herbert Hoover took office in March 1929, and there was some precedent for naming new dams for current presidents. Dams had been named for Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt during their administrations.
The stock market crash in October 1929 led to Hoover being a particularly unpopular president, and most things named for him were named ironically. Shantytowns populated by displaced people became Hoovervilles, newspapers used as blankets were called Hoover blankets, and an empty pocket turned inside out was called a Hoover flag.
With that going on, it isn't surprising that the name took a while to stick. When Hoover visited the site in 1932, the workers booed him. When the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration came in, the name was changed back to Boulder Dam, only to be restored to Hoover Dam by the Truman administration.
The highway itself was built in 1931, and the name stayed constant despite all the back and forth of the dam name. The road makes a beeline from Five Points, which is at Charleston Boulevard and Fremont Street near downtown Las Vegas, to Railroad Pass.
"It's a classic engineers' road," said Mark Hall-Patton, administrator for the Clark County Museums. "They took a map, laid a ruler on it and drew a line between the two points they wanted to connect. It pays no attention to the topography of the land."
While Boulder Highway still fits Nevada's legal definition of the term highway, it stopped being the main route to Boulder City in the early 1990s when it was supplanted by the major freeway that is simultaneously U.S. Highway 93, U.S. Highway 95, Interstate 515, Veterans Memorial Highway, the Las Vegas Expressway and the Great Basin Highway.
Although the road is no longer what we think of as a highway and never went to Boulder Canyon, the name has remained for more than 80 years, and many businesses along the highway have included "Boulder" as part of their names.
Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 380-4532.