Saying goodbye to the dam

The Williams family at Glen Canyon Dam last month. Left to Right: Paige, Ernie, Evelyn and Tom.

Ernie Williams helped build Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s. Now 89 years old, he returned to Page last month with is wife to have a final look at the huge project that brought them to Arizona from Ohio six decades ago.

In 1960, 28-year-old truck driver Ernie Williams was living in Ohio with his wife Evelyn and their three kids when he heard about a big construction project underway in northern Arizona: A concrete-arch dam was being built across the Colorado River, upstream from the Grand Canyon, and they were looking for workers. 

Ernie’s second cousin, Floyd, was already in Arizona working on the project, and Ernie decided to go out and join him.

“Me and Floyd kinda lived together at another friend’s place who had a porch and a cabana at the end. I worked graveyard shift, he worked daylight shift, so it worked out good,” Ernie, now 89 years old, told the Lake Powell Chronicle during his visit to Page last month. 

Ernie was accompanied on last month’s visit by Evelyn and their youngest son Tom, as well as Tom’s wife Paige. The family shared memories with the Lake Powell Chronicle on a Friday afternoon, while sitting around the kitchen table at a bed and breakfast on Driftwood Avenue. Ernie reminisced about working on the dam, and Evelyn talked about life in Page during its early incarnation as a workers’ camp for the dam builders.    

Evelyn said the decision to move to Page in 1960 was partly motivated by the difficulty of finding work in Ohio at the time, and partly by the changing attitudes about moving away from home in the years following World War II.

“I really think it was all about not finding work where you lived, and I think people were reaching out to where there was work to go to. There was a lot of dam-building years ago,” she said.

“We were married 10 years after World War II ended, and I think World War II made more people reach out from their original home site. So, when Ernie and I made the move, we were the first in our generation to step out and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ And it was just an adventure, it was exciting.”

Ernie initially came to Arizona in 1960 without Evelyn and their three kids, but he returned to Ohio for the Thanksgiving holiday. Then, over New Year’s, Evelyn and the children moved out with him to Arizona, where the family stayed until the dam was nearly completed in 1963. Tom, the fourth child, was born while they were living in Page. 

“He was born January 6, 1962. He was the second one born in the New Year. A friend who worked with me on the dam, his wife gave birth first,” Ernie said.

Life in the Arizona desert

Once Evelyn and the kids were in Arizona, Ernie bought a 10-by-50-foot Rembrandt mobile home to live in. For a family from Ohio, life in the American Southwest took some adjustment. 

“We’re in Ohio, we never knew what sand was,” Ernie said. “I worked graveyard shift, so I slept in the daytime. Had the windows all shut because we had a swamp cooler up there, you know, but when I woke up, we had a sandstorm, and here’s my head print in my pillow. Sand would come through a window that rain won’t.”

At another point, the town’s water pumps got clogged with sand, leaving many households without water until they were repaired. 

Despite the hardships, Evelyn said she was in “awe” of the desert, the beautiful sunrises and the traditional lifestyles of the Navajo. While Ernie worked at the dam all night and slept during the daytime, she was kept busy with her children, who were aged 3 years, 20 months and 3 months when they arrived in Page. 

“Because Ernie worked the night shift and we lived in a trailer, I would take the children for rides in a wooden red wagon, and we would walk everywhere,” Evelyn said. “At that time, I only recall there was a post office, a grocery store and the park. So, we were outside most of the time and walking.”

She said it was a “wonderful time” to raise kids because they weren’t diverted like they are nowadays. 

“We had no television, no telephone, no radio until after 7 o’clock at night, and that came from Oklahoma City,” she said, adding that her other activities included reading to the children and writing long letters to her parents and Ernie’s parents every Sunday night.

“I did do a lot of baking because when they had to truck everything up from Flagstaff, things were expensive at the grocery store. So, I had to bake my own bread. I remember one time baking long rolls for hot dogs because we couldn’t get hot dog buns here,” she said. 

Evelyn also made extra money ironing clothing for the cast and crew of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a big-budget Hollywood movie that was shot in the Glen Canyon area during the winter of 1962-1963.

“I must have been up to midnight. Three babies, and here I am making a dollar to iron clothes for some of the actors in the film,” she said. “We did have a laundromat and they would manage to do their own laundry, but then they would hire us to iron their clothes. That was the years of cotton, you know, so everything had to be ironed.”

Between Ernie’s work at the dam and Evelyn’s focus on the children, the couple didn’t socialize much with their neighbors. Their main association was with the congregation at the Free Methodist Church.

“Reverend Glover and Ethel Glover, they would babysit for us when we went down to Flagstaff and get groceries or something,” Ernie said.

One day, an official from the Bureau of Reclamation allowed him a few other men from the church to drive a pickup truck through the dam’s long access tunnel down to the Colorado River.

“Went down there and got driftwood, put it in the truck, brought it up and put it in front of the church for decoration. It was just no bark on it or anything, because it was beaten in the water down there, see?” Ernie said. “We went down through the access tunnel and back up. That wouldn’t be allowed now.”

On another day, Ernie and Evelyn rappelled hundreds of feet down the canyon wall – from the top all the way down to the river and back up again – at the “less steep” area across from what is now the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook.

“We were probably hunting for something to do,” Evelyn said. “There were no movies, no bowling. There was nothing here.”  

But there were other unexpected sources of entertainment, including the lack of wintertime driving skills among dam workers who had moved to Page from places like Phoenix. 

“I think the funniest thing was wintertime here. People from Phoenix come up here to work. They never drove on snowy roads. They would gun it and fishtail and everything,” Ernie said with a chuckle. “It’s a good thing the streets are wide. I drove truck in snow, and I knew all about that.”

But the overall lack of modern distractions sometimes led to a sense of isolation, Ernie added.

“When nighttime come, you always think about home back in Ohio. You’d get a homesick feeling, even though I was that age and had a wife and children. But it’s just something kind of come on you, you know?” he said.  

Working on the dam

Most nights, though, Ernie was occupied with his work on the dam. He said he was glad to work graveyard shift “because you don’t have many bosses walking on catwalks seeing what’s going on.”

Ernie worked on a crew that built the metal forms into which the concrete was poured after they passed inspection by Bureau of Reclamation officials. The work started under the bedrock, and from there the dam was built upward in sections.

Ernie started as a crew member but was later promoted to foreman. With that promotion came added responsibility, including making sure his crew members were qualified for the job at hand.

“I fired a man when I was foreman. Well, he asked for it. He didn’t have his tools with him. He may have had a saw, I can’t remember. Well, he said, they’re going to ship them to me, but I haven’t got them yet. I said, I can’t send you to do a job because you don’t have the tools,” Ernie recalled.

Ernie gave the man a simple task that didn't require tools, then walked away, but stopped to watch what the man would do next. 

“He walks over and starts talking to another guy that was working. Well, that got me. I went back down, and I says, did you get it done? He said, no, I didn’t quite understand what you wanted me to do. I said, well, I’ll give you a piece of paper and you’ll understand what it is. It was a pink slip.”

Ernie said word about that firing got back to him from his superiors, who told him they wished they had more foremen unafraid to dismiss workers who weren't qualified to work at the dam.

Competence was essential at such as dangerous worksite, where so many things could go wrong. One night, the electricity went off when a truck hit an electric pole down in Flagstaff. The construction site was cast into complete darkness at a moment when a 24-ton-capacity bucket of concrete was being lowered down to the bottom of the dam. 

“They didn’t know where the bucket was at. The bell boy couldn’t see nothing. He’s down in there to bring it in,” Ernie said. “Anyway, they got portable lights up on the bridge to shine down, found the bucket, cranked it down by hand.”

Another time, a cable was severed by a cherry picker that was being used to raise a form at the top of the dam. “That whole form went down over the face of the dam and hit a catwalk, knocked a man off and killed him,” Ernie said. 

In another incident that sounds like it came straight from the pages a murder mystery novel, a welder died when he used his torch to cut through a length of pipe that, unbeknownst to anyone, had been packed with gunpowder. 

“Somebody put black powder in it. No one knew this. And the day-crew man took a welder torch to cut it to length, killed him and somebody else next to him,” Ernie said. “Even when we come in the graveyard shift, afternoon shift had patched holes in the form, but you could still see flesh on that wall. It was kind of frightening.”

Toward the end of his time working on Glen Canyon Dam, Ernie witnessed the breaching of the temporary coffer dam, which had been built before the project began to divert the Colorado River from flowing through the construction site.

“When I was going off shift one morning, the water kept getting closer to the top of that coffer dam, see? We’re about four or five of us there, and it’s gonna break today. It’s gonna be the day,” he said. 

While the others thought the breach would occur at one of the canyon walls, Ernie was sure it would break in the middle – knowledge he had gained by building small earth dams on his grandfather’s farm back East. 

“That’s where it broke. We were looking right at it, and it just started crinkling, and it just kept going out and out and out and out and out,” he said. “The water come up against the dam, but there was two-by-fours, lumber, so much stuff, debris above that. They had to clean all that up out of there.”

By the time the Williams family departed Page in 1963, only a little bit of work was left to be done at the top of Glen Canyon Dam. They didn’t stick around for the opening ceremony before returning to Ohio.

The family later moved back to Arizona in 1972, living in Mesa for about seven years. During that time, Ernie held foreman jobs at three different companies, including a Goodyear recap shop in Phoenix and Evan Steel in Gilbert. They made occasional camping trip back to the Page area, but eventually moved back East again. Ernie and Evelyn now live back in Ohio, while Tom and Paige reside in North Carolina.

Goodbye to the dam

The family’s visit to Page last month was well timed: They stopped by Carl Hayden Visitor Center on the day it reopened after two years of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ernie and Evelyne were invited to go out on the dam with a tour group and share their recollections of life in Page nearly 60 years ago. 

Evelyn told the Chronicle that Page and the surrounding region now seem very “cluttered” compared to the early 1960s.

“When we came here, some of the Indians still lived in the dome-shaped hogans. From Flagstaff up, you could still see people living in them, and they were herding their sheep. It was very, very pure,” she said.

“Now it’s too busy, it’s too … I don’t know the word. I don’t want to be unkind in my thoughts, but it’s just …” Evelyn paused in thought. “I feel like we took the Navajo Reservation away from the Indians. I can see the advantages of the dam and the power of the water as a source for Phoenix and so on. But you can’t bring back what we took away.”

Like many people who saw the area before the dam was completed, Evelyn seemed nostalgic for everything that was submerged by Lake Powell.

“When we first came, we still could see the chiseling on the surface of the rock where the Mormons lowered their horses and their wagons and so on. We could see an old Western movie site where they would come and make movies for the West – saloons, banks and so on. All of that went under water. And we were fortunate to see what was natural here,” she said.

She added that she had seen several articles in recent weeks questioning whether keeping the dam was advantageous in the midst of the current drought, or whether it would be better to tear it down and let the river flow free.

Ernie, however, wasn’t interested in hearing talk about decommissioning the dam. 

“Well, I’ll make a statement: I have more love for that dam than the town of Page. You know, I lived on that dam, on the town dirt. Now, this is – no. I wouldn’t want to live here. I said goodbye to the dam,” he said, choking up with tears as he spoke. 

It’s clear that Ernie considers his contribution to building Glen Canyon Dam – at 726 feet tall, still the second-highest concrete-arch dam in the United States – to be the work of a lifetime. He proudly showed off the silver hard hat he wore on the job, which his son Tom brought along on last month’s trip to Page as a surprise for his father. 

“When I left here, I told them when I turned my boots in, I said my hat fell off. I wanted a souvenir. You can look underneath, and you can tell it’s got age to it,” he said, flipping the hard hat over to show the old leather liner.

The wear and tear on the liner was plain to see, scuffed and stained as it was with the immense labor and sweat that it took to build that giant dam across the Colorado River six decades ago.

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