May 2011

High and Mighty

The new bridge over the river Colorado wasn’t designed as a work of art, but necessity became the mother to grandeur

The Hoover Dam was situated precisely where it was—wedged into the inhospitable desert landscape of the Colorado River’s Black Canyon—to control floods and provide water for both farmers and city dwellers in the West. But the dam wound up becoming a victim of its own success.

With the population of the Southwest having surged by 40 million since the 1930s—much of that spawned by the promise of abundant water and power—the strip of blacktop upon the dam’s crest evolved from a remote desert crossing to a bottleneck on a major regional thoroughfare for up to 14,000 vehicles a day. Throw in the increased security and safety concerns, and the need for a bypass became manifest.

So a new bridge was conceived to traverse the very same canyon. Construction of the main span 500 yards downstream began in 2005, and on October 19, 2010, the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge was opened to traffic. Jamey Stillings happened upon the project in 2009, when he took a breather from his job as a commercial photographer by heading into the desert from his Santa Fe home without map or agenda. Documenting the toil and ingenuity involved in the project soon became “a labor of love and obsession,” he says.

Such aspects of monumental public works are almost always forgotten after the projects are finished—scaffolding removed, crews dispersed, worksite swept clean. But Stillings’ images memorialize the handiwork of construction in all its grace and beauty: the sinuous cables supporting the emerging arms of the arch until they met midway over the river and clasped each other in mutual support; the intricate girders underpinning the roadway; the steel towers and cranes among which the massive connector took shape.

Like the elemental majesty of the dam it so perfectly complements, the bridge’s soaring lines tempt us to believe it has always been part of the stark natural landscape. But Stillings reminds us mankind built this work with brains and brawn.

MICHAEL HILTZIK is the Los Angeles Times business columnist and author of Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century. His book The New Deal: A True History will be published in September.