by Patty Sullivan
In 1931, as The Great Depression loomed over the United States, there was a new project the entire nation looked to for inspiration: the Boulder Canyon Project. The project included building a dam to control the Colorado River from flooding farmlands in California, and all the work that supported the building of the dam, including the construction of Boulder City. Initially, government surveyors identified Boulder Canyon as the site to build the dam to control the flooding. In the end however, the dam was built in Black Canyon. The name of the new dam remained “Boulder Dam” until it was renamed after president Hoover.
As word got out, folks around the country knew that the site of the building of the new dam was one of the few places in the nation to find work. However, before the dam could be built, surveying, road building and a host of other support work needed to be done. The first people to arrive in this area in 1931 for the prospect of work on the Boulder Canyon Project were the “31ers”. My grandparents, Tom and Erma Godbey, and their four children, arrived in Ragtown on June 21, 1931. Ragtown was the name of the tent encampment on the Colorado River where folks survived until they could get hired on the project and relocate to what would be known as the government reservation of Boulder City.
When my grandparents first arrived in Ragtown, they did not have a tent. They only had wool blankets that they made into a tent-like structure. They bought the tent from a widow whose husband had been killed by a delayed dynamite blast at the project site. Eventually they acquired a second tent and strung the blankets up between the tents to provide the maximum amount of shade so that the children would have some place to play out of the sun.
While grandpa Tom Godbey was away working on the roads to the new dam, grandma Erma Godbey was doing her best to survive the hardships of living in the desert. Erma was a mountain girl from Silverton Colorado, so what did she know about living in the desert? Erma’s mother was a midwife and she was raised with some sound medical knowledge. Because of the intense heat and so many people suffering from dehydration, Erma made lemonade every day for the family. Lemonade helps to replace electrolytes in the body. The water from the river, although it was pure, was so full of silt that you’d have to leave it to settle before you could drink it. She figured out that a coffee can filled with water and placed under the legs of the baby’s crib kept ants and crawling bugs out of the baby’s crib.
My grandparents did not live long in Ragtown. On July 26, 1931, three women died of heat exposure in the camp. Grandma got scared for the family and they found a way to temporarily relocate to Cowboy Bill’s Camp on Bonanza Road in Las Vegas. At Cowboy Bills’ Camp there were shade trees, artesian water and bathing facilities, and access to food on a daily basis. Grandpa Tom commuted to the dam site each day for work, making for some very long days. Many times he walked a good portion of the trip. Although this was added hardship for my grandfather, I do believe that my grandmother credits the temporary move as the reason they survived at all. When the weather cooled, the family moved back to Boulder City to what was called the Railroad Y, and there they lived in tents until they built the first privately built home in Boulder City, on Avenue L.
Since the 1950s, an annual luncheon has been held to gather these early Boulderites to share memories of activities and friendships of the early days. As the years passed and these early Boulderites became fewer, all the surviving workers from the dam building years were included. Today, anyone who has lived in Boulder City for the last 31 years or longer, is eligible to be called a 31er.
This year’s 31ers Luncheon will take place on October 18th at the College of Southern Nevada located at 700 Wyoming Street. Most of the original 31ers who worked on the Dam are no longer with us. Continuing the tradition, the families of the 31ers come to the Luncheon to continue sharing the stories and to keep the history alive. The time has come to take the 31ers Luncheon concept to a new level that will span the generations. The vision is to capture the stories of the 31ers and retell these stories of the building of Hoover Dam and Boulder City, and to expand the luncheon concept to educational outreach. This will be accomplished by skits, research presentations, traveling trunks with school age educational materials, ongoing adult and children’s theater living history projects, and video or film that can be looped for the museum and other websites.
For more information about the 31ers Luncheon or how to obtain tickets, contact the Boulder City Hoover Dam Museum at (702) 294-1988 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to be a part of the educational outreach portion, please contact Patty Sullivan at (702) 294-0335.