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Black Canyon History

Black Canyon Lake Mohave

The Colorado River has long been a source for survival in the Mohave Desert. Early Native Americans used the water for drinking and for irrigation of crops such as corn, beans and squash. But the river was unpredictable and farming was as much a gamble as any visitor to Las Vegas will find today. The ancient Anasazi mysteriously left the area about 800-850 years ago, probably because of a long period of drought. The only evidence that remains of their habitation in Southern Nevada are petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls, metates used for grinding food and the remains of their huts. The Southern Paiute used natural springs for irrigation of some meager crops, but they were more inclined to forage for roots, berries and nuts to augment the hunting of wildlife. It was a harsh environment and did not support a large population. The first European Americans to the area were amazed that anyone could survive.

The Black Canyon of the Colorado River played a significant part in the establishment of communities in the American southwest. But the first explorers to visit the area considered it a navigator's nightmare. After his steamboat "The Explorer" hit a rock, 1st Lt. Joseph C. Ives of the Corps of Engineers continued in a skiff to explore the canyon and it was determined that when the water was high the canyon was navigable to steamboat traffic. Steamboats brought supplies to area mines, ranches in the Las Vegas Valley and to steamboat landings built by settlers from Utah to be used as transfer points for supplies, which would then continue by wagon to Utah. To navigate the many rapids, iron rings were set into the canyon walls, which were used to help winch the paddle wheelers up through the turbulent waters. Many of these rings can still be found today. But seasonal flooding and the construction of the railroad through the Vegas Valley put an end to the steamboat era. The flooding became such a problem that plans were begun to build a dam. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act on Dec. 21, 1928 and notice to proceed with construction of the dam was given to Six Companies in 1931.

The construction of Hoover Dam transformed an arid desert into one of the most spectacular recreation areas in the southwest. Work took place non-stop, 24 hours a day. Three and a quarter million yards of concrete went into the dam and that would be enough to build a sidewalk from the North Pole to the South Pole. At the peak of construction, more than 5,000 men were employed by Six Companies and were housed in the first master planned community in the United States; Boulder City, Nevada. But the construction site was so remote that until an access road could be built, workers were transported eleven and a half miles upriver through the Black Canyon from an area known as Willow Beach. The last bucket of concrete was poured in 1935 and the waters of the Colorado Rivers slowly started to back up behind the dam to form Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in North America.

Concerned about the effects of the dam, the Civilian Conservation Corps, in 1934, built a gauging station in the Black Canyon to determine the impact on the environment. Engineers measured the height of the river, the rate of the flow and took samples of the water to check for purity. The remains of this gauging station are still visible from the river. It was determined that the river would be the perfect environment for trout and stocking of the fish began and continues to this day making the Black Canyon one of the more popular areas for anglers. In 1964, this area became part of the National Park System and was designated the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The recreation area includes Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Even with the rapid growth of the Las Vegas Valley, the Black Canyon remains of the most beautiful and remote areas in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.