A Breathtaking New Bridge

The construction of the bridge that bypasses the Hoover Dam was an Erector Set dream come true for this photographer

Hoover Dam bridge awaiting decking
The bridge, which is awaiting decking and with temporary pylons in September 2009, was built to bypass the part of U.S. Route 93 that crosses the Hoover Dam. Jamey Stillings

Jamey Stillings has been a professional photographer since 1983. His work has taken him across the country and to Nicaragua, India and the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. In March of 2009, he was between assignments when he decided to take what he calls a "photo road trip" from his home in Santa Fe to the Mojave Desert to scout some solar-power plants there.

He didn't make it to the power plants that day. A sight at the Hoover Dam intervened: two legs of an incomplete arch had been anchored into opposite sides of a canyon about a quarter-mile south of the dam; they were held up by steel cables stretched over towering concrete pillars. Clearly, an epic bridge was underway. "I looked at the bridge and said, "Holy Toledo," recalls Stillings. "It played on all the Erector Set fantasies you could imagine. I've had a long-standing interest in the man-altered landscape, in places where man and nature intersect, and this was that on steroids."

It was sunset—the construction lights were coming on. "I just thought, wow, how about spending a day here?" he says. One day turned into more than 30 visits over the next year and a half as the bridge—centerpiece of the Hoover Dam bypass that opened this past October—took shape. Half a dozen times, he chartered a helicopter on his own dime.

The dam, dedicated 75 years ago, remains one of the engineering wonders of the world: a concrete wall more than 1,200 feet long and 700 feet high that corked the Colorado River, created the startling blue vastness of Lake Mead and still provides water and electricity to three states. But the bridge is a worthy complement: it carries a four-lane highway almost 900 feet above the river, and it rests on the longest concrete arch in the United States, 1,060 feet. It was built to circumvent the dam-crossing stretch of U.S. Route 93, which was a narrow, tortuous and accident-prone kink in the designated NAFTA highway corridor between Mexico and Canada. Tourists can still drive across the dam, but others will be routed over what has been named the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, commemorating, respectively, a popular 1970s Nevada governor and the former Arizona Cardinals football player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004 while serving in the U.S. Army.

Stillings says he'd like his photographs of the bridge to commemorate the talent and labor of those who built it. But he acknowledges, too, a lingering sadness now that the project is finished. "The evolution of something is more interesting than its completion," he says. "We don't yet understand everything about what it's going to become."

Jamey Stillings is a photographer based in Santa Fe. T.A. Frail is a senior editor at Smithsonian.

At its height, the workforce included over 5,400 men. Chinese were forbidden from working on the dam, and the number of black workers was capped at 30. Workers had to toil in 120-degree weather. Mansell Collection / TIME & LIFE Pictures
By the time the dam was completed, it contained 3,250,000 cubic yards of concrete. Mansell Collection / TIME & LIFE Pictures
The dam was originally called the Boulder Dam, despite the fact that it was in the Black Canyon, not Boulder Canyon. Controversy over whether to name it after FDR's much-reviled predecessor, Herbert Hoover, raged for over a decade. It was finally officially named the Hoover Dam by Congress in 1947. Keystone / Getty Images
At the same time as the construction of the dam itself, workers erected its power plant. Here: An 82,500-kilovolt-ampere rotor is lowered into place on the Arizona wing of the dam. Atlas / Getty Images
July 2009: The bridge's twin-ribbed arch was built on two legs that grew outward from the Nevada and Arizona sides of Black Canyon until they met in the center. The concrete for each segment of the arch was poured in place over rebar-reinforced forms. Jamey Stillings
The bridge, which is awaiting decking and with temporary pylons in September 2009, was built to bypass the part of U.S. Route 93 that crosses the Hoover Dam. Jamey Stillings
July 2009: Steel cables stretched over the giant pylons provided support until the arch was completed. Jamey Stillings
April 2009: Ironworkers hiked out to each day's construction site, making sure to bring their lunches with them. Jamey Stillings
July 2010: Decked with four lanes of highway and a sidewalk, the bridge looms almost 300 feet above the Hoover Dam, offering pedestrians and passengers a new view. Drivers are advised to keep their eyes on the road. Jamey Stillings
Traffic began flowing across the bridge on October 19, 2010. Highway officials expect 15,000 vehicles a day to use the bridge bypass. Jamey Stillings
More than 1,200 laborers and 300 engineers worked on the bridge over the course of five years. One worker was killed during its construction. Jamey Stillings
The bridge is the second highest in the United States (ranked behind the Royal Gorge Bridge that spans the Arkansas River in Colorado) and the seventh highest in the world. Jamey Stillings
The O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge is located approximately 1,500 feet south of the Hoover Dam, and features a sidewalk and viewing platform for tourists. Jamey Stillings
The sides of the arch took five years to literally come together, section by section from each end. Jamey Stillings

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