Boulder Dam National Recreation Area – Forgotten but Not Gone?

Old postcard of "Boulder Dam Recreational Area." Image courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.

Today marks the 72nd birthday of what has become the fifth-most heavily-visited site in America's National Park System—but you won't find it on a current map, at least under its original name.

Boulder Dam National Recreation Area and Boulder Dam were inextricably related, and they're still big players on the Western landscape. However, during their first 30 years the pair underwent more name changes than the rock entertainer formerly known as….

The initial name for Boulder Dam and the future recreation area was a logical one. Serious interest in a major dam on the Colorado River dates back to at least 1905-1907, when flood waters from the Colorado River caused extensive damage in southern California and created the Salton Sea. A promising site south of Las Vegas in Boulder Canyon provided a name for the project in 1928, so even though the dam was eventually constructed several miles away in Black Canyon, the title stuck—for a while.

That name changed on September 17, 1930, when President Hoover's Secretary of the Interior made a surprising announcement during a visit to Las Vegas: the monumental structure would henceforth be called "the Hoover Dam."

I hope the government didn't order too many signs. Less than three years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt's election ushered in a new administration, a change in political parties, and an aversion to any connection with Herbert Hoover.

In 1933 a memorandum by the new Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, began making the rounds. It stated, "… I would be glad if you will refer to the dam as 'Boulder Dam….'"

To paraphrase the old saying, "When the Secretary ain't happy, nobody's happy…" at least not anyone who works in his Department. This memo didn't carry the weight of law, but it achieved the desired effect on a practical level.

The good news for Park Service staffers was that this moniker tug-of-war took a lengthy time-out beginning in 1933. Well before work had even begun on the dam, officials at the Bureau of Reclamation realized that an enormous new lake in the middle of the Mohave Desert would attract a lot of people who wanted to play on, in and around all that water. The Reclamation staff also knew that they didn't want to manage all that recreating.

Unsuccessful attempts were made in 1933 and 1935 to authorize a Boulder Dam National Reservation, to be managed by the National Park Service. Faced with growing public use as the new lake began to fill and still responsible for all those visitors, the Bureau of Reclamation went to Plan B: a cooperative agreement with the NPS.

On October 13, 1936, the National Park Service assumed responsibility for managing public recreation at the still-forming body of water that had recently been named Lake Mead. Boulder Dam National Recreation Area—and a new role for the National Park Service—were born.

The pros and cons of creating a new category dubbed "recreation areas" in the National Park System continue to be debated, but there's no doubt the addition has been a significant one. When it comes to dams and the resulting opportunities for water-based recreation, the signature line from the movie Field of Dreams definitely holds true: "If you build it, they will come."

At Lake Mead, which recorded 7,622,139 visits in 2007, "they" have come in droves. By official estimates, there were 48.9 million visits last year to all of the recreation areas administered by the NPS. That's 18 percent of the total visits to the system, second only to the 62.2 millions visits (23 percent) to areas categorized as "national parks."

There's always been some discomfort in the ranks of national park supporters when it comes to managing areas created by the damming of rivers. Perhaps it seemed more appropriate to name the recreation area after a man-made lake rather than after the dam that created that lake. These things take time, but in 1947, the name of the site was changed from Boulder Dam National Recreation Area to Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The final twist in the political name game also occurred in 1947, when President Harry Truman signed legislation under which "the name of Hoover Dam is hereby restored to the dam on the Colorado River in Black Canyon…." That's the official name today, although some older residents of the area continue to use the "Boulder" label.

One final step remained on the path to full legitimacy for the recreation area, which had been administered by the NPS under the cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation since 1936. On October 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act that formally established Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Perhaps the next chapter in the saga of the "disappearing" Boulder Dam National Recreation Area will be written courtesy of Mother Nature. Water levels in Lake Mead have dropped precipitously in recent years due to the current severe drought, and there have been some predictions that if the present weather pattern continues unabated for several more years, the lake could actually dry up.

Should such a drastic event actually occur, that begs the question for the next crop of politicians: If there's no longer a lake, do you change the name of Lake Mead National Recreation Area? If so, perhaps something that includes the word "Boulder" would be appropriate.