The Story of Two Presidents and One Dam Model

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

The contractors were given seven years to do the impossible: dam up the mighty Colorado River in Black Canyon, southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. But it only took them five, when in 1936 the completed dam was formally turned over to the federal government. Eight months earlier, on May 29, 1935, the final concrete for the project was poured and in anticipation of the completion government engineers later that summer began the commemoration, in part by commissioning a model of the massive structure.

The Boulder Canyon Project was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and construction began in 1929 in tandem with the start of President Herbert Hoover’s term. Hoover had played a large role as Secretary of Commerce for the previous eight years and helped shepherd the project through Congress. Thus, in remarks and formal documents, the structure was called the Hoover Dam early on in its history. After his 1932 election President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration changed the name to Boulder Canyon, which stuck until a 1947 act of Congress formally cleared it up and firmly established the name “Hoover Dam.” Spencer Howard, of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, succinctly lays out the naming history in his blog “What’s in a Name? The Saga of the Hoover Dam,” so I won’t bemoan the point outside noting it plays a role in today’s blog. That story, of commemorative aluminum dam models, is in part found in the National Archives at Denver’s Record Group 115, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), holdings, in a folder entitled “090.15 Models – Colorado River Project 1930-45” within the series “General Administrative and Project Records, 1919–1945.” These records dovetail with the museum collections at two of the presidential libraries within the National Archives system—the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum—to highlight a story of playing both sides of the political fence.

Models of dams had been constructed by the BOR from its very early days. Some were the size of entire rooms, to test theories, materials, and equipment, while other large models were constructed only for display purposes, loaned to museums, or installed at dam visitor centers. It was thus a natural extension of this work when in 1935 the Boulder Canyon project engineers turned to a Denver artist and foundry to create Hoover Dam models to serve as gifts.

Our records on the models start in October 1935, when Chief Engineer R. F. Walter approached Commissioner Elwood Mead with the finished model of the dam and appurtenant works. Using donated aluminum from the Aluminum Company of America, a project subcontractor, the engineers based in Denver had the model constructed by the Hosek Manufacturing Company, a foundry that had started creating plaster novelties in the 1910s but soon moved into metalwork pieces for theaters, public buildings, and homes. The sculptor, Gladys Caldwell Fisher, was also from Denver. Born in 1907, today she is known more for her sculptures of animals, notably the two massive bighorn sheep outside the federal courthouse in Denver, but she also has to her credit a bas-relief in the City and County of Denver building.

The Hosek Manufacturing Company brochure for the Boulder Dam and Power Plant model, sent to the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) by the project engineers. Note: in the 1930s BOR officials glued related records together in their administrative series. The inability to create quality scans in addition to the preservation nightmare of adhesives are two of the issues present here. (National Archives Identifier 562769)

In his October 14 letter, Walter informed Mead of the initial list of dignitaries to receive a model: each member of the Colorado River Board, the Boulder Dam Consulting Board, and the Concrete Research Board. Also slated to receive a model were architect Gordon Kaufmann and structural engineer Harold Westergaard. Walter told Mead he would receive one as well and then wondered in writing if perhaps they should send models to Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes and President Roosevelt too—after, of course, Mead received and inspected his. We get no idea of just how many were to be cast; the group contracted for a “considerable number of models,” and staffers who wanted to buy their own could for $3 above the actual cost.

Chief Engineer R. F. Walter to Commissioner Elwood Mead, October 14, 1935, detailing the plans for creating and sending models to VIPs. (National Archives Identifier 562769)

Mead wrote back to Walter six days later offering to pay and making plans to have Ickes’s copy “placed on exhibition in the Secretary’s office.” He also promised to contact the president’s staff about sending one there as well. Mead asked for the cost; the above Hosek Manufacturing brochure detailing the cost of $45 for personal or gift models was glued to this letter, so one assumes that was sent in reply to Mead’s inquiry.

That November Mead reached out to the White House for instructions on where to send the model. H. M. Kannee, Presidential Secretary Marvin McIntyre’s assistant, replied to Mead from Warm Springs on December 3 with instructions to send the model in care of McIntyre at the White House, and he “will be glad to present it to the President.” Kannee told Mead to ensure that he noted who the model was from, as President Roosevelt would want to thank them. On December 5, 1935, Mead sent the model, “offered with the compliments of the Denver office of this Bureau.” President Roosevelt wrote back his appreciation over the gift on December 10, “delighted to have the model of Boulder Dam.”

President Roosevelt to Commissioner Elwood Mead, December 10, 1935, thanking the BOR for the model. (National Archives Identifier 562769)
Working draft of above thank-you letter from Roosevelt to Mead, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

The models were roughly 14 inches wide, 20 inches long, and seven inches tall. They weighed 28 pounds, as they were hollow with hinged panels on each side that lifted to show tunnels and steel penstock pipes. The inside of these panels listed the officials, engineers, and consultants who worked on the project, and the outside panel faces were “decorated by figures cast in relief symbolical of the purposes to which the structure is dedicated.” Hosek Manufacturing noted the piece could be customized; the brochure points out that opposite of the front nameplate listing the main features was space for a similar panel to describe what any particular contractor might have provided. Our records do not note if any models were ordered with this customization, but the National Archives presidential library holdings do prove there was at least one customized model ordered—one for former President Hoover.

These photographs are comparison shots of the two models today in National Archives custody. Images of the Boulder Dam version are courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, in Hyde Park, New York, and images of the Hoover Dam version are courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, in West Branch, Iowa.

These two photographs of the Boulder Dam copy show the side panels folded up.

What is clear is that in all of the orders for the model during the fall and winter of 1935, someone ordered President Hoover a version with two significant alterations. Not only was the front plate with the dam name itself changed, on the interior side plate President Hoover replaced President Roosevelt and Ray Wilbur replaced Ickes as Secretary of Interior. Elwood Mead’s name remained the same; he had been BOR commissioner since 1924. Our records are silent on Hoover’s model; while there could be a mention in our massive BOR collection, the only clue as to who sent it comes from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum’s archival holdings. 

Copy of Secretary of Interior Ray Wilbur to Chief Designing Engineer John Savage, February 27, 1936, thanking him for the Hoover Dam version of the model. (Ray Lyman Wilbur Papers)

On February 27, 1936, Wilbur wrote Chief Designing Engineer John Savage his thanks for a “model in aluminum of the Hoover Dam and adjacent territory.” He went on: “I recognize the fine courtesy shown by you and your associates in sending me a copy of the ‘first edition.’ I realize that the second edition would have some other names and some other terminology,” a coy reference to the models he had to have known were being sent to the Roosevelt administration. The letter sent to Savage seems to indicate he had a hand in coordinating the model, which would not be surprising. Creating an alternate model for the former president of the other party was a gutsy, although in hindsight classy, move, and one that possibly only John Savage could have done. Part of the BOR since its inception in 1903, Savage was the preeminent expert on dams and worked largely independently, heading every major BOR project in the 1920s into the 1940s. It would seem that he along with his fellow engineers still recognized, as Congress would later in 1947, the great work the former engineer President Hoover and his administration accomplished in making the dam a reality.

For more information on Record Group 115, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, holdings at the National Archives at Denver, feel free to reach out to For more information about the holdings of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, reach out to For more information about the holdings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, reach out to (Note: their model of the Boulder Dam (MO 1941.12.7) is available on the FDR Library’s artifact collection website here.)

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