Colossus in the Desert

I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.

— Isaiah 41:18 (NIV)

Back in my gambling days, I was far more interested in the poker rooms of Las Vegas than in the nearby Hoover Dam. Years later, however, with all-in bluffs a distant memory, I became fascinated by the stories of how that titanic structure came to be, and, when I began writing Hearts Set Free, I decided that the great dam would play an important role in the novel.

The following excerpt is from the beginning of Part II, The Church of the Heart Set Free:

For years, men had dreamed of taming the Colorado River. It wasn’t the longest or widest river in the land, but it was the wildest, hands down. It might have taken a few million years for the Colorado to carve the Grand Canyon, but in mere hours it could transform itself from a smooth, placid stream to a raging torrent, obliterating landscapes in the process.

Over the centuries, the Colorado had periodically flooded California’s Imperial Valley, providing it with a rich bed of fertile soil. As Americans settled the West, they realized the valley could become a paradise for farmers—if only there were water to grow crops! One dreamer after another tried to solve the problem, with dollar signs in their eyes. In the early 1900s, an ambitious entrepreneur had dug canals, diverting water from the Colorado to the Imperial Valley, and for a few years the area thrived, attracting thousands, who built entire new towns. But the river was only playing them for suckers; in 1906 it roared through those canals, uncontrollable, sweeping away everything in its path and creating the largest lake in California, the thirty-five-mile-long Salton Sea.

It turned out, however, that there was a way to tame the river, but it would take the creation of nothing less than one of the wonders of the world. It would take a colossus.

During the 1920s, engineers developed plans for an enormous dam, twice as tall as any other that had ever been built, not only to control the wild river and irrigate California farmland, but also to generate vast amounts of hydroelectric power to fuel the rapid growth of the western states. There was just one location that made sense: a stretch of the Colorado that ran through the Black Canyon, between Nevada and Arizona. It would be a daunting project under the best of conditions, but they’d have to construct the dam in a blistering desert, in the middle of nowhere.

Their only link to civilization would be a small town that had grown up around a railroad depot thirty miles from the dam site, called Las Vegas.




On the first Sunday after the murder of Pastor Justin James, no one at the Church of the Heart set Free knew quite what to expect.

The church was a modest brick building on the edge of what was known in Las Vegas as Block 16, a stretch of brothels and saloons not far from the train station, where men could gamble and carouse to their hearts’ content. It was one of two blocks where liquor sales had been allowed when the city was founded in 1905, and Prohibition didn’t slow down the drinking one bit. If the local police heard that the Feds were planning a raid, they’d tip off the bartenders—in return, of course, for a show of appreciation in hard cash.

In the years after the Great War ended, federal spending in Nevada nosedived, mines shut down, and the local railroad company went bankrupt.  Block 16 still brought in some traffic, but, by the late 1920s, the prospects for Las Vegas looked increasingly bleak.

Then, like a thunderbolt, what most had assumed was only the most far-fetched of fantasies came true: in 1928, just before Christmas, President Coolidge signed an act of Congress authorizing the construction of a massive project in nearby Black Canyon. It was to be called Boulder Dam, and it promised salvation from certain ruin. A celebration that lasted for days ensued. Strangers hugged and toasted each other with bootleg liquor, which flowed like water throughout the town.

By mid-1930, as the Depression deepened, the magnitude of the jackpot the city had won became increasingly clear.  Throughout the land, factories and stores were closing and the ranks of the unemployed were swelling, but there in southern Nevada, the Feds would be hiring thousands of men to build the dam! Oh, the business leaders of Las Vegas were licking their chops. All those hard-working fellows, living in the middle of a desert, with nowhere else to spend their cash! Up in Carson City, the state legislature was talking about legalizing gambling and reducing the waiting time for divorce; soon legit businesses throughout the city would be able to get their share of the workers’ wages, not just those shady operators on Block 16.  And who knew how much was to be made off the divorcees from California and New York!

The only problem was Pastor Justin James…

Jess Lederman