By Ellen L. Weingart
It's nearly impossible to stay at a Las Vegas hotel, eat in one or see a show without going through a casino, but the city offers many activities that are sure winners without your ever having to place a bet.
Hoover Dam has been described as the eighth wonder of the world. Started in 1931 and opened in 1936 - two years ahead of schedule and under budget — the dam was constructed primarily to control flooding along the Colorado River. Selling hydroelectric power, mainly in Arizona, California and Nevada, paid for construction and now covers operating costs.
The dam's construction also created Lake Mead, one the United States' largest reservoirs and both a water source for the same three states and a popular recreation area. Straddling the Nevada-Arizona border, the dam is an easy, less-than-30-mile drive southeast of Las Vegas. Guided tours of the power plant and dam, along with access to the visitors center, are offered daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Arcy, our guide for the power plant tour, was a fount of knowledge and statistics.
Started in the midst of the Great Depression, the massive construction projection drew thousands of unemployed men to the area. Working seven days a week, 24 hours a day in three shifts, about 25,000 men would work on the project; and about 100 of them would die during the construction. Pay was typically about $4 a day, which, Arcy pointed out, was a very good salary at the time. Boulder City, about six miles from the dam and one of only two municipalities in Nevada to prohibit gambling, was built to house the workers and their families.
The 6.6 million tons of concrete used in the dam would be enough to pave a highway from San Francisco to New York City. Nearly 600 miles of pipe were embedded to offset the heat generated by the cooling concrete and allow it to set.
The completed dam stands 726 feet high. Its 17 turbines generate enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes. Lake Mead is capable of irrigating 2 million acres of fields. As for the river, it has flooded twice since the dam's construction — once for testing and once in 1981 due to record snow in Colorado.
While Hoover Dam is a wonder of engineering, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a wonder of nature. A pleasant 15-mile drive west of Las Vegas, the almost 200,000-acre site includes large red rock formations that explain its name, sandstone peaks and walls called the Keystone Thrust. A visit to Red Rock Canyon can be as easy as driving the 13-mile scenic loop or as strenuous as the five-mile, five-hour hike along Turtlehead Peak and almost anything in between. We opted for the drive, which gave us magnificent close-up views of the red walls and pale peaks in changing light.
The drive includes numerous turnouts and parking lots, allowing us to linger, stretch our legs on short walks and catch a peek at more adventurous visitors scrambling up and down the cliffs. A visitor center at the start of the loop road offers exhibits, handouts and staff to provide additional information and advice.
If a trip to Las Vegas itself isn't enough to rock your world, a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum may do the trick. When the Nevada Proving Grounds (now the Nevada National Security Site), about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was established in January 1951 to test nuclear devices, fears were high that it would ruin the city's burgeoning tourism industry. Instead, the test site — combined with the millions of dollars the Truman administration poured into what was declared "a critical defense area" — was a boon.
Organized tours of goggle-wearing patrons were taken to the test site to watch. Mushroom clouds from the testing were visible at many hotels and several casinos — which offered "atomic cocktails" and "bomb parties" with dancing. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce provided calendars highlighting detonation times and the best spots for viewing. The Sands Hotel held "Miss Atomic Energy" beauty pageants.
Such activities are, of course, long gone, the victim of more information about their dangers and saner minds, as well as the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that forced all testing underground.
Totally safe, however, is a visit to the museum with its exhibits on atomic science, the American pursuit of an atomic bomb during World War II, the years of above- and below-ground testing, the test site's role in the space program and what experiments have been conducted since the 1992 testing moratorium. One gallery is devoted to how atomic-themed ideas began to infiltrate education and everyday life. In addition to timelines correlating nuclear development with world and popular culture, one exhibit displays the commercial use of nuclear themes in a variety of household objects and advertising.
For a real blast, enjoy the multisensory experience of the Ground Zero Theater, where visitors get a general sense of an above-ground test, without the radioactivity, of course. It's earth-shaking.
WHEN YOU GO
Hoover Dam: www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam
Red Rock Canyon: www.blm.gov/site-page/RRCNCA
National Atomic Testing Museum: www.nationalatomictestingmuseum.org
Ellen Weingart is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.