On this date, February 21, 1941, the lovable black lab mutt who had become the unofficial mascot to all the men building Hoover Dam was accidentally killed. I bet you didn’t know that. Many people don’t. Well, there is a reason (and a story) for that.
The Dog You Didn’t Know About
Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, in the middle of literally nowhere. It was something the experts said could not be built. It was too big, it was too complex, and it was far from anywhere. Yet, they did it. It wasn’t an easy place to live or to work and the men who worked on the project looked for any piece of happiness and normalcy that they could find.
They found it in a mangy black hair mutt who seemed to have claimed the dam site as his and that the men working there were there for him. It was His dam! Because of his black thick fur, they gave him a name appropriate for that era, they named him “Nig”. He became their mascot and oftentimes their best friend.
On this fateful day, it was sunny and very hot in the canyon. Nig, the unofficial dam mascot, was riding on the back of a Six Companies truck that had made a stop before proceeding onto the dam. The driver got out to check some paperwork at a station check-in. Nig was hot and wanting to get out of the sun, jumped off the truck, and went underneath it for some shade.
The One Time He Didn’t Look
Nig was like any of the other big shots on the Dam project. He was always moving around. You never really knew where he would show up. So it became a habit for the workers to always look under their vehicle before moving. Just in case he was underneath. This one time, the driver had been distracted by the commotion going on around the roadway he had stopped on and did not do a full check underneath.
Unfortunately, it was the one time Nig was there, underneath the rear truck tires. The driver began to pull away when he realized he had run over something. That something was Nig and the accident was fatal.
Once word of His death had spread, the residents of the little town of Boulder City, openly mourned his passing while the men working on the Dam had stopped what they were doing and immediately began to dig their friend a proper grave beside the famous structure and in some of the toughest rock on earth.
They knew that for all the happiness he had brought them, the mangy mutt with black coarse hair deserved to be buried right there. Not far from where he died. A place where he could always watch over His Dam!
The Only Body Buried at Hoover Dam
Although urban legend and popular songs claim otherwise, there are no bodies buried in Hoover Dam. The dog is the only body buried AT Hoover Dam. Actually, his grave is just alongside the dam that he loved so much. Not far from the visitor center entrance.
The dog’s final resting spot was completed with a plaque honoring and explaining his importance to the men who worked alongside him. That little plaque paying homage to the dog that brought so many people happiness went without one complaint for almost 40 years. Not One! Not until the 1980’s when a Wisconsin socialist named Clarence Kailin with apparently too much time on his hands, started a letter-writing campaign to get the plaque honoring the dog removed. Claiming the Dog’s name was racist.
So what could get this lonely, angry old white man from Wisconsin so riled up? This one line:
“NIG—The Dog That Adopted A Dam-“
Unfortunately, the Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency overseeing the Dam project, not wanting to cause too many waves sided with the angry old man over some very loud objections from the Dam workers as well as city and civic leaders from Boulder City. Those opposed to the removal of Nig’s headstone stated that in removing the plaque, they are ignoring the historical context of the name as well as the dog’s meaning to the project. As proper as that reasoning was, common sense lost out to Political Correctness.
A short time later, after several groups stepped forward, a new plaque was mounted over his grave, telling the story of the dog. Sadly, without his name being mentioned.
The plaque reads: “The Hoover Dam construction crew’s mascot was found as a puppy by workers at the construction camp. This dog traveled to and from the damsite with them and spent his days visiting the many work areas. On February 21, 1941, the life of this devoted animal came to an end when a truck under which he was sleeping rolled over him. The grave below was completed by the workers that same day”
Who was Nig?
This little black bundle of fur was nobody’s dog yet he was everyone’s dog. They found him as a pup one day under one of the newly constructed buildings inside the new company town of Boulder City. He kind of thought he ran the project. Riding only Six Companies vehicles to and from the project. Nobody could understand how he knew one vehicle from another, but all reports say that he knew and he only rode with Six Companies vehicles. (Six Companies was the general contractor for the project).
He spent most of his days riding the trams up and down the dam project, running off any other stray dog or cat that entered the job site. He even had his own lunch bag and would carry it to where the other workers were sitting to have lunch and patiently wait for somebody to open the bag and feed him.
He loved everyone who worked on the dam, skin color was not an issue to Nig. In return for his dedicated friendship and color blind love, the workers made sure that he was well-loved, well-fed, and well protected. If you got caught kicking or hurting the dog in any fashion, you were promptly given your walking papers and escorted to the edge of town, and asked to never come back. So when he was killed by the truck he was under, everyone seemed to have felt the pain and mourned the loss.
The Times, The Dog
It was The Great Depression. The men were out in the middle of nowhere, building something everyone said could not be built. With most of the country out of work, they were happy just to have a job, any job, even a dangerous job in the harshest climates. They needed to provide for their families.
From the stories you read about what it was like to live and work in Boulder City, building the dam, and how hard of a life it was, you know the dog played an important role in giving these men something positive and entertaining in their stressful, dismal day-to-day work lives. Some may even say that he played an important part in the successful building of the Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam is considered to be one of the greatest mechanical wonders of the modern world.
Yes, We had severe racial discrimination in the 1930s. We can all agree that America was still a very deeply segregated society. It was not a good time for a lot of people, especially those of minority backgrounds. Especially while being out in the middle of nowhere, trying to build a dam. But that does not mean that we need to cover it up. Hide from it and say that it did not happen.
It happened. Those were the times we lived in. The dog was black and they gave him a name that corresponded with the dog’s color and it reflects the times that he lived in. We need to recognize that fact, not hide it!
He is Remembered
Last year (2016) they finally added some new informational plaques, giving the Dam visitor a little more history on the dog, still not mentioning his name. I have also noticed that more Vegas tour guides now make his grave a stop on their walking tour of the dam. All positive things for the tour guests and this helps to tell a more complete story of the dam.
I still believe in the context of history, as well as the important role he played in the building of the dam: The name of the dog needs to be properly mentioned. You can learn from history if you are reminded of it. You just can’t change it or ignore it happened just because someone felt offended. That’s not right.
Where is He Buried?
Today, even with the new markers, many people who visit the dam, have no clue that the gravesite is even there. So as you walk from the parking structure to the escalators to go down to the Visitor Center to get your tickets and start the Hoover Dam tour, look to your left and you will see it there in the shade. Alongside the rock wall.
So Now You Know!
If you do go out to Hoover Dam, could you do me a favor?? On your walk out to the dam, take a walk over to his grave. Give Nig a moment of your time. Maybe a minute of silence in his remembrance, and think of what his friendship must have meant to all those who worked to build that dam. I’m sure he would like that.
- Take a Hoover Dam Tour
- A great read: Building Hoover Dam: An Oral History of the Great Depression (Amazon)
(Originally posted 02/21/2017. Updated 02/21/2021)