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October 25, 2014

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Last of dam builders dies, but Boulder City ethos remains

Boulder City has plans for creating a solar industry and is becoming a hub for outdoors enthusiasts, but its lore is still inexorably linked to Hoover Dam and those intrepid souls who helped create it. The last of those gritty men who had lived in "the city that built the dam" passed away last week. There's no resident left who can tell you firsthand what it was like to mold the concrete or blast away the solid earth.

Today the city is still home to a handful of families of 31ers, the people who moved to the small town during the Great Depression to work on the dam and never left.

Lee Tilman spent more than 75 years as a 31er. He was 94 when he died.

"He did interviews all over the world," said his son, Tim Tilman, who still lives in Boulder City. "He would talk for as long as you wanted him to. He could remember everything. He may have known more about the dam than anyone else."

The History Channel sat down with Lee Tilman. So did PBS. Douglas McBride, the town historian, wanted to talk with him about the dam. Tilman kept talking, enough to fill a 300-page oral history of the dam that's on file at the Boulder City Library.

At 18, Tilman was one of more than 21,000 workers who built the 726-foot dam from scratch. He drove a truck. He built roads. Later, he was a foreman.

And he became one of Boulder City's most popular residents, leading and ultimately outliving all the other 31ers.

The town changed around him. The dam had been the main industry, and then it switched to tourism driven by the dam. More people began commuting to Las Vegas for work and somebody made up the term "bedroom community."

But Boulder City stayed small around Lee Tilman. Today it still has only 15,000 people, the result of a 1 percent growth ordinance and shrewd moves by the city to gain control of miles of desert surrounding it. While progress is knocking at its door, Boulder City will likely never have a sign welcoming visitors that reads "Home of Nevada Solar One."

The dam continues to affect day-to-day life - just check the weekend traffic lining up along U.S. 93. The hottest debate among the City Council is what to do about the even heavier traffic that will come when the Hoover Dam Bridge opens in 2011.

But to Boulder City residents the ethos of the town - one they believe was shaped by hard work and honesty - is as important as the physical reminders of the dam. Boulder City remains the only city in Nevada without blackjack or video poker machines.

People say they leave their doors open and don't mind if a neighbor enters without knocking.

It's a way of life that was treasured by the 31ers and remains alive in Boulder City, while seemingly lost to the rest of the region.

Tim Tilman remembers his father lifting him up so he could see the base of the dam, telling him proudly about the construction and the men who worked on it. There were hundreds of stories told hundreds of times.

Once when the youthful Lee Tilman was driving a dump truck down to the base of the dam, he was horsing around. Somehow, he rolled the truck into the Colorado River.

He was sure his career was over.

He talked a tow truck driver into pulling it out and a mechanic friend into doing some hasty work. Two hours later the truck was back in service. At the end of the day, the foreman simply said to come back tomorrow.

"It was another day," Tim Tilman said. "It turned into many years."

That was one of his father's favorite stories to tell.

The son does his best. But it's not the same. He can't keep all the details and dramatic pauses straight.

"I wish he were here to tell it."

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