John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times/MCT
Saturday, May 31, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Nobody could recall his real name. Instead, he was known simply as Alabam, probably a riff off his Southern roots. But they all knew him, the old man who played a gritty and all-but-thankless role in the Depression-era building of Hoover Dam.
Alabam cleaned latrines. As far as historians can tell, he was a one-man sanitation crew for the 7,000 workers who labored to shore up a rock-walled canyon and build what was then almost unthinkable — a dam that would eventually provide water to a swath of Western states.
Probably in his 70s back then, Alabam is long gone. But he's far from forgotten.
On the main drag of this tiny community of 15,000 residents, not far from the shores of Lake Mead, he stands in an immortal pose, 8 feet tall with his wide-brimmed sun hat, long-sticked broom slung over his shoulder — all in bronze, right down to the garland of spare toilet paper rolls around his neck.
Alabam's is one of several statues erected around this former federal company town to memorialize Hoover Dam workers and their families. The work crews included "high-scalers" who hung suspended from flimsy guide ropes; "powder-monkeys," named for the dynamite they planted; cable operators who kept the concrete buckets moving around the clock; not to mention the wives and children who set up camp not far away, making a life out of what was then a bleak desert wilderness.
But there out front, the first of the statues to greet visitors on their way into Boulder City's old town area, stands Alabam.
"Here was a simple sanitation engineer whose job was so bad — even when temperatures hit 120 degrees, he climbed inside those tin latrine boxes," said Steven Liguori, the Las Vegas sculptor who created the piece. "Now he's the unofficial greeter to the entire town. What an incredible thing."
The statues are part of what Nevada State Museum Director Dennis McBride calls "an amazing public arts program" for a community that decided to honor its mammoth past. "It's something that any town can do," he said, "but most don't." The project started a decade ago when officials allocated $75,000 a year for five years to promote the role of the city and its residents in erecting the dam.
"Most tourists spend a short period of time here," said former City Manager Vicki Mayes. "We wanted a way to help them feel the city's unique character."
The place is indeed unique: Gambling is outlawed here. Because it was settled as a federal camp for dam workers, officials wanted to avoid the addictive side of gambling. When the city incorporated in 1959, the ban continued.
McBride, a historian who has written on Boulder City and Hoover Dam, joined a committee to pick character types to memorialize. His first thought was Alabam. While he was doing oral histories for a book, stories of the old worker surfaced again and again.
"Everybody remembered the old guy in his 70s," he said. "Maybe the tales were apocryphal, but people retold them. Like the time someone saw Alabam fishing inside a latrine with a stick. He explained he was trying to get his jacket. When told it would probably be ruined, he supposedly said he didn't care about the jacket, but his lunch was in the pocket."
McBride suggested that Alabam's statue should be the first work commissioned. "How can you question the spirit of a guy, as old as he was, coming to the Hoover Dam project seeking work? In those times they were looking for young, virile men, not old-timers," he said. "Out of all the characters that deserved to be remembered, he was the one most people I spoke to had a soft spot for."
Liguori, who had already done a series of bronzes of Hoover Dam workers, one of which is on permanent display there, got the job. He took a 1930s photograph of the old sanitation man, the only one known to exist, and went to work. The project took him two weeks.
Just after dawn on a recent day, as the morning sun reflected off Alabam's face, the 52-year-old Liguori addressed the statue like a friend. He described how he scrounged some old copper cable left over from building the dam to mix with the bronze, to make Alabam really part of his old haunts, and they part of him.
Over several days, Liguori asked his 14-year-old daughter, Cristina, to pose for him in a pair of overalls, so he could perfect the crease and heavy hang of the work pants. "Here was a sculpture of a sanitation worker being created in a bathroom," he said.
When the dedication ceremony took place in 2007, Liguori added another flourish: tissue rolls with the worker's image and history. He called it "original Alabam toilet paper."
A plaque distinguishes workers like the toilet paper man from the planners and engineers who took credit for the dam. "There were muckers who shoveled mud out of the tunnels, truck drivers who hauled rock up and down the river or, like the man you see here, those who swept the outhouses and kept them well supplied with paper. Alabam."
The project includes bronze statues by other sculptors. One shows a worker with his boots off, sandwich in hand, looking up at a workmate, telling a story. There's the figure of two children on a tricycle and the wife of a worker holding her hat against a stiff wind.
Money for the project ran out in 2008 and another entity, the Boulder City Public Art Scape, has added more modern statues throughout town.
Still, Liguori is proud his creation adds to the legacy of so many dam workers here. "One hundred years from now, people won't remember these figures," he said. "We need to capture them now and record their contributions."
Nowadays, each time he drives past Alabam, the sculptor smiles. "He played such a simple role in building the dam, a guy who was happy about doing it," he said. "It doesn't get more down-to-earth than that."