The Little Town By the Great Big Dam
Boulder City seems as out of place in Nevada as the Mirage’s tropical rain forest. Built by the government for Hoover Dam workers and their families, the wholesome company town outlawed alcohol, gambling, and prostitution at its inception 70 years ago.
Despite its lack of vice, in its early days Boulder City attracted celebrities and politicos to its grand Dutch colonial hotel and nearby theater. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, and John Wayne stayed here. With the remodel of the Boulder Dam Hotel just completed and the theater’s renovation under way, residents are hoping to bring back some of the town’s past glamour.
These days, Boulder City is no longer owned by the government and movie stars don’t generally walk its streets, but the town makes a quiet, convenient base for visits to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam—or even a jaunt to Las Vegas, 23 miles northwest.
The 10-year renovation of the Boulder Dam Hotel brought the 1933 building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, back from near destruction. Inside, the city’s history and the closely linked story of the dam are chronicled in the revamped Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum, where exhibits let you practice pouring concrete for the dam from a high-wire contraption, hear gossip from the 1930s and ’40s, and view photos of the early days of Boulder City.
Some celebrities, such as Boris Karloff, stayed here to establish residency for a Nevada divorce. Others, including Will Rogers, came to perform at the Boulder Theatre next door. Current owners Amy and Desi Arnaz Jr.—of the lovable family—are hoping that productions at the remodeled theater, scheduled to reopen next year, will draw crowds from Las Vegas. The remodeled hotel also houses a gift shop and art gallery, with works by locals.
Along the main street, the town’s handful of diners, restaurants, and shops makes for interesting browsing. One not to miss is Where on Earth?, which has a wide assortment of rocks, fossils, and unusual gifts.
Though it may be possible to resurrect some of the town’s former ritziness, Boulder City will likely always remain a community apart, removed from the hustle of Las Vegas. It’s a refreshing break—just don’t expect to gamble when you go.
Boulder City is 23 miles southeast of Las Vegas. For general information, contact the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce (1305 Arizona St.; 702/293-2034 or www.bouldercitychamber.com).
Area code is 702 unless noted.
Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. Interactive exhibits on Hoover Dam construction and Boulder City’s formative years. 10–5 Mon–Sat, 12–5 Sun; $2. 1305 Arizona; 294-1988.
Hoover Dam. Guided ($10) and more detailed hard-hat tours ($25). Or, for $4, browse exhibits and take in a movie. 7 miles east of Boulder City on U.S. 93; 597-5970, (800) 634-6787, or www.hooverdam.com.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The park has 1.5 million acres, including 1,000 miles of shoreline. Paddlewheel tours, scuba diving, and boat rentals. $5 per vehicle, pass good for five days. Alan Bible Visitor Center, U.S. 93 and Lakeshore Rd.; 293-8990 or 293-8907.
Where on Earth? A rock shop that also sells jewelry and clothing. 523 Nevada Hwy. (Business 93); 293-3447.
Calamity’s Fine Dining & Cabaret. Salads, pasta, and steaks served in old-style elegance at the Boulder Dam Hotel. 1305 Arizona; 293-6200.
Coffee Cup Cafe. Breakfast and lunch standards, with an emphasis on fried food. 558 Nevada Hwy; 294-0517.
Evan’s Old Town Grille. Locals’ favorite for lunchtime Reuben sandwiches and seafood dinners. 1129 Arizona; 294-0100.
Happy Days Diner. The soda fountain and red vinyl booths are perfect accompaniments to meatloaf, cheeseburgers, and milk shakes. 512 Nevada Hwy.; 293-4637.
Boulder Dam Hotel. In dire straits 10 years ago, this 1930s hotel has recently been restored to its original elegance. 23 rooms from $55. 1305 Arizona; 293-3510.