5 Public Works Projects that Changed America

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One of the most controversial topics during President Barack Obama’s presidency has been government stimulus spending. President Obama and congressional Democrats favor spending billions on improving America’s infrastructure and investing in fields such as green energy; Republicans tend to oppose such spending in the name of budget austerity, arguing that the private sector offers a better alternative to government spending anyway. Throughout history, however, some publicly funded projects have created not just short-term jobs, but lasting legacies that have transformed the United States. That’s not to say that government stimulus is always the answer; there are many examples where private enterprise does a far better job than the government at tackling a major project. That said, here’s a look at five federally funded projects that changed America.


5. Erie Canal

The Erie Canal opened up the frontier beyond the Appalachians.

Painting of Erie Canal, W.H. Bartlett, 1839.

The first great infrastructure project in United States history is almost 200 years old and still in operation. When the canal was proposed in the early 19th century, it generated tremendous controversy. Price was the main concern: the cost at the time was $7 million, about a third of the annual federal budget. President Thomas Jefferson rejected the initial plan, reportedly calling it “a little short of madness.” New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s support for the canal earned it ridicule as “Clinton’s Big Ditch.” Yet when the canal opened to traffic in 1825, it was hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Stretching 363 miles from Albany, New York’s Hudson River port to Lake Erie near Buffalo, the canal opened shipping from the Atlantic to the frontier of the U.S. beyond the Appalachians, spurring development in that region. The Midwest would have eventually been settled with or without the Erie Canal, but it certainly hastened the development. Although used mainly by recreational boaters now, the canal has seen an increase in commercial traffic in recent years as shippers use barges to beat high fuel prices in the trucking industry.


4. Tennessee Valley Authority Projects

The TVA helped drive development in the Tennessee Valley region.

The TVA’s Cheoah Dam in North Carolina; Frank Kehren

A government agency launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, the TVA changed the Tennessee River basin with the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and 11 coal-burning power plants. The new dams brought flood control and hydroelectric power to a region that trailed the rest of the U.S. in many standard of living measures. Beyond that, the dams also allowed TVA engineers to control water levels in the Tennessee and other rivers in the region, improving shipping and commerce in the region.


3. Hoover Dam (and Other Western Hydroelectric Dams)

The Hoover Dam's hydroelectric and water storage capacity transformed the American Southwest.

The Hoover Dam, 1941, by Ansel Adams.

Here’s the bottom line on the impact of the Hoover Dam: Without the Hoover Dam and its enormous hydroelectric capacity and water reservoir, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego and several other Southwestern cities would be nowhere near the size they are today. The Hoover and other western hydroelectric dams, such as Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona and Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, helped spur growth in the Western United States in the mid-to-late 20th century. That has created a dilemma, as the population boom is putting a strain on water resources in some areas. In recent years, farmers, environmentalists and urban officials have squabbled over water rights, a situation that may not be resolved anytime soon.


2. Transcontinental Railroad

The transcontinental railroad opened the Western U.S. to rapid development.

Workers gather to mark completion of the transcontinental railroad, 1869.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, millions of Americans migrated to the Western U.S. Thanks to TV and movies, the stereotypical image we have of this mass migration is settlers crossing the continent in covered wagons. Plenty of wagon trains headed west in the 19th century, carrying new settlers along the Oregon, Santa Fe and other trails, but the biggest impetus in westward expansion was the railroad. In 1862, the U.S. government created two new railroads. One, the Union Pacific, started building a rail line from the Missouri River westward; the other railroad, the Central Pacific, began laying rail from Sacramento eastward. The federal support came mostly through the issuance of government bonds and federal land grants along the rail lines, which the railroad companies sold to fund construction. The two railroads faced many obstacles, including weather, labor strife, skirmishes with Native Americans, mountainous terrain and even sabotage. Finally, in 1869, the two lines met in a famous ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah, where officials joined the two lines with a golden spike. It’s hard for our modern sensibilities to comprehend how the transcontinental railroad eased the transportation of people and goods between the Eastern and Western U.S. Prior to the railroad, an overland journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific could take months. The same journey could be made by rail in just a few days.


1. Interstate Highway System

Interstate highways dramatically changed the American landscape and shaped daily lifestyles.

Interstate 35E in Dallas, 1961; Justin Cozart

As a young Army officer in 1919, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in a cross-country military convoy that averaged a turtle-like 5 mph in its trek between the East and West coasts. Later, as Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower saw first-hand the strategic advantages the Germans enjoyed with their high-speed autobahn highway system. So when he reached the White House, President Eisenhower fully understood the role a nationwide network of high-speed, limited-access roads could play in national defense and in commerce. Although such a road system had been in the planning stages for almost 20 years, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, authorizing construction of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. The total cost: almost $500 billion. Today, more than a half-century later, Americans take this system of more than 47,000 miles of highways for granted, but its impact on America, for better and worse, cannot be overstated. On a positive note, interstates opened up travel destinations across the country, have facilitated major evacuations in times of crisis, and have helped spread commerce. On the down side, the interstates have divided urban neighborhoods, helped create suburban and exurban sprawl, and led to the decline of more efficient rail transport and mass transit. Many small-town centers were decimated when the construction of a nearby interstate drew businesses away from downtown to the area around the interstate exits. Still, would anyone like to return to the days when a cross-country trip averaged 5 mph?


One More: Reversal of the Chicago River

The Chicago River's reversal was a marvel of engineering.

The Chicago River today.

Near the end of the 19th century, Chicago had already assumed a place among America’s great cities, as a regional center for commerce with a population of around 750,000. But the city had a serious problem: due to a quirk of geography, sewage that the city dumped into the Chicago River traveled not toward the Gulf of Mexico, but into Lake Michigan — source of the city’s water supply. One persistent urban legend states that this raw sewage led to an 1885 cholera epidemic that killed 90,000 people. Although nothing that bad ever occurred, the river was a health hazard and an embarrassment to residents. The solution came in the form of a complex series of canals that in effect reversed the flow of the Chicago River. The centerpiece of the project, the Sanitary and Ship Canal, was completed in 1900 at an estimated cost of $70 million, or around $1.9 billion in 2012 dollars.


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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.