Top 10 Public Works Projects From the Great Depression

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By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933, the Great Depression had already ravaged the United States. Unemployment approached 25 percent and the nation was rapidly losing hope. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt promised Americans a change for the better and he immediately set out to deliver.

From 1933 to 1936, Roosevelt’s New Deal established a series of government agencies, such as the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, designed to put Americans back to work. The success of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs has been debated for years. Some say those programs helped the U.S. get through the Great Depression. Others argue that the New Deal did not improve the unemployment rate and that ultimately, World War II was responsible for ending the Great Depression. Yet there’s no question the New Deal provided a morale boost for Americans and helped build many key structures and facilities still vital to our country’s modern infrastructure.

Here’s a list of the top 10 public works structures built during the Great Depression, ranked according to their economic impact and legacy.


10. Timberline Lodge

The Timberline Lodge is a popular tourist attraction in Oregon.
Using funds from the WPA and laborers from the CCC, this beautiful structure stands on the south side of Mt. Hood in Oregon. Construction took place from 1936 to 1938, using local timbers and stone. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark and draws more than a million visitors each year. If it looks familiar, even though you’ve never been there, you probably recognize the front of the lodge from exterior shots used for the 1980 movie, The Shining.



9. LaGuardia Airport

LaGuardia Airport was a showcase for modern aviation when it opened.
Funding from the WPA helped rebuild a tiny airfield on Long Island into LaGuardia Airport, a showcase for modern aviation when it opened in 1939. Today, LaGuardia boards more than 23 million passengers annually. The airport’s status has been in steady decline in recent years, as it ranks poorly in ratings for on-time arrivals and satisfaction among passengers. In 2010, Chris Ward, the director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, recommended that LaGuardia be demolished in stages and rebuilt into a more modern facility.



8. Fort Peck Dam

Fort Peck Dam cost nearly $100 million to construct during the Great Depression.
Spanning more than 21,000 feet in length and standing 250 feet high, the Fort Peck Dam provides hydroelectric power and water management along the upper Missouri River. Located in northeast Montana near the town of Glasgow, it is the largest hydraulic earth-filled dam in the United States and it impounds Fort Peck Lake, the fifth-largest manmade lake in America. The dam, completed in 1940, took seven years to construct at a cost of approximately $100 million, funded by the WPA and the CCC. The dam made headlines in 1938 when an earth slide claimed the lives of eight workers. Only two bodies were ever recovered, leaving six bodies buried in the finished structure.



7. Triborough Bridge

The Triborough Bridge (left) and the Hells Gate Bridge (right) were part of one of the most expensive public projects built duiring the New Deal.
This project had a dire beginning, as construction started on Black Friday in 1929. With the advent of the Great Depression the project was set aside until funding was provided by the PWA in 1933. The Triborough Bridge, since renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, actually consists of three long-span bridges, a viaduct and some smaller bridges, and 14 miles of approach roads, all of which connect Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx in New York. It was finally completed in 1936 at a cost of $60 million and is now used by approximately 200,000 vehicles per day.



6. Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway offers great scenic beauty.
This 469-mile-long road stretching through North Carolina and Virginia follows the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Funded in large part by the WPA, workers from the CCC helped landscape the roadway and adjacent areas. Although the road opened to traffic in 1935, the final stretch of highway wasn’t finished until 1987.



5. Lincoln Tunnel

The Lincoln Tunnel is a vital part of New York City's infrastructure, carrying almost 42 million vehicles a year.
Long before Boston’s Big Dig and the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France set new standards for tunnels, the Lincoln Tunnel was in a class of its own. The 1.5-mile tunnel beneath the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Manhattan actually consists of three separate tubes. Although construction began in 1934 with $85 million in PWA funding, and the first tube opened to traffic in 1937, the final tube was not finished until 1957. Remarkably, it was the first major tunnel project completed without a fatality. Today nearly 42 million vehicles use the tunnel each year.



4. Overseas Highway

The Overseas Highway, connects Miami and Key West.
Connecting Miami to Key West, the 127.5-mile-long Overseas Highway opened to traffic in 1938. It follows an old railroad track originally built in 1912 and along the way passes 42 bridges and plenty of great scenery.



3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fog shrouds the mountains in Smoky Mountains National Park.
It may be overshadowed by more famous parks, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in America, hosting nearly 10 million visitors per year. To put that figure in perspective, the second-most visited park in America, Grand Canyon National Park, draws fewer than 5 million visitors each year. Covering 814 square miles of wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park was built by workers from the WPA and the CCC and dedicated in 1934. The park is one of 21 locations in the United States recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering universal cultural significance.



2. Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures in the world.
President Roosevelt backed many public works projects during the Great Depression, but he was particularly fond of the Grand Coulee Dam. Early on, FDR became enamored with the idea of harnessing the power of the Columbia River and turning arid land in eastern Washington into farmland. With $63 million in funding from the PWA, Roosevelt’s dreams become reality. Built from 1933 to 1942, the Grand Coulee is one of the largest concrete structures in the world, standing 550 feet high and stretching almost a mile in length.



1. Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam draws some 7 million visitors each year.
Talk of damming the lower Colorado River began around 1900, but it took almost 30 years before the U.S. Congress finally authorized the construction of the Hoover Dam. Originally known as Boulder Dam but renamed in 1947 to honor former President Hoover, the dam cost $165 million and took five years to build. During the heart of the Great Depression, the dam employed more than 20,000 workers during its construction. One of the world’s architectural wonders even today, more than 70 years after it opened, the Dam stands 726 feet tall and is 660 feet wide at its base. Initially built to provide electricity and irrigation for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, the Hoover Dam has become one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, and its impound lake, Lake Mead, draws some 10 million annual visitors for recreation.


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Written by

Bill Holland has two decades of classroom teaching experience in history, geography, political science and science. He's also owned and operated three businesses and is a freelance writer when he isn't hiking, snowshoeing or kayaking in Washington State.