Great Construction Projects in America

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"Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Where is the WABAC Machine going to take us this time, Mr. Peabody?

“Set the WABAC for 1914 and the building of the Panama Canal, Sherman My Boy.”

 10 Great American

Construction Projects


Looking back…

On March 27, 1975, work began on the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.  More than just an 800 mile 48 inch diameter pipe, the vast system includes 11 pumping stations and hundreds of miles of smaller pipes that feed the big pipe.  The US has undertaken many great construction projects, and here we list 10 of them.  We would like to know what projects you think should have been on this list and which should not have.

Digging, building, blasting…..

10. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Overcoming objections by environmentalists and working in the frozen north presented quite a task.  Cracked fact: Native Americans had mined crude oil from peat soaked in oil for hundreds of years on Alaska’s North Slope.  Running from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, the pipeline pumps up to 2.1 million barrels of oil per day.  Objections by Native Alaskans were apparently relegated to second class status after the frightening economic results of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Completed in 1977, projections are that less than 500,000 barrels of oil per day will be flowing through the pipeline by 2015.

9. Mount Rushmore.

Sculptures cut into the rock of a mountain face depicting 4 of our presidents with 60 foot tall heads makes this masterpiece the largest sculpture of heads in the world. Construction ran from 1927 until completion in 1941, with the original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum dying in March 1941 only months before the project was done. Borglum’s son, Lincoln, supervised the completion of the memorial. Located in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is the state’s number one tourist attraction (in a state where tourism is the second biggest industry) with 2 to 3 million visitors per year.  The presidents depicted on the sculpture are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Cracked fact: The sculptures were planned to show the presidents from the waist up, but time and money ran short, leaving just the heads.  This magnificent sculpture features prominently in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest (1959).

8. Tennessee Valley Authority System.

Chartered by congress in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, the TVA was created to build a series of hydro-electric dams across the Appalachian South, from Virginia to Mississippi.  Although people displaced by the reservoirs resulting from the dams were not thrilled with the project, most people in the region were happy to get the jobs, cheap electricity (often where there had been none) and the recreational opportunities provided by the lakes.  A total of 46 dams have been built along with an additional couple dozen electric power plants, and even 5 nuclear power plants. Of course, everything comes with a price and environmentalists have long complained of the negative environmental impact of dams upon the natural wildlife.

7. Empire State Building.

The tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1970, this mighty skyscraper remains the very symbol of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world.  In July of 1945, a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber crashed into the 80th floor, killing 14 people.  Cracked fact: The airplane crash caused an elevator to fall 75 stories, which the elevator operator survived, still the longest elevator fall ever to be survived.  Over the years, something over 30 people have chosen to leap from various floors of the building (to their deaths, of course), and that is not even counting King Kong!  Cracked fact:Although not an emergency hurry up project, it took only 2 years to build the Empire State Building.  An incredible amount of cultural references have been made to this grand tower, including the previously mentioned film, King Kong (1933).  Cracked fact: Dirigibles (Zeppelins) were originally expected to dock at the very top of the building!

6. Hoover Dam.

Originally called Boulder Dam, Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, completed in 1936.  More than 100 men lost their lives on this massive project, but that was when jobs were so scarce workers flocked to the huge project.  Over 1200 feet long and over 700 feet high, Hoover Dam is 45 feet wide at the top and over 600 feet wide at the bottom. The largest concrete structure in history to that point, work was actually completed 2 years ahead of schedule.  That might be the most impressive fact.  Cracked fact: A million people a year visit the dam as a tourist site.  Controversy over the dam’s name caused both Hoover Dam and Boulder Dam to be used until 1947 when congress officially name it Hoover Dam.  The river dammed by Hoover Dam is the Colorado River, and the lake created by the dam, Lake Mead, is the largest (by volume) reservoir in the US.

5. The Alcan Highway.

Actually called The Alaska Highway (among other names) this giant project was another one of those “hurry up and get it done right now” propositions due to the emergency of World War II.  Stretching 1700 miles from British Columbia to Delta Junction in Alaska, the Alcan was built to allow overland travel back and forth from the continental United States to Alaska.  The route was planned and reconnoitered by dog sled and the Canadian government offered no financial assistance (as they saw no need for the highway for Canadian purposes).  Started in March of 1942, the highway was completed by November of 1942, an incredible accomplishment.  Dealing with mushy ground was a major problem not solvable by conventional means.  Bulldozers got stuck and stayed stuck. Laying logs across the roadway in the old pioneer fashion (“corduroy” road) was the answer.  Working at a feverish pace to complete the job before winter, much of the work was performed by African-Americans.  The highway was opened to the public in 1948, and today is a few hundred miles shorter than it was at first due to making a more direct route.

4. The Wilderness Road.

Cut through the wilderness from Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky across the Cumberland Gap, the road was built entirely by men with axes and saws and shovels.  No machines! Daniel Boone himself blazed the trail and the road was the most important east-west road for pioneers for 50 years.  First built starting in 1775, the road was for the first several years only traversable by horseback or on foot, but after 1796 wagons could make their way on it.  Not only was the work strenuous, but the builders had to feed themselves and fight off the occasional Indian (Native-American) raid.  Not as impressive as the other projects built with power equipment, the back-breaking labor and hardships endured by the builders is as impressive as any other project.  The Wilderness Road was made more or less obsolete by the National Road in 1818.

3. Trans-Continental Railroad.

Built from 1863 to 1869, this railway ran from Iowa where it intersected with the rail system of the eastern half of the US to San Francisco on California’s Pacific Coast.  The first such railway that spanned a continent, the driving of the “Golden Spike” on May 10, 1869 symbolically completing the railroad is a proud day in American history.  Built by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads, thousands of freed slaves (African-Americans) and Chinese immigrants contributed to the long days of hard labor without rest while construction crossed rivers, mountains, valleys and deserts.  No longer would settlers have to brave the dangers of a wagon train or a ship ride all the way around South America to get from one coast to the other.

2. Interstate Highway System.

Called The Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System as Ike was president in 1956 when the project was authorized and construction started, over 47,000 miles of limited access highway criss-cross the US.  Still under construction, this ongoing project will probably be worked on until the end of civilization.  Cracked fact: The Interstate Highway System took its inspiration from the German Autobahn built 20 years earlier.  Extra Cracked fact: This highway system is not the biggest in the world.  The Chinese have that distinction!  About one fourth of all miles driven by Americans are on the Interstates.

1. Panama Canal.

Opened in 1914, the US built the Panama Canal with an eye toward shifting its Atlantic and Pacific fleets back and forth as needed in time of war.  Of course, the tremendous savings for cargo ships to transit the 48 mile long canal instead of having to go all the way around South America was also a consideration.  Others had tried and failed, because although it looks easy when looking at a World Map, in reality the mountains and rocks and especially disease carried by mosquitoes and poor drinking water made the project extremely difficult. Plus, the US had to create the country of Panama in order to get the rights to build the canal!  In 1977, President Carter signed a treaty with Panama returning the Canal Zone and the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.  Although after World War II, giant warships and oil tanker ships were too big for the canal, bigger locks are currently under construction to accommodate larger ships.


Great Construction Projects in America