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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 30, 2014 at 11:57 AM

When America built greatness

The Colorado River flows to  Hoover Dam east of Boulder City, Nev. (2001 photo by Jim Laurie / Las Vegas Review Journal)

The Colorado River flows to Hoover Dam east of Boulder City, Nev. (2001 photo by Jim Laurie / Las Vegas Review Journal)

Seventy-nine years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Hoover Dam. He traveled by train from Washington and told the crowd, “I came, I saw and I was conquered…” by an “engineering victory of the first order — another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination.”

FDR went on:

Throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program.  We know, too, that the reason for this speeding up was the need of giving relief to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.

Everything about the dam’s history, construction and controversies was on a grand scale. It was built by the Six Companies ahead of schedule. More than 5,000 were employed during the Depression. It was a risky undertaking in the wilderness, taking the lives of 100 workers. One of the most moving places on the dam is Oskar Hansen’s bas-relief inscribed, “They died to make the desert bloom.”

Workers build a retaining wall supporting the road across Hoover Dam. (1932 photo from The Associated Press)

Workers build a retaining wall supporting the road across Hoover Dam. (1932 photo from The Associated Press)

The dam remains breathtaking — an art deco masterpiece — and nearly eight decades later remains a critical element of the waterworks that have allowed for the growth of the Southwest.

This was an era of great building for the common good: The Tennessee Valley Authority (1933); Blue Ridge Parkway (1935); the modern Houston Ship Channel (1936); San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1936); Triborough Bridge (1936); Golden Gate Bridge (1937); Lincoln Tunnel (1937); LaGuardia Airport (1939) and Grand Coulee Dam (1942). Along with countless other projects, these provided employment during hard times and have more than repaid their investment since then. They show how infrastructure is a foundation of a great economy.

All this is worth remembering as our lesser depression continues for millions of Americans and U.S. infrastructure lags badly behind other advanced, urbanized nations. We don’t go grand anymore, we’re Americans. The most striking evidence was that the replacement Bay Bridge was built in China and merely assembled here.

[UPDATE] A new report from the International Monetary Fund calls for more infrastructure spending after a 30-year decline.


 

Tuesday Reading: The ugly economics of subprime auto loans | CityLab


 

Today’s Econ Haiku:

On Boeing today

Let us only speak good things

Nice logo, Jimmy


 

Comments | More in Infrastructure

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