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Top 5 Public Works Projects of the Great Depression's New Deal

Bill had a long career as a classroom teacher and business owner. He is now a freelance writer who enjoys sharing his knowledge with others.

Photograph of the Hoover Dam from across the Colorado River. From the series entitled Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments, compiled 1941-1942, documenting the period c. 1933-1942.

Photograph of the Hoover Dam from across the Colorado River. From the series entitled Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments, compiled 1941-1942, documenting the period c. 1933-1942.

FDR and the New Deal

By the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Great Depression had already ravaged the country. Unemployment approached 25% for the nation and was even higher in the industrial cities; a once-proud country was rapidly losing hope. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal—and he then immediately set out to deliver on that promise.

FDR's 1933 Inaugural Address

From 1933 to 1936, the New Deal established a series of government agencies whose purpose was to put the United States back to work and re-establish lost hope. Agencies like the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created jobs and in the process built many structures and landmarks still visible today.

What follows is a list of the top five public works projects that were completed during that important time in U.S. history. They are ranked according to their economic impact and their everlasting legacy to the United States.

Manhattan portals of the south and center tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects NYC to New Jersey

Manhattan portals of the south and center tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects NYC to New Jersey

5. Lincoln Tunnel

As ambitious a construction project as you could ever hope to see, the Lincoln Tunnel stretches 1.5 miles underneath the Hudson River in New York, connecting New Jersey and Manhattan. The PWA funded this marvel of engineering from 1934 to 1936 at a cost of $85 million, and it was the first major tunnel project completed without a fatality. Today, nearly 120,000 vehicles use this tunnel every day, making it one of the busiest tunnels in the world.

Seven Mile Bridge, the longest bridge on the Overseas Highway, Florida

Seven Mile Bridge, the longest bridge on the Overseas Highway, Florida

4. Overseas Highway

Connecting Miami to Key West, the 113-mile Overseas Highway was opened for traffic in 1938. It follows an old railroad track that was originally built in 1912. When traveling this highway, one passes over 42 bridges and enjoys scenery that is beyond belief.

The view atop the Cliff Tops rock formation on Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The view atop the Cliff Tops rock formation on Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

3. Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Welcome to the most-visited national park in the United States, boasting over 14 million visitors in 2021. Great Smoky Mountain National Park covers 814 square miles of wilderness, 36% of which is an old-growth forest.

Constructed by the WPA and the CCC between 1934 to 1940, this jewel of the national park system was named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. The park offers unparalleled vistas and is a must-see on any trip to the American southeast.

Aerial view of Hoover Dam, located on the Nevada-Arizona border

Aerial view of Hoover Dam, located on the Nevada-Arizona border

2. Hoover Dam

Congress approved the building of Hoover Dam in 1928 and it was finally constructed between 1931 and 1936 with the help of the PWA.

Spanning the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, this marvel provides electricity for Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. The dam is 726 feet tall and 600 feet at its base and originally cost $165 million.

The dam was named after President Herbert Hoover, but after he left office in 1933 the dam started to be called the Boulder Canyon Dam (sometimes simply called Boulder Dam). The story was that this was the doing of the Secretary of the Interior, who apparently disliked Hoover! However, the official name of the dam was never changed, and in the end the original name stuck.

1. Grand Coulee Dam

If ever there was a pet project of President Roosevelt’s it was the Grand Coulee Dam. Early on he became enamored with the idea of harnessing the power of the Columbia River and turning arid land in eastern Washington into farmland. Funding from the PWA to the tune of $63 million helped Roosevelt’s dreams become reality.

Built between 1933 and 1942, the Grand Coulee is the largest dam in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It provides irrigation for over 600,000 acres of farmland and electricity for all or parts of eight states plus parts of Canada. This mammoth structure stands 550 feet high and is 1.2 miles wide.

Aerial view of LaGuardia Airport, Long Island, New York

Aerial view of LaGuardia Airport, Long Island, New York

Honorable Mentions

Assembling any top five list is difficult and ultimately subjective. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the following:

  • Timberline Lodge: A National Historic Landmark, this timber, and stone structure on Mt. Hood in Oregon is visited by over a million visitors each year.
  • LaGuardia Airport: This New York City airport is used by 23 million passengers each year. It was built on Long Island for a cost of $2.3 million.
  • Fort Peck Dam: Built between 1933 and 1940, this dam provides hydroelectric power, flood control, and water quality management along the upper Missouri River. It was a combined effort of the WPA and the CCC and it cost $100 million.
  • Triborough Bridge: Now called the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, this is actually three bridges, a viaduct, and 14 miles of connecting roads, all of which connect Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx in New York. It was completed in 1936 at a cost of $60 million, and today is visited by 200,000 vehicles per day.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: Stretching from Virginia to North Carolina for 469 miles, this roadway was funded in part by the WPA and is designated as an All-American Road.

Was the New Deal a Success?

The success of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs has been debated for years. Some say that the government overstepped its bounds and that the United States was dangerously close to becoming a totalitarian government during this era. Others argue that unemployment was not erased during the New Deal years and only World War II was responsible for the end of the Great Depression.

What cannot be debated, however, is that the New Deal programs gave hope to millions of citizens who had given up hope. The infrastructure of the United States was rebuilt and modernized, and many of the projects were springboards for a future where the U.S. would dominate world affairs.

By the Numbers: CCC, PWA, and WPA

The sheer number of accomplishments is staggering.

  • CCC projects included 3,470 fire towers erected, 97,000 miles of roads built, 3 billion trees planted, 711 state parks created, and over 3 million men employed.
  • PWA funded the construction of over 34,000 projects, including airports, dams, schools, and hospitals.
  • WPA is credited with having constructed 651,087 miles of roadways, repaired 125,110 public buildings, and constructed 853 landing fields.

Employing the Nation

From 1933 and the birth of the New Deal to 1939, unemployment dropped from approximately 15 million to 9 million. Most of those workers were employed by New Deal programs.

Go to practically any major city in the United States and you will see projects built during the New Deal. By the same token, go to any national or state park and you will most likely see work completed during this era.

The Gift of Hope and Purpose

More importantly, talk to survivors of the Great Depression. My father and mother talked to me about the importance of the New Deal, not only in economic terms but also about the intangibles like regained pride and hope. Men and women who had all but given up hope in 1933 slowly but surely discovered a way to rebuild their lives.

More About the Great Depression

Questions & Answers

Question: Whats your favorite movie?

Answer: I have no clue... probably To Kill A Mockingbird


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on April 29, 2020:

I hope we never forget, Isabella!

Isabella Jaramillo on April 28, 2020:

Oh My Gosh you remember

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 03, 2018:

Thanks Sherly! I didn't forget it; I just didn't include it in the Top Five. Purely subjective opinion.

Sherly H on September 03, 2018:

I think you're forgetting a really big one ! The St. Louis Gateway Arch !!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on November 13, 2017:

It's possible!

Scrappy doo on November 12, 2017:

Scrappy doo learnatorium?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on April 27, 2017:

Thanks for stopping by, Vic. Great project you've outlined. Do you have a website for me to look at? Some early renderings? Or are you just at the planning phase?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2012:

Thank you Cat!

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on July 16, 2012:

Wonderful, wonderful!!! Simply great.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2012:

Thank you Cat! Income generated directly and indirectly by the project. For the Grand Coulee Dam, one would look at the dollars generated by energy productions; for the Overseas Highway one would estimate the dollars in revenue generated by opening the Keys to tourism and tax dollars.

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on July 16, 2012:

Wow! Great hub and right up my alley. I really enjoyed this one... the Depression is a topic that's hard to read about, but always worth it and this hub was no exception! Voted up, interesting, and useful.

How did you determine their economic impact? (Just curious.)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 10, 2012:

Sha, history is the people....the teacher who doesn't understand that fact is a teacher who will never find success.

I have never seen the Overseas Highway other than in pictures, but it truly looks beautiful.

Hey, I wrote a google searches hub for you today; not the challenge you gave me but a new one nonetheless.

Thanks my dear; I hope you are getting settled in at your new, old home. :)

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 10, 2012:

Thanx for the history, Bill. I've traversed the Blue Ridge Parkway (scary with only guardrails between you and death!) and the 7-mile bridge between the lower Keys and Key West (I guess they've modified the original connection). The 7-mile bridge is amazing because to your right you see the Gulf of Mexico, to the left you see the Atlantic. The Gulf is turquoise. The Atlantic is blue. How do the colors redefine themselves on either side of the bridge????? Nature is amazing! As a postscript, I've only been across the 7-mile bridge on the back of a Harley (the only way to experience it!) and I have NEVER not been drenched once on "the bridge"!

I hated history in school, but I love the way you bring the social aspect of history to life. That's what captures my interest. Not dates and facts. Tell me about the people.......

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 05, 2012:

Audra, my pleasure! I'm a big fan of Roosevelt; too bad he isn't alive today to give the leaders some much-needed wisdom.

iamaudraleigh on July 05, 2012:

I had no idea these were all built under Roosevelt's care! I have been in the Lincoln Tunnel many times too! You developed a great histoy lesson for us to read! Thank you for sharing it with us!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 04, 2012:

Dianna, you and I need to be running this government. The infrastructure in the country needs to be overhauled; what better way to put millions to work? Thank you dear friend and Happy 4th of July!

Dianna Mendez on July 04, 2012:

Minds and bodies of steel: that was the depression era. My parents shared stories of this time and it was their determination to make it through that made the difference in our lifestyle. Great share and very inspiring article. I think we need to see some of this in order to push through the next decade, but don't know how much the government will contribute.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 04, 2012:

There can be no doubt that the forward and bold thinking of FDR saved this country...let us hope there is another miracle coming our way. Thank you Ruby!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 03, 2012:

No matter what anyone says, FDR saved our country and Obama will do it again. There are so many evil forces who care nothing about our country. My prayer is that people will see the greed and let their hearts lead them, after careful prayer. Thank you.. cheers

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Mhatter, I actually read about that when I was doing research for this. Good call and thanks.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Tammy, he truly was a genius....and the gutsiest President we have seen in a very long time. Thank you my friend!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on July 03, 2012:

great report. thank you. parts of the original SF zoo was part of this. I remember the plaques.

Tammy from North Carolina on July 03, 2012:

Roosevelt was a genious when it came to pulling the country out of depression and creating good paying jobs. I am so glad one president found it important to put aside land for National Parks. It is hard to say where this country would be today if he hadn't been so effective during the Depression. Great, great hub.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Hey Cyndi, I had heard about Lake Mead; it is really unbelievable when you think about it...and yet very believable considering the way we use energy in this country. I'd like to see them plow Las Vegas down to the foundation and let the desert take it back.

Looking forward to that new hub of yours. Go get 'em girl!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 03, 2012:

Without getting into any politics, I SO WISH we had a New Deal thing going on today. I mean, so many bridges and roads and other needed projects could employ so many. But, then again, I'd probably be a die-hard Roosevelt fan. :D

It looks like there was some discussion about it here, but I really am going to do a hub related to the fires in Colorado Springs - where my family still lives. I heard on NPR a program called Talk of the Nation and there was a serious discussion about the state of the Colorado River and Lake Mead and how it might be empty by 2020. Sheesh.

But, as always, your hubs have inspired great food for thought and I'm psyched that I've visited three places of the top five. Those seem like long odds to have done that many...but then again, maybe not. ;)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Dim, I agree completely! We never seem to learn the most basic lessons from history. Thank you my friend.

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on July 03, 2012:

Fascinating, but heartwrenching. It´s frightening that not enough seems to have been learned from that terrible time.

great hub, billy, thank you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Dexter, you are welcome and thank you for stopping by. Every once in a while I have to turn loose the old teacher in me.

Dexter Yarbrough from United States on July 03, 2012:

A lot of great information here, Billybuc. FDR did a lot to bring the nation back from the brink of despair. Thanks for the history lesson. Sometimes we take much for granted.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

TT, it's already marked down. If it can happen once, could it happen again? Stay tuned!

Terrye Toombs from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map. on July 03, 2012:

lol @ Bill! :) Well, you better write today down in your journal cuz you finally said Terrye and sweet together. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Amy, my dad rode the rails in search of work when he was sixteen years old...the lessons he learned during the Great Depression stayed with him his entire lifetime. Like your parents, our understood the value of living frugally and they passed it on to me.

Thank you my dear; wishing you a happy and peaceful day.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:


Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on July 03, 2012:

My parents grew up during The Great Depression. Their lives were forever changed by the uncertainty of it's impact. My mother still talks about her father losing his job, losing their home and the necessity of the family splitting up and living with relatives for a period of time during her youth. My dad valued and kept his lifelong job as a fireman and oiler at Anheuser-Busch until his retirement. Dad did the grocery shopping, clipping coupons, hitting the stores with sales and maintaining a stockpile of non-perishables. After he died, my brother found a tin can up in the rafters that held $4,000 in the event of a run on the banks. Although, my dad provided for us with a good job and a wonderful income, and a lifetime investing in A-B stock where my mom will never have to worry financially, they lived frugally. In the winter, we needed our coats inside and in the summer, we sweltered. I am not complaining as we lived to talk about it, but it is a testament to the long-lasting impact of surviving desperate times.

Your article, Bill, is a testament to the brilliantly executed, analytical forethought of Franklin Roosevelt. He not only changed the landscape of The Great Depression, but the landscape of future generations. He was a visionary. Thank you

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on July 03, 2012:

You are very welcome Bill!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

pstraubie, thank you so much! I will gladly have you as a student :) better yet, as a friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Thanks Josh! I really don't enjoy doing these hubs but I think I need to do them and step out of my comfort level. I appreciate your following nephew.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 03, 2012:

I studied all of this when I was in school but these particular accomplishments were not really emphasized or if they were I was nodding off. O, my. Did I say that?

My parents and my eldest sister who is now in her mid eighties lived through this period of our history. They did not talk to me too much about it. My sister did tell of years of eating turnips all winter for several winters. Out of that dark time, we have treasures that still exist today.

I have become a student of billybuc. Here's another article I learned from and enjoyed reading. Voted up & interesting.

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on July 03, 2012:

Bill, this was an excellent, well-written and informative hub! I agree with TT, way more than I had learned in school! You are a very intelligent person! Just a thought, you should keep these kinda hubs coming, because they are great evergreen ideas, and you write them clear and very simplistic! Keep up the great work uncle Bill!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Ron, we are in complete agreement on your points. Improving the infrastructure in this country would create millions of jobs HERE in the United States, jobs that would not be outsourced. It is amazing that more is not being done on the home front. I, for one, am convinced that it will take a near-total collapse before wiser minds are heard. Yes, there was great opposition in Congress about the New Deal, and there would be incredible opposition for any plan to improve the infrastructure in the U.S. today, but it is exactly what is necessary.

Thank you for a great comment.

Ron Hawkster from United States of America on July 03, 2012:

Billy, excellent hub.

There is another grand project that took place during Roosevelt's administration, although it's not considered a new deal project. It was the Manhattan Project. Between the Hoover dam construction and the Manhattan Project they were probably the two largest public undertakings of the 1st half of 20th century. The interesting thing is that the nuclear bomb may not have been possible without Hoover dam being ready, because the project required massive amounts of electricity for uranium enrichment. But the project started suddenly in 1942 and didn't have enough time to set up its own power sources. If the extra electricity from the new dams that had been constructed in the 30s to put the country back to work hadn't been there that project may have had to be delayed because the rest of the war projects required a great deal of electricity as well. In retrospect the public works of the New Deal look ingenious even though at the time there was a lot of opposition to them in Congress.

It puts our current state of affairs in perspective. The lack of grand public works that are for the good of the country is glaring. I don't mean pork projects. I mean meaningful, visionary projects that help keep this country ahead of the world.

For power, we are at or near capacity and much of it comes from the toxic, dirty coal and the rest from oil (much of it imported) and hydroelectric (limited. Has anyone looked at the water levels in Lake Mead, behind Hoover dam?) From time to time when there is a heat wave there are power outages. Heaven forbid if there is some kind of an international crisis or oil shortage. We have no excess capacity. If Canada and Mexico don't give it to us we're in trouble. With Congress more keen on ignoring infrastructure in favor of the exorbitant defense spending which in my estimation is ten times what is necessary and prudent we're in a vulnerable situation. You just listed a number of New Deal projects that helped get the country out of the Great Depression. I can't think of one project in the works that'll contribute to getting us out of this mild depression. No wonder everyone is pessimistic about our future. The lessons of the past seem lost on our so-called leaders.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Oh Paula, you are oh so right. LOL..I was a mess for sure!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

TT, how sweet....I never thought I'd say TT and sweet in the same sentence. LOL...I'll bet winters are a toss up between eastern Montana and Alaska...well, maybe the nod to the Alaskan interior. I think that's exciting and I'm happy for you.

Suzie from Carson City on July 03, 2012:

Gosh in touch with your emotions. You cry as a sober man.....I sure would have hated to be around you in your drinking days!

"Hey, we're going drinking with ole bill...bring the, scratch that. Bring a mop!"

Terrye Toombs from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map. on July 03, 2012:

Bill: I would drive a thousand miles out of my way to pay you a visit! :) We're filling out the paperwork and getting the down payment put together before the end of the month. :) We'd like to spend our summers up there getting the land ready to put a house on it before we move up there year round - still not looking forward to winters in AK, but they can't be any worse than MT/ND...what am I thinking...oh YES they can. LOL! :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

TT, I do love you for exactly that reason and I would be flattered if a student used this hub as a crib note. :) Thanks buddy; I hope you follow through with that Alaska plan but you better damn sure get internet. Hey, you can stop and visit me before you head north.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Paula, what would I do without you! You make me laugh! I'm not sure what it is going to take to wake people up to the fact that the good old days are long gone. We need to re-think our priorities and find a way to take care of ourselves. As for Mr. Holland's Opus...I cry when I watch that movie. I have a lot of emotions tied up in the old days of teaching; good times for sure.

Terrye Toombs from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map. on July 03, 2012:

Fantastic overview of all the wonderful works brought by FDR and the New Deal. I was just at the Fort Peck Dam a couple of weeks ago and wow! I agree with the lovely fp, I learned far more from your write up here than I remember "learning" in school. Must have been the hormones and all the cutie patootie boys in class that distracted me at the time. :)

You know how much I totally agree with the bare essentials lifestyle. :) After thinking and pondering, Hubby and I have come to the conclusion that we will more than likely be buying some acreage back in Alaska where it will be very easy to live off of the grid and be self sufficient. I did, however, make him promise that I will still have internet access (gotta have my HP fix and I wanna see if IKEA can deliver a bedroom set to BFE, AK) ok, I know, I'm just plain evil. :) But you still love me anyway.

So, if a student somewhere in the world comes across this hub and 'borrows' it for his social studies or history class, will it p*ss you off or flatter you? :) VUM!

Suzie from Carson City on July 03, 2012:

bill.....Good stuff here......paid more attention than I ever did the first time I was "suppose" to be learning this! Must have been the fault of a lousy teacher back then!! But now we have MR. HOLLAND........geez,,,,,,you even have a classic teacher name!....."Mr. Holland's Opus?" Richard Dreyfuss?? I just recalled that! HA!!

The hub info is invaluable...but about your comment to Polly....."bare essentials,"" it's our only hope. Why everyone has not come to terms with this, is beyond me. It's the course of action of the times!

I'm only half-way there, but continually working on the process. and I have this burning desire to scream from the roof-tops....."THIS IS NOT PAINFUL, PEOPLE!!" In fact, it's a liberating adventure! Up++

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Jeff, it is fascinating to talk to people who lived then and hear their stories. Thank you my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

LaThing, so nice to see you again. I think Roosevelt was a fascinating man; he certainly was a man of action.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Lord, we do have our problems right now and they are getting worse. I appreciate you stopping by; I'll get over there to see your new hub soon.

Jeff Gamble from Denton, Texas on July 03, 2012:

Bill - I agree with your top five, these projects had the most impact at the time, and of course, they all have quite the legacy. My grandmother used to point out WPA plaques on sidewalks and talk about people she knew who worked on different WPA projects. Great hub!

LaThing from From a World Within, USA on July 03, 2012:

Great history there, and you did a wonderful job bringing it together! I actually became interested in Roosvelt, not in school, but when I lived in Eastport, ME, near Campaballo Island, Roosevelt's summer home. Very fascinating.... Voting up and sharing.

Joseph De Cross from New York on July 03, 2012:

Billy, this was so welldone I live near the New York Manhattan area, and I have read the dates of construction on the bridges. Lots of Schools were built around 1914-1936, maybe that was Teddy Roosvelt's priority. Sad to agree with Polly and sad to know that America is almost oversold.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 03, 2012:

Polly, I came to that realization six years ago. Now I have my life whittled down to bare essentials and I do not need the government (or a job) to get by. I am ready for whatever new reality comes our way. Thank you for the visit.

Pollyannalana from US on July 03, 2012:

It seems to me the new deal now is how can we take away states rights and give more of our jobs to outsiders. How close we are all coming to being homeless is the new reality.