June 29, 2006, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Act created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which now consists of 46,000 miles of roadway, 15,000 interchanges and 54,000 bridges. Furthermore, the Act changed the country’s economy and society, quickly becoming a lifeline for goods and services as well as a people mover.
Prelude to the Act
A young Eisenhower participated in the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington D.C. to San Francisco in 1919. With vehicles stuck in mud and sand, trucks crashing through wooden bridges, roads slippery from ice and dust, and other delays and difficulties, he quickly recognized the need for an adequate road system.
Eisenhower wasn’t the only one to realize the country needed a better road system, and by the late 1930s pressure to construct transcontinental superhighways reached President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who considered construction of a network of toll superhighways as part of his works program.
Under the direction of Congress, the Bureau of Public Roads studied the feasibility of a six-route national toll network in 1938. The resultant two-part report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, did not recommend the national system because traffic levels would not have supported the cost. However, it did suggest a 26,000-mile highway network
World War II interrupted progress while simultaneously confirming the benefits of a national system when then-General Eisenhower personally witnessed the advantages the German Autobahn provided its civilians and the mobility it allowed the Allies entering Germany.
In 1941 Roosevelt tried again, appointing a National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways. The report, released in 1943, recommended an interregional highway system to accommodate traffic for 20 years. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 created a 40,000-mile National System of Interstate Highways, but it divided supporters as urban interests battled rural interests for priority, and States fought the Federal government for authority.
Worse, Section 7, which authorized the interstate system, did not include provisions to make it a priority, authorize funding or convey a Federal commitment to the project. As a result, construction lagged because many States refused to divert Federal-aid funds from other needs, and some States decided to build toll roads in the interstate corridors because they believed Federal-aid funding was insufficient.
By 1950, with the focus once again shifted to military concerns due to the Korean conflict, the highway program was at a virtual standstill. Another Federal-Aid Highway Act (1952) allocated $25 million for the interstate system with a 50-50 state-federal match. This marked the first time funds were authorized specifically for interstate construction.
The same year, before his election to the presidency, Eisenhower told Hearst Newspapers, “The obsolescence of the nation’s highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger and death.” He believed a modern network of roads was “as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety.”
By the time he took office in 1953, only 24 percent of existing interstate roads were adequate for traffic. Only 6,000 miles had been completed, at a cost of $955 million. Another bill in 1954 authorized $175 million for the interstate system, with a 60-40 matching ratio.
Eisenhower wanted devised a “self-liquidating” method of financing that would not add to the national debt, and he wanted cooperation between State and Federal officials. Unfortunately, Congress did not approve his “Grand Plan” to start construction on $50 billion of highways, leaving a frustrated president to exclaim, “Adequate financing there must be, but contention over the method should not be permitted to deny our people these critically needed roads.”
He continued to urge approval of funding, but he didn’t succeed until he broke with advisors by endorsing a pay-as-you-go financial arrangement in 1956 and convincing Congress that this was a national issue.
Emerging and Enduring Changes
Thirty years after its scheduled completion, work continues under the original plan, even while reconstruction of some sections is underway. Roughly 42,796 miles of interstates transport 60,000 people per route-mile per day. Alaska is the only state without an interstate.
In 1990 President Bush renamed the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” after one of its recognized “fathers,” President Eisenhower, changing the name to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers declared the interstate system one of the Seven Wonders of the United States, joining Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Three states take credit for building the first interstate: Pennsylvania’s Turnpike; Missouri’s Interstates 44 and 70; and Kansas’ Interstate 70. The first three roads under Eisenhower’s program were all either upgrades of existing roads or had been started before the Act was signed.
The story was much the same in Iowa, where the impact of Eisenhower’s Act was huge. Some of the contractors who worked on the original highways reminisced about the work they did, noting the changes in working conditions and equipment since those pioneering days.
“Iowa was already planning on building a state highway south of Des Moines,” said Robins Jackson, retired former owner of Jackson Construction Company, which he called a small company doing small primary and city jobs. “They had the right of way for I-35; they had a good start, they got the jump.”
When the Act was signed, the project changed only slightly to include divided four-lane on both realignment and new ground. Jackson says when the government announced its plan to construct 40,000 miles of interstate, work started with a flourish, but because only the highways were funded, work on other roads stalled.
There was so much work, he said everyone kept busy. Grading and bridge work were bid separately. Jackson bid only on the base and the paving, while another Iowa company focused on bridges.
Jensen Construction Company in Des Moines, IA, began in 1905 as Kimballton Construction Company, a concrete factory that made blocks for foundations and culverts. It morphed into Jensen Construction Company in 1912 and formed United Contractors 40 years later, both companies specializing in bridge building.
United secured several bridge contracts after the Act was signed, mostly on Interstate 80. Some of its work was revolutionary: It incorporated the first pre-cast post tension beam ever used in Iowa when they built the Des Moines River bridge in 1958. An aluminum bridge they constructed over NW 86th Street in Des Moines was one of only seven built in the U.S.
The 1960 Des Moines freeway project provided several bridge contracts along and adjacent to I-235, including a $1.4 million Des Moines River bridge. Gary Sandquist, remembers working on I-235 in Des Moines, building bridges and boxes. He now works for United, but while he was in college, he worked for Cramer & Associates, Jensen and United.
“Things have changed,” he reflects, noting that costs seem to double about every eight years. “Labor costs have gone up…although hours per unit are down. Equipment costs have gone up…but productivity is much greater because of the equipment.”
Productivity suffered for a number of reasons in the 1950s. Ready-mix concrete was not readily available; workers had to mix concrete on site. Supplies and equipment arrived by rail cars because roads weren’t good enough to truck them in, slowing down progress.
The roads weren’t good for traveling, either. Sandquist remembers being “on the road” in more than one way. “We stayed out a lot more because the roads weren’t nearly as good. A trip to Iowa City [from Des Moines] was a couple-day trip. When you took a job, you stayed out on it. Mobility has increased a lot now.”
George Cramer was another college student doing road construction during the summer. Working for the family business his late brother founded in 1950, the civil engineering student earned $1.75/hour building bridges and concrete culverts on I-35, I-80 south to highways 34 and 35, and from Des Moines west on 235.
Beginning as a laborer, Cramer worked his way up to mixing equipment operator. Crews worked six days a week, 11 to 12 hours a day. Cramer reports that there wasn’t much shift work or many accelerated projects, as is common now. Initially, overtime wasn’t paid, but Cramer credits Charlie Davis, now technical director for AGC, with changing the wage structure.
A lot of other things have changed since the days when $1.75/hour was a good wage. Materials were delivered by rail. “The trucking industry had not yet bloomed,” Cramer said. “Entire bridges –– rebar, pilings –– were delivered by rail car. Every town had a rail site.”
Davis was just out of college when he worked on Highway 30 as a foreman at Hallet Co. in Ames, IA.
“A lot of shipments came by rail –– especially cement,” he recalled. “Aggregate came by truck because the quarries were within a 20-mile radius, but it was so common to get everything else by rail, prices were quoted by rail.”
But it wasn’t easy when shipments arrived; there were no loading facilities.
Unloading creosote pilings from gondola cars his first day on the job, Cramer learned a tough lesson. It didn’t take him long to figure out why everyone else wore long sleeves and gloves.
“I still hold a grudge,” he chuckled. “We had never heard of OSHA then; it wasn’t around much until the ’80s. It was up to the insurance companies to have safety programs.”
Federal regulations requiring documentation weren’t as prevalent then either. Cramer said the state didn’t enforce a work schedule, so bidding was plentiful and hours were long.
“It was a hard life,” he recalled, “but it was rewarding. It was tough on family life, but it was a good life. Picking up a suitcase on Sunday gets into your blood.”
Companies today are dealing with several changes in the workforce. Cramer says new employees don’t want to be on the road so much, and that many crews have never worked outside of Des Moines.
It’s tough for contractors, he said, because although they offer an attractive wage, it’s difficult to find people willing to move around. Contractors are hiring more local people these days.
“It’s a constant process of change,” Cramer said.
Joe Gimbel, Case Construction equipment product manager, added, “People won’t go far from home now, and because the job site keeps moving, they’re not interested. You can’t even get a driver to deliver equipment on a holiday weekend any more!”
According to Jackson, “everybody used to travel. It was not unusual to go 500 miles to a job. And there was no per diem and no transportation furnished. We worked longer hours, maybe 11, 12 hours a day, and Saturdays. You lose so much time shutting down and cleaning up, it was just easier to work longer.”
“You’d work as long as you could see,” said Davis, explaining that the number of hours depended on the amount of daylight.
Men and Machines
Men worked longer and harder.
“It was more labor-intensive then,” Davis said. “It was tough. Wages were a lot less, but construction jobs were good, even though we worked hard and worked long hours.”
Cramer said changes occurred every year as the industry made great strides in progress, but he considers the replacement of manual labor with mechanized processes to be one of the biggest changes that came out of this period.
“It revolutionized the industry equipment-wise,” he said. “We saw a lot of new stuff: power transmission, hydraulics, fabrication techniques…”
Gimbel believes that because machines were in such short supply, the company who could supply the equipment usually got the job.
One piece of equipment no one had was the slipform paver prevalent in road construction today.
“We used steel forms,” explained Davis. “It required a lot more labor because the forms were set by hand. There was a chicken picker – a form trencher. It drew a lot of comment because it had three steering wheels. Then the forms were set by hand and staked by hand with a sledge hammer and pins. The machine that mixed the concrete was on tracks. It traveled down the road with the crew. There wasn’t any Ready-mix.”
Jackson echoes Davis’ sentiments: “It took a lot more men then, especially to set the forms.”
However, he wasn’t mixing concrete on site because he had a plant.
“We’d wet-batch it and haul it out in trucks. We hauled 1,200 to 1,500 yards a day then. They haul about 3,000 yards a day now.”
He said the paving is thicker now.
“We tried eight-inch reinforced, but it didn’t work. We tried hard base, more base – everything. That black dirt makes good farmland, but it’s not good road soil. We had to think a lot more about grading then.”
Davis explained the process of cutting grades: a sure-grader worked on forms and was followed by a paver, a finisher and a bull float, with screed going in the opposite direction of the finisher. Jackson opines that equipment running on tracks, as it does now, produces more exact, smoother roads than the extensive form-riding equipment they used then.
“The smoother they are, the longer they last,” he added. “That’s why they pay incentives for smoother roads now.”
Cramer said, “First you build an elephant, then you have to figure out how to feed it.”
Overpasses were built with one or two pieces of small equipment in the 1950s, but as each piece of equipment was added, the entire process became more progressive and more equipment joined the lineup.
“We started with a small crane,” he said. “We did everything with it. Then we added small dozers, then backhoes. Then everyone had to have it; suddenly you couldn’t do the job without this equipment. Development was progressive. The first big new crane arrived in 1955. Everyone had to have it and they figured out how to do the job better with that. A lot of innovations were made by contractors making stuff for themselves just to get the job done. If you can’t buy it, make it!”
Davis knows all about that.
“End loaders weren’t common then,” he said. “We used cranes and drag buckets to haul broken concrete.”
Both Jackson and Davis tore out old Iowa roads and replaced them with two-lane highways. Davis said breaking was done by home-built breakers.
“We had a truck bed with a winch that drove a pile-driving hammer. You just had to improvise,” he said.
Gimbel mentions the cable dozers that pre-date hydraulic dozers.
“You pushed down a lever and the blade fell. We had to build the hydraulic dozers to mimic the cable by incorporating a delay with the quick-drop valves. We had to adjust the new technology to the old.”
That’s not always the case, however. Gimbel talked about “jerry-rigging” umbrellas for shade.
“They weren’t fixed on the machine, so if it rolled, you could jump off easier,” he said.
He also said not only were there no seat belts, seats had to be wide so operators could move while looking over the left and right sides – and that “grader operators never sat down.”
New materials and methods were introduced, a trend that continues today. In the beginning, Cramer says, all concrete bridge floors were placed and screened by hand. Cramer’s company was one of the first to use a mechanical machine to finish a bridge floor.
The number of detours has decreased in an effort to reduce the number of driver fatalities.
Cramer said, “Detours back then were safer for construction workers, not motorists. Motorists late at night were often ’greased up.’”
“I think we pay more attention to traffic detours now,” Davis speculated. “When he worked on I-30 in Ames, traffic was often routed through city streets, although he remembers grading and laying a course base on one section south of I-69 to serve as an alternate route. Detours were upgraded but not always paved.”
Cramer agreed, saying, “Today there are a lot of civil attorneys, but in the pre-OSHA days, we put rocks or asphalt or pikes in streams for detours.”
His company’s primary business today is renovating and expanding bridges originally built in the 1950s.
“My son is tearing down my work,” Cramer said. “He made the cycle.”
He speculates that we’ll see new interchanges, but we won’t see new highways like we did in “those days.” He pointed out that they’ve been functional for 40-50 years, but everything eventually wears out.
“The system wasn’t designed for the car counts and trucks it supports now,” he said. “I-80 was designed for a 10 percent truck count; it’s getting 30. The rate of deterioration is accelerated.”
He noted, too, that aesthetics have become very important.
“The DOT would have laughed if we had asked to hire an architectural engineer back then,” Cramer said. “Now we have several. In those days, a bridge had one purpose: get vehicles from one place to another. They were 24 feet wide –– wide enough for two cars. Now they’re 42 feet wide because we need a 10-foot shoulder.”
The DOT might not have been sympathetic to aesthetic ideas, but Jackson said many of the practical ideas the crews had were accepted and incorporated into highway projects.
“It saved them time and money.”
In his characteristic straight-talking, humble style, Cramer said that he had no idea of the importance of the work he was doing in the late 1950s.
“I saw an opportunity for work; it was a windfall.” CEG
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