The Highway Department in
Depression and War
A Culture of Pride
In a 1930 report detailing sights along the old Butterfield Trail stagecoach route, this photograph was staged at a creek crossing near Chico in Wise County to show four stages in the history of highway construction. A caption on the back of the photograph explains: "First, in the foreground, the dim outline of the old trail crossing; second, the old concrete dip; third, the abutments of the old wooden bridge; and lastly, in the background, the modern highway bridge on State Highway No. 39."
Cooke County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
As the 1930s began, most of the work of the Texas Highway Department took place in isolated rural areas—areas that, in fact, were isolated by the very lack of roads. The department developed a crude but effective shoe-string operation for these projects. The engineer in charge of the work would take up residence in the nearest county seat, where his first task was to scrounge free office space, usually in the county courthouse, and begin his work with whatever furniture he could borrow, scavenge, or make himself.
The design team for U.S. Highway 83 in Pharr, 1938. Pictured are Carl Staples, John D. Park, J.S. Wagoner, and Mc.D. Shelby. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.
As detailed in this letter, proponents of the "Hug-the-Coast Highway" faced an unusual obstacle when the powerful families that controlled the King Ranch refused to allow the road to traverse their domain. Finally completed in 1940 and designated as Texas State Highway 87, the road was badly damaged over the years by hurricanes. A 20-mile section between High Island and Sabine Pass has been closed since 1989 and is returning to nature, making it a draw for adventurers.
From there, he hired a crew of laborers, including a cook. In a scene reminiscent of cowboy days, the department provided for tents or bunkhouses, but the crew was expected to provide their own cots and bedrolls and to chip in for food. Because of the Great Depression, the department focused heavily on job creation rather than maximum efficiency. Laborers, who were paid between 30 and 45 cents per hour (about $6.00 in today’s money), were generally hired for no more than 30 hours a week, with jobs often split into two shifts so more men could be hired. In addition, work was done with hand tools instead of machines to make the projects take longer, and teams of horses and mules were used instead of trucks. In some parts of Texas, these practices lasted well into the 1950s.
Not everyone shared equally in the creation of these precious jobs. African Americans were generally excluded from being hired for road projects. And as was common during the Great Depression, the department had a policy not to hire married women, on the theory that one wage earner per family was enough.
Increased road building also led directly to job creation in the private section. By the early 1930s, an array of private contractors had sprung up to provide and install construction materials from sand and gravel to cement, asphalt, and creosote. As the roads were built, roadside businesses such as hotels and restaurants also sprang up, creating further economic benefit.
But while the work may have been tailored to provide as many jobs as possible, it was anything but useless. Under Gilchrist’s leadership, a culture of pride developed as the department tackled overdue priorities. The construction of the long-awaited network of hard-surfaced roads meant that the old narrow, winding two-lane paths were finally a thing of the past. The new highways expanded the right of way from 40 feet to 80 to 100 feet. In some place, the roads were even wider: in 1929, a four-lane highway 150 feet in width was completed between Houston and Galveston.
In addition to serving the major population centers, the department embarked on the first efforts to build farm-to-market roads and constructed the first roadside rest areas. The new roads were immensely popular; as soon as they were built, they began to show wear and tear. In response, the department began to keep the first traffic records and lay plans for future maintenance.