The Story of 5 National Icons

America built these 5 iconic structures to address specific needs, but they also lifted the eyes of local citizenry – the nation and the world – to grander prospects. Today, more than ever, America needs that determined spirit to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure.

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If you have to pick one project that captures America’s ability to erect jaw-dropping infrastructure against insurmountable odds – monuments to her ingenuity, industrial might and values – which of the following five projects would it be?

Key Facts

  • 80,000 miles of cables were strung
  • 40.2 million vehicles a year cross the bridge [2014-2015]
  • Annual tolls: $129.5 million [2014-2015]

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1. Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco’s Graceful Gateway

Standing taller than any bridge in America, San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge for more than eight decades has linked its city with its wine rich hinterlands in Napa and Sonoma.

It towers 746 feet over its bay, taller than 2 ½ stacked Statues of Liberty.

When it was proposed towards the end of the Depression, skeptics doubted it could be built above the surging tides and deep 6,700-feet wide strait and weather the cold soupy fog that regularly rolls in from the Pacific.

Advocates prevailed and armed with a suspension design by noted bridge architect Leon Moisseiff, who sketched the design of New York’s Manhattan Bridge, the project was brought to completion in 1937.

It cost about $27 million to complete in 1937, or an estimated $1.5 billion in current dollars – which would today amount to a little over 1 percent of the state of California’s budget. Eleven men died in construction mishaps.

The feared San Andreas Fault, which rumbled to life in the 1906 earthquake, passes just 7 miles offshore.

The largest potential tsunami wave that could crash against the bridge would not topple it. Nor would crowding the entire population of the city onto its roadways cause the overhead cables to fail, experts say.

Officials believe a $900 million seismic upgrade started in 1998 should enable the north and south ends of the bridge to withstand an 8.3 magnitude quake, while the sinuous center could take up to a 7 magnitude rattle – even though there would likely be significant damage.

The 1906 earthquake registered 7.8.

Key Facts

  • Up to 20,000 vehicles a day drive across the dam
  • Every second, the volume of water surging through generators would fill 15 swimming pools

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2. Hoover Dam: Battery to the West

To convert the might of the Colorado River into electric juice, builders had to poor concrete two football fields thick at the base of Hoover Dam, tapering the structure to 45 feet wide on the top. That required enough concrete to build an equator-girding sidewalk around the earth.

The massive hulk on the Arizona- Nevada border holds back Mead Lake, the largest reservoir in America embracing enough water to cover New York State one foot deep.

How much electricity is generated by 17 generators spun by the falling waters exiting the lake? Enough to power the lights, washing machines and I-phones of 100,000 homes.

Conceived during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the project was meant to energize an economically depressed region and inspire a nation with an unprecedented, vast building project. It was completed in 1936.

It provided needed energy resources into the West. It also furnished vast water resources to quench the thirst of an expanding population and economy throughout the region.

The Six Companies group, including Bechtel of San Francisco, started work on the dam in 1931. Employment peaked at 5,200 jobs. It cost $49 million, or close to $800 billion today.

Los Angeles gets 15 percent of the electricity from the project, the state of Arizona gets 19 percent and the state of Nevada gets 23 percent.

Key Facts

  • The building is so large it has its own zip code – 10118
  • The building did not become profitable until the 1950s
  • It required 57,480 tons of steel

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3. Empire State Building: King Kong Launch Pad

When King Kong clambered to the heights of the Empire State Building in a classic 1933 film, he was atop what would remain the world’s tallest building for four decades, until the construction of the World Trade Center.

The building project at West 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, began Oct. 1, 1929 with the demolition of the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel just weeks ahead of the epic great stock market crash.

Despite the economic convulsion that followed, excavation of the iconic structure in the heart of America’s financial capital started in January 1930. With more than 3,500 laborers working at the construction peak, the building’s erection proceeded at a rapid pace. The Empire State Building opened May 1, 1931.

It cost $40.9 million, or $2.8 billion in current dollars.

The 102-story building now is merely the 28th largest in the world – fifth tallest in America. Yet the Art Deco structure, stepping up gracefully into clouds of mid-Manhattan, still stands for elegance married to human aspiration.

Of late it is claiming a new type of leadership, on the energy and sustainability front, after a $500 million retrofit has cut energy use 38 percent, saving $4.4 million annually and serving as a beacon for other property managers eager to attack skyscrapers’ carbon footprints.

Key Facts

  • The Interstate Highway system, end-to-end, would twice circle the earth
  • It is owned by the states they traverse
  • 70 percent of construction and maintenance costs are covered by user fees like gas taxes

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4. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways: Highways to Heaven

First there were animal trails, Indian trails and then small dirt roads.

By the middle of the 20th century, America needed a vast new transport arterial to speed the migration of its population, raw materials and industrial product.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways war born, dedicated to the president from Kansas who advocated its deployment. He saw it as a national security imperative – and needed national growth stimulant – after a 1919 cross-country drive as a young officer in the Army.

Congress approved the effort in 1956 and it took 35 years to complete at 47,856 miles – sufficiently expansive to absorb one-quarter of all vehicular mileage driven in the nation. That is out of 4 million miles of roadways in the country.

The Interstate Highway sticker was more than $536 billion in current dollars.

The heaviest traveled stretch of the system is I-405 in Los Angeles, which by 2009 was carrying 374,000 vehicles daily.

The Interstates are a major portal for recreation, carrying 70 percent of tourist traffic, as compared to 70 percent of commercial traffic and 40 percent of total traffic.

Concrete makes up 60 percent of Interstate roadways – particularly heavily trafficked sections in urban areas.

Key Facts

  • The Arch weighs 17,246 tons – or about 2,650 African elephants
  • It is not a parabola but a flattened catenary – what you get if you hang a thin-centered chain between two points

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5. The Gateway Arch: The world’s tallest arch

America’s bellyband, the Gateway Arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, since 1965 has been the tallest man-made monument in America at 630 feet.

The structure, bearing a ¼-inch thick skin of stainless steel, cost $13 million, of roughly $100 million today. It was designed by Eero Saarinen of Finland.

It was erected out of 142 triangular sections made in Pennsylvania and shipped via rail to the construction site.

It celebrates the St. Louis pioneer heritage, when first trappers and then later westbound settles moved through the city, America’s eight largest when its population reached 857,000 in 1950.

The city’s population has since declined as has attendance at the Arch, hitting just 1.2 million people in 2016, the lowest total ever.

To restore the luster of the structure and lure more visitors, particularly from among the one-third of the U.S. population within a day’s drive of the city, a $380 million upgrade was launched with a successful sales tax ballot measure in 2013.

The Arch’s new entrance points west to the heart of the city, traversing Interstate 44 as a new corridor links the city center with its mighty river.

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