The Great Depression and the Return of Masonry Arches

The Ancient Romans initially constructed the semicircular arch for buildings, doorways and bridges. Yet engineers continue to use this ancient form for its strength, simplicity, and classical design. The use of stone in arch bridges ensures durability over time, and many structures still survive and remain virtually unaltered, 100 years after construction.

This 1949 Works Progress Administration poster advertises a new federal recreation project to build hike trails.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 plunged the country into a period of economic chaos. In response to the decreasing availability of materials, funds, and labor, architectural design shifted towards simplicity and efficiency with an emphasis on craftsmanship. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs put young men to work learning construction trades and building bridges and roads, some of which you can read more about in our historic roads feature.

This 1949 Works Progress Administration poster advertises a new federal recreation project to build hike trails.

New organizations, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the National Youth Administration initiated beautification projects for roads and bridges. Through these organizations, young men acquired skills in landscaping, masonry, and maintenance. At the same time, cities across America embraced highway beautification programs, stone masonry bridges, and scenic road stops. In regards to bridge building, stone became the prominent material used throughout the nation.

Texas engineers occasionally built the masonry arch before the New Deal, such as the West Sixth Street Bridge in Austin, which dates to 1887. This type of structure experienced a great surge in popularity, becoming the most recognizable Depression-era bridge, as seen in the Possum Kingdom Bridge that carries State Highway 16 over the Brazos River, or the Arneson Theater Bridge for pedestrians along San Antonio's Riverwalk.

With the hope of raising spirits and utilizing local materials to their best ability, builders found ways to display appealing designs with lower budgets. Inspired by the natural environment, designers created picturesque structures that fit within the outdoor landscape, unlike earlier metal trusses or later concrete slabs.

Download sources for content and images here or for the individual arch bridge pages here.