The (de)Construction of Bridges and Dams

Infrastructure in America is something for which to be grateful: we can travel the country, read under lamplight, store and reheat food easily, and work and play rather than walk 8 hours every day to the well.

But construction, a critical part of this infrastructure, is a complex beast.

The Hoover Dam is the most well-known dam in America. At the time of its construction, it was the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, and also the world’s biggest concrete structure.

But its construction was not seamless. Building the Hoover Dam caused 112 deaths, not including heat stroke and heart attacks. And the Colorado River has never been the same; the dam endangered entire fish populations by permanently changing the river’s water levels and salinity.

Or how about the Brooklyn Bridge, one of my very favorite places. It killed off both its builder and the builder’s son, so that only the builder’s wife was left to complete the project. Decompression sickness affected many of the underwater workers. In total, 27 deaths were reported during construction, with many more suspected.

In some other countries, the impact is even worse. The Three Gorges Dam in China is the largest electricity-generating structure anywhere. It provides energy to millions of Chinese people. But its completion was only possible after China displaced roughly 1.3 million people – including entire towns – without even compensating many of them. The dam has flooded  archeological sites and increased the possibility of serious landslides in the region.

The point is not to say infrastructure is bad or wrong, nor is it to make us feel guilty for using electric lights or driving over bridges to see Grandma. But the history of construction (and the examples go on and on) should make us grateful for two things: the (mostly) men who gave their lives building such important things for us, and the young boys and girls studying now to make sure there are safer alternatives next time.

Join in!

Do you have a favorite structure that could be added to this list?


When I was studying protest during college, I got the chance to stand alongside some really excellent folk, including Grandmothers Against the War. They have protested on 5th Ave, across from Rockefeller Plaza, for almost a decade. This past week, they were written up in the New York Times. It is a nice, albeit overdue, article, so check it out.

3 Responses to “The (de)Construction of Bridges and Dams”
  1. Michael Miller says:

    A few of my ancestors built some of those structures in NYC. I wish I knew who and which ones. I’ll have to look into that.

  2. jpothen says:

    Us Civil Engineers never learn about how our magnificent structures inadvertently cost lives. We just learn equations and safety guidelines.

    I’m glad you brought this up. It makes me realize that even trying to do something good can have unintended consequences.

  3. Darrell says:

    Danger and risk are the price we pay for civilization. Henry’s life is without very much risk but he is owned by someone. In Henry’s case his owner is benevolent but even so I would not choose to be caged. These great projects take years to complete and I don’t mean to make light of the sacrifice but many industries or professions have risk over long periods of time.

    One problem we face now is that because of the crushing weight of unpayable debt our infrastructure is not properly maintained and is deteriorating. Debt has a tendency to absorb all productive capacity and energy.

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