Public works are the skeleton of modern life. Whether municipal or rural, the roads that transport our goods, the sewers that protect our health and property, the wires that carry our electricity, and the pipes that deliver our water enable society to function. Every amenity our communities take for granted is built on planning, engineering, building, and maintaining these assets.

Throughout history, humans have flourished through advancements in public works. From Roman roads and aqueducts to the Panama Canal through the New Deal programs of the 1930s, infrastructure has, and always will, define great civilizations.

How we got here

The first U.S. infrastructure projects were water-related. The colony of Massachusetts enacted the first water pollution control regulation in 1647. Diverting streams and digging ditches to alleviate flooding and irrigate crops, and burying hollowed-out logs to remove effluent from homes were common by the 1700s. In 1884, Boston installed one of the first lift stations; it was powered by steam.

Major waterway projects began in the early 1800s. Proposed in 1807 and built from 1817 to 1825, the 393-mile Erie Canal provided a portage-free route for goods to and from the nation’s interior by linking the Hudson River and Great Lakes. Levees built along the Mississippi River in the 1850s protected the port areas of St. Louis from flooding and bank erosion.

Also in the 1850s, Chicago began building a system of combined sewers that drained to the Chicago River. Large portions of the city had to be raised 10 feet to 15 feet to provide adequate gravity.

As the 19th century began, the need for better ways of moving goods resulted in formalized roadway planning. Congress authorized the first federal project, the National Road, in 1806. Route 40 would unify the new nation by connecting the Mid-Atlantic coast with communities along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Railroad construction flourished from the 1830s to the 1860s. When Union Pacific and Central Pacific completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, industry and commerce advanced westward. Towns sprouted up from coast to coast. The Midwest became the breadbasket of the world.

The appearance of new technologies in the 1800s expanded the realm of public works. Gas lighting and heating required underground piping; by the 1870s municipalities were granting franchises and right-of-way usage to utilities. Electric power and telephone systems soon followed with similar needs.

The 20th century brought more responsibility for public works: hydroelectric power, a national energy grid, national highway system, and code enforcement systems that save lives.

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