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The Great Depression and WWII

New Deal programs and federal relief efforts of the 1930s provided jobs and funding that contributed to the construction and improvement of roads throughout the country and the state of Wisconsin.  In 1931, $80 million dollars in emergency federal aid was made available to the states to supplement their required matching funds, of which Wisconsin received $1,992,410.  Federal emergency appropriations continued in the 1930s under the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1934, and the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935.  Work completed in Wisconsin under the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 totaled 227 miles of construction, including 160 miles of grading, drainage, and concrete surfacing; 22 miles of grading, drainage and crushed stone surfacing; and 45 miles of grading and drainage only.


A work relief project in
Door County included removing
an earth slide along STH 42.
Courtesy of Wisconsin
Historical Society Archives
(PH Series 918.912

During the hard times of the Depression, this additional funding allowed states, including Wisconsin, to continue with highway construction and put unemployed people to work.  Work was completed by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA).  The federal CWA, in cooperation with state, county, and city authorities, undertook numerous road improvement programs on state, county, town, village, and city roads.  Approximately 2,184 projects were completed that improved the highway right-of-way through the clearing of brush and ditch improvements.  Work by the PWA from 1935 to 1937 was more limited and focused on highway- and bridge-construction projects that received a federal grant of 70 percent matched by 30 percent local funds.

After the US became involved in World War II, road construction activities in general stopped, with the exception of roads needed for military purposes such as the Badger Army Ammunition Plant located on USH 12.  For national security, the War Department and the Public Roads Administration identified a system of roads known as the Strategic Network of Highways to access military bases, defense manufacturing plants, and other strategic sites.

The Defense Highway Act of 1941 further restricted the activities of state highway departments.  Federal funds were limited to the Strategic Network of Highways, the construction of roads to military bases and defense manufacturing plants, construction of air bases, and advanced engineering surveys for projects to be completed after the war.  During the war, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) Committee on Standards suggested changes in design and construction standards to reduce or eliminate the use of critical building materials.

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