Meeting New Challenges Since World War Two
The end of the war in 1945 did not bring immediate improvement. The highway department found itself facing problems similar to those of its counterparts across the nation. Most urgent was the need to reconstruct a highway system damaged by the severe demands of wartime use. To this were added longer term issues. The list of priorities needed to include preparing for a steady increase in the volume of traffic--the department foresaw future vehicles "going farther, faster, and more often," building roads and bridges according to uniform specifications, and proceeding with plans to develop a network of integrated highways.58 However, progress came slowly in the postwar period due to continuing shortages of some materials, primarily steel, and competing demands for state and federal funds. Conditions were further aggravated by instances of mismanagement and corruption inside the department.59 Even under the best of circumstances, the rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles exceeded efforts to add more highways. As late as 1955, twenty percent of Oklahoma's state roads were still unpaved.
In the decade following the war, bridge building in the state became more standardized. To a great degree this reflected the uniform specifications adopted by the Federal Bureau of Roads. Oklahoma also made widespread use of concrete in this period, finding it a strong, reliable, and low cost material for constructing numerous standard type beam and girder spans. Precast concrete hastened work on the site and further reduced the cost of construction. While concrete bridges proliferated, the steel truss remained a choice for department engineers who still made use of the K-truss through span and the camelback pony, frequently in combination, for major structures. The types shared some advantages. Both were economical designs with determinate stresses that were readily manufactured from standard structural shapes and then riveted and bolted together. In a representative case, when needing a new structure on U. S. 70 near Broken Bow in 1948, the state mixed two K-trusses with three camelbacks to cross the Mountain Fork River.
State bridge engineers had also come to see by the late 1930s that good design and solid construction alone did not guarantee the permanence of some structures. Particularly on the wide, sandy streams of the west, such as the Washita, Canadian, and Red rivers, stabilizing the streambanks by placing steel jetties upstream proved a valuable technique in reducing the amount of erosion that was responsible for washing out bridge foundations. More than protecting the structures, this innovation permitted Oklahoma to shorten spans by as much as 50 to 500 feet, this being the length formerly added to a structure to guard against bank erosion.60
By the mid-1950s, with an economy made robust by a booming petroleum industry and its role restored as a principal crossroads in the Southwest -- an area of fast population growth touted as the "Sunbelt"-- Oklahoma would begin to transform its highway system. The state revived the toll road, opening in 1953 the Turner Turnpike to provide a high-speed, four-lane, divided highway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Its success inspired several others, including the Will Rogers Turnpike (1957) connecting Tulsa and Joplin, Missouri, and the H. E. Bailey Turnpike (1964) between Oklahoma City and Wichita Falls, Texas. Complementing these state-built expressways, the federal government assumed a vastly expanded role in road building, a far cry from its hesitant first steps in 1916. At the urging of the Eisenhower administration, Congress in 1956 created the Interstate Highway program, formulating a plan to construct 41,000 miles of modern high-speed roadways across the country.
These developments seemed to cast a shadow over the lowly truss bridges and masonry arch spans of the past. Once hailed as opening the state to a brighter future, they were now blatantly out of date and lost from view on dusty country roads and in decaying sections of the central cities. In truth, however, many of them must now accept a new and equally constructive role. Today they should stand as mute reminders of past engineering and industrial achievement, but, more than that, as testimony to the value Oklahomans gave transportation as a progressive force in building their community.