J. Trueman Thompson relied on relief labor to construct a campus road system during the Great Depression.
Faculty commonly served as consultants for campus building projects in the first decades of the Engineering School, so it was no surprise when University President Joseph Ames tapped Civil Engineering Chair J. Trueman Thompson ’17 to oversee construction of a new campus road system during the 1930s.
One of the School’s first students, Thompson had become nationally known for his expertise in highway transportation. (The State of California reportedly offered him a hefty sum to head up its highway system, but he turned it down.)
The Johns Hopkins roads project, relying on relief labor, was funded by the Civil Works Authority, which required that 75 percent of the money be spent for labor and 25 percent for materials, reversing the usual proportions for such a project.
“That winter, one of the coldest in years, was a nightmare,” recalled Thompson. “The soil froze to unheard-of depths, and stayed frozen. Rules forbade the use of power excavators, and it was quite a sight to see as many as a thousand men picking and shoveling at an icy crust over a foot thick. Fortunately, we had a small contingency fund of University money, which bought us enough dynamite to shoot the crust loose so that the men could heave the chunks into trucks.”
Under J. Trueman Thompson’s leadership as chair of Civil Engineering from 1930 to 1956, much of the department’s research focused on problems of highway construction and use. Students in his highways lab, in collaboration with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, charted the elastic properties of concrete pavement under the movement of moving, rapidly applied loads. They also performed model studies of deflection in reinforced concrete arches—research that could be conducted at a fraction of the cost of similar field studies of highway bridges.