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Percy V. Pennybacker Jr., Texas Bridge Engineer

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Percy V. Pennybacker Jr., Texas Bridge Engineer

Author: Melinda Luna PE

December 2023


While many Austinites are aware that Percy Vivian Pennybacker Jr., a bridge engineer, was honored with the name of the Loop 360 bridge, few are aware of the specifics of Pennybacker’s life and career. His work and life were truly remarkable.  

Percy Pennybacker was born in Palestine, Texas to Percy V. Pennybacker, Sr. and Anna J. Hardwicke Pennybacker on January 7, 1895.  His father was superintendent of the school district and his mother was a teacher. The father and son would both get diabetes. Percy was very little when his father passed away in 1899. In her day, his mother was a formidable woman. She had written and published “A New History of Texas” in 1888 and that textbook would be used in Texas classrooms for the next 40 years. She was very active in women’s suffrage. She raised money for women to attend the University of Texas and lobbied the Texas Legislature to fund a women’s dormitory. She met Eleanor and Theodore Roosevelt in her work and would visit the White House. She had a significant influence on her son’s life. Percy, his brother Paul Bonner, and his sister Ruth relocated to Austin after his father died. Percy would attend and graduate University of Texas at Austin in 1917 with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. The graduating class of that year consisted of 7 graduates taught by Professor/Dean T.U. Taylor, E. Bantel, S. Finch and Albert Cother. 

He later served in WWI and WWII. His draft registration cards described him as 5’-9” tall, weighing 170 lbs, with Brown hair, and gray eyes. Pennybacker would be one of the first patients to be treated with insulin while in the war.  He started work with the Texas Highway Department in 1919 after serving in the military. He worked on two Mississippi River bridges (one at Cape Girardeau Missouri, and the other in Vicksburg Mississippi) before serving again in WW II.  He would later work with George Wickline, the first bridge engineer. He married Mary Alice Hudson, a schoolteacher, in 1929. The couple welcomed their one and only son. During the Second World War, he learned about welded construction and advocated the use of it on bridges instead of rivets. Pennybacker turned to welding processes as he envisioned that this would speed up the construction of bridges.  He would set up classes at the Central Texas Iron Works to teach welders and inspectors. On April 18, 1950, Texas’s first all-welded girder bridge was US 75 overpass in Dallas. The project dealt with no problems with its fabrication and erecting. The US 75 project was followed by 38 more steel bridge projects in 1952. This meant if the project warranted a steel bridge, it was not an issue in the construction as staff was trained in the welding and inspections. This made Texas a leader in building steel bridges that could be used to span a longer distance.  He would be credited with the savings of millions of dollars. He was awarded the Dr. L. I. Hewes Award in 1953.  That same year, he was honored as “Outstanding Engineer” by the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.  He was president of the Travis chapter and on the state board of directors.  He also served as a committee member of the publications committee and catalyzed nine other TSPE chapters in 1946-47.  He was very active in ASCE and founded the American Welding Society in Austin. Pennybacker retired from the Texas Department of Highways in 1957 and then worked for the City of Austins Public Works department for 3.5 years. Percy V. Pennybacker died in his home in Austin in 1963. In 1982, with the opening of the Loop 360 bridge over the Colorado River, the bridge was named after him a fitting honor of an engineer who gave so much to his profession

 

Photo by Mitchell Kmetz on Unsplash
Texas Highway Department, Information and Statistics Division. “Texas Highways, Volume 1.” Google Books, Texas Highway Department, Information and Statistics Division, 26 Aug. 2009, books.google.com/books?id=lIkYAQAAIAAJ.