Walter F. Cronin, 59, chief historian for the U.S. Department of Transportation, was killed yesterday when his auto struck a construction barricade on Ohio Drive SW as he was driving to work, police said.

U.S. park police said the accident occured about 8&30 a.m. as Mr. Cronin was driving south under the 14th Street Bridge.

Before joining DOT 10 years ago, Mr. Cronin has served in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research for many years as a foreign affair anlyst and diplomatic historian.

From 1959 to 1962 he was chief of the bureau's external research division. He left that post to teach the interdepartmental seminar at the Foreign Service Institute.

Mr. Cronin was born in Oneida, N.Y., received a bachelor's degree from Hamilton College, earned a master's degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a Ph D. from Harvard University.

During World War II, he served in the Army's Quartermaster Corps, reaching the rank of captain.

Survivors include his wife, Ardith, and two sons, Jefferson and Gregory, of the home in Falls Church, and a sister, Mrs. Stewart Hill, of Sherrill, N.Y.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of donations to the Hamilton College Library Fund, Clinton, N.Y.