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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Public Works: Rebuilding Washington

Job training and industrial work, as much as large-scale construction projects, were included in the New Deal's public works programs. Here, women are shown working at the Kirkland Cooperative Cannery, funded by the federal Works Progress Administration. July 13, 1939. (Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry Photo Archives.)
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed to provide recovery and limited relief during the Depression by providing funds for public works projects, and thus jobs, for the unemployed. Public works programs literally rebuilt Washington State, from Olympic National Park and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to city parks, backcountry trails, and rural homesteads. Most dramatically, the construction of Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams  changed the state’s waterways and provided the power that fueled the Northwest’s war industries—most notably, aircraft—during World War II. Public works programs established a social vision of restoring self-sufficiency and dignity to American workers, though they all too often worked with a limited vision of those workers as white, skilled men.

Rebuilding Washington

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was one of a series of federal agencies formed out of Roosevelt’s “hundred days” of legislation following his 1933 inauguration. The PWA funded large-scale construction projects and provided skilled workers with jobs. In its first year the regional state relief agency received $10 million in federal aid to support the construction of the Deception Pass Bridge, county roads, expanding the state penitentiary, and financed scientific mineral and natural resource surveys. Public works projects soon expanded to include locally proposed, small-scale projects in counties and townships across the state. Over 54,000 people were at work repainting county buildings, fixing roads, making clothes for the Red Cross, and clearing land by the end of 1933. In the islands of San Juan County alone, over 10% of the adult population was employed by the federal government.[1]

Cover of a promotional pamphlet about the Grand Coulee Dam, made possible by the New Deal's public works funding. The Dam made Washington's contribution to World War II's industry possible, and remade the land, economy, and geography of the state. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection.)
While large-scale construction projects like Grand Coulee Dam, the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, and Olympic National Park are most visible, federal funds promoted both large- and small-scale projects in rural, urban, and backcountry areas, combining construction and engineering work with service. Federal funds helped build 2,000 feet of Bremerton’s sewer system; clear log jams on Vashon island; build livestock pavilions in Sunnyside; construct tennis courts in Roslyn; build wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries on the coast; military cemeteries in Retsil; provide childcare, shoe repair, and sewing services in many cities; and build parks and playgrounds.

Public works funds were administered by a rotating series of state and federal agencies: the State Emergency Relief Commission in 1933; the Civil Works Administration from 1933-34; the Washington and Federal Emergency Relief Administrations from 1934-1935; and the Works Progress Administration (later, Works Projects Administration) from 1935 through the war years. According to historians Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, by 1941, the WPA had funded 28,000 miles of road, 1,000 bridges, 26 libraries, 193 parks, 380 miles of sewers, 15,500 traffic signs, 90 stadiums, and 760 miles of water mains in Washington.[2]

The WPA funded agricultural and social censes, regional archival and records-keeping, arts programs, youth programs, writers, musicians, and theatre artists as well as construction projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, is one of the best known of the federal programs, employing over 250,000 young men nationwide from March 1933–July 1942 to build trails and parks in public lands, largely in the West. By 1938–39, Washington State hosted around 4,000 CCC workers per month in 38 camps around the state.[3] Run in a military style with military supplies, CCC workers built trails, improved campgrounds and public structures, managed erosion and fires, and built lookouts across the state, including Mt. Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and the Yakima and Spokane Indian Reservations.

Rebuilding the Social Landscape

Public works programs rested on a social ideal of providing work and thus self-sufficiency and dignity to unemployed Americans. For example, eighteen rural lodges and camps were built around Washington State in 1935 for the “transient and homeless,” who gardened, maintained the camps, built roads, and took advantage of health services and vocational classes offered. A state agency report from 1935 outlines the social aims of the public works projects: to “revive self confidence and initiative, restore lost work habits, remove depression-produced handicaps, and, most importantly, to provide food and shelter and thus retain public spiritedness and social sanity.”[4] Similarly, CCC camps provided pamphlets to teach illiterate young men how to read, as part of their overall CCC training.

However, included in this social vision was a limited view of who could benefit and who constituted an appropriate working person. While women were employed in library programs, sewing centers, and childcare programs, youth programs like the CCC and construction projects were limited to male workers. The Civilian Conservation Corps were also racially segregated, and a ten percent quota limited the number of African American youth admitted to the camps.[5]

WPA projects were supposed to be open to all races and there were no official segregation rules in Washington State, although discrimination on particular projects was common. Still African Americans made use of the federal jobs and sometimes managed to seize valuable opportunities. Blacks had been routinely shut out of traditionally "white" jobs before the Depression. Some now found office work through the WPA or worked on one of the federal arts programs. The Negro Repertory Company, funded by the WPA in Washington State, was one of the nation’s only all-African American theatre companies.

Like all New Deal programs, public works sought to redefine an American liberalism that broadened its social vision to include the unemployed, the poor, and working people. Yet that vision was never quite as expansive as many of its supporters hoped, and thus the civil rights gains of the era relied not on the opportunities granted by the federal government as much as on the social protest of disadvantaged groups.

Just as public works programs reshaped the geographical landscape of the state, they also shaped its social landscape as well. Mass unemployment relief did much to upend the 1920s poor law mentality that assumed that the unemployed were lazy, not victims of larger structural collapse, yet also upheld previous ideas about the marginal place of nonwhites and women to the American workforce. [6] These ideas about work, labor, and unemployment would be contested, upheld, and transformed through the World War II era.

Copyright (c) 2009, Jessie Kindig

Next: Radicalism

Click on the links below to read illustrated research reports on the federally funded public works, parks, construction projects, and social programs that made up Washington State's New Deal:

Grand Coulee Dam: Leaving a Legacy, by Christian McClung

Funding from the Works Progress Administration allowed the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, one of the most dramatic ways the New Deal rebuilt Washington's infrastructure.

Map of New Deal Public Works projects, King County

An interactive map of New Deal projects in King county from 1933-1934.

Map of Major WPA Projects in Washington State

An interactive map of major New Deal construction projects in Washington State during the 1930s.

Map of Civilian Conservation Corps Camps

An interactive map of Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Washington from 1930-1939.



[1] Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu and the Washington Chapter of the American Public Works Association, 1998), 11.

[2] Dorpat and McCoy, Rebuilding Washington, 15.

[3] Annual Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Fiscal year ended June 30, 1938 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1938), pp. 114 and 116, appendices H and I.

[4] WERA report, quoted in Dorpat and McCoy, Rebuilding Washington, 11.

[5] Edgar Brown, The CCC and Colored Youth, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Offices, 1941), made available through the New Deal Network, Teacher’s College at Columbia University, <>.

[6] Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921–1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 316.