National Archives at Seattle

The Great Depression and the New Deal

Picturing the Century

As the Great Depression ended the prosperity of the 1920s, the Pacific Northwest suffered economic catastrophe like the rest of the country. Businesses and banks failed and by 1933 only about half as many people were working as had been in 1926. The population in the Pacific Northwest continued to grow but more slowly, as many left the Dust Bowl states of the Midwest and Plains.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" aimed at promoting economic recovery and putting Americans back to work through Federal activism. New Federal agencies attempted to control agricultural production, stabilize wages and prices, and create a vast public works program for the unemployed. The West saw the heavy use of Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers in National Forests and National Parks, and on Indian reservations for work on natural resource related projects and a legacy of buildings, roads, bridges, and trails remains in the Pacific Northwest as a result of these many projects.

Built in the 1930s and 1940s, Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams brought electricity to rural areas that were not served by existing utilities. The economy of the Pacific Northwest was strengthened as manufacturing opportunities grew.

Many New Deal-era government agencies sponsored photography projects. Additionally, many agencies were tasked with verbally and photographically documenting projects they undertook. For the most part, these projects used a "documentary" approach that emphasized straightforward scenes of everyday life or the environment. Found attached to the written reports submitted by the various agencies, the images from these projects make for a detailed portrait of America during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Refer to Caption The USS Lexington tied to Baker Dock in Tacoma, Washington. (December 1929)
Refer to Caption A close-up of the cables that allowed power to be transferred from the Lexington to the Tacoma city power grid. CommandantÂ’s Office Correspondence Files, 1925-1940; 13th Naval District; Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments (RG 181)

An extreme dry spell in the fall of 1929 led depleted reservoirs to produce only 1/10th of the hydroelectric power needed to supply Seattle and Tacoma. Just two weeks after Wall Street’s Black Monday, Tacoma leaders wrote in a telegrammed plea for assistance “supply insufficient STOP We cannot hold out another week without shutting off inductors which will give great loss in employment and consequent suffering to entire community.” The US Navy agreed to allow the steam power plants on the USS Lexington to be used to supply power to the City of Tacoma.

Refer to Caption Seventh Period Illustrated Reports, 1936, DG 60, Hagerman, ID; CCC Materials; Records of the Bureau of Land Management (RG 49)

Not all Civilian Conservation Corps camps were as luxurious as this one in Idaho. Located in an isolated area 1 ½ miles northeast of Hagerman, CCC Camp DG 60 was nine miles from the nearest railhead in Bliss, Idaho. The camp, however, did have a swimming pool, seen in the foreground. (1936)

Refer to Caption Range Improvement Case Files, 1938-1947; Burley, Idaho District Office; Records of the Bureau of Land Management (RG 49)

Men assigned to Company 990 from Big Sur, CA report to their foremen at CCC Camp DG-4 located one mile southwest of Springfield, Idaho. The camp was responsible for the eradication of poisonous plants, rodent control, and building minor roads and truck trails, reservoirs, and wells. (1935)

Refer to Caption Historic Photos, 1914-1960; Region 6, Portland, Oregon; Records of the Forest Service (RG 95)

Built by the Works Progress Administration in 1934, Timberline Lodge nestles at the base of Mt. Hood, Oregon. Out of work artisans were used in the construction, leading to wondrous wood carvings and stone work throughout the lodge.

Refer to CaptionRecords Relating to the Civilian Conservation Corps/Emergency Conservation Works Activities, 1933-1939; Mount Rainier National Park; Records of the National Parks (RG 79)

Many Civilian Conservation Corps and Emergency Conservation Work activities in the Pacific Northwest centered around projects involving natural resources administered by the Forest Service, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Much of the work was done using hand labor. Here men from the Emergency Conservation Works’ Carbon River Camp clear debris from a channel in Mount Rainier National Park. Note the burning slash and the use of hand tools. (ca. 1934-35)

Refer to CaptionHistoric Photos, 1914-1960; Region 6, Portland, Oregon; Records of the Forest Service (RG 95)

An example of the type of amenities the Forest Service built to encourage visitors to the region’s forests, the store and lunchroom at Stevens Pass in the Wenatchee National Forest (WA) was designed to be functional yet fit into the forest unobtrusively. It stood until it burned a few years ago. Note the snow still on the ground in June. (1937)

Refer to Caption Bonneville Office Correspondence and Reports, 1933-1940; Second Portland District Office; Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers (RG 77)
Refer to Caption Bonneville Office Correspondence and Reports, 1933-1940; Second Portland District Office; Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers (RG 77)

During the 1930s, it was common to incorporate Federally-funded public art into public works projects. A panel of designers from the Portland Art Museum, the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon, and also including an Oregon judge and a local engineer proposed that the powerhouses for Bonneville Dam be constructed in the shape of Paul Bunyan and is blue ox Babe. These two images show the artists’ conception of the project, one hand drawn and one sculpted. No money was appropriated for this venture. (1934)

Refer to Caption Glass Slides, 1941-1960; Portland Regional Office; Records of the Bonneville Power Administration (RG 305)

Bonneville Dam was the first of a series of dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Columbia River in response to the Corps’ 1932 “308 Report”. Designed to replace a canal and locks that had been in place since 1896, the dam was intended to serve shipping up the river, control flooding, and provide electric power. Construction began in 1933, and the jobs provided helped to lessen the impact of the Great Depression in the area. Although fish ladders were included in the construction plan, it has become clear that, as far a salmon were concerned, this system could not replace the free flowing river. This aerial view was reproduced from a glass slide. (ca. 1941)