In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of men were out of work. Some of them had been out of jobs for years. Others were strapping young lads coming of age in a difficult time.
The country’s solution was to put these men (most of them unskilled) to work building much of the public infrastructure we still use today, nearly 80 years later.
By the time the workers were done in 1943, nearly every community in America had benefited from their labors – either with a public park, a bridge, a school or hospital constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). as well as laying much of the infrastructure for the young America… including thousands of miles of waterworks, electricity works, highways and more.
Here are just a few of the very American projects we have, thanks to the efforts of the workers:
We flip on a light switch without so much as a second thought today. But electric power had yet to reach much of rural America in the 1930s. It took a lot of poles and wires to move that electricity from the sources of its production and out across the country. And it was the job of thousands of WPA workers to set the poles and wires.
What's more, it took a lot of new energy production to power the nation. To that end, the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were among the WPA hydroelectric projects constructed during The Depression. The largest power-producing project in the United States, the Grand Coulee dam generates three times the power of the Colorado River’s Hoover Dam, and some 8,000 workers were employed to construct it.
Some 650,000 miles of new or improved roads were made by the workers… and some 124,000 bridges were either constructed or improved by them. Perhaps the most famous of these is San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Here's an image of the bridge under construction. The San Francisco Bay really seems to be missing something without the complete span there somehow.
And the central scetion of the Lincoln Tunnel, the massive 1.5-mile-long tube beneath the Hudson River that connects New Jersey to Manhattan, is another famous landmark we have to thank the WPA workers for.
Some 950 airports or airfields were constructed by the workers, including New Yor City's LaGuardia Airport, celebrated here in this WPA-era poster.
And in addition to utilities and infrastructure, WPA workers were also engaged to build some of the nation's most recognizable structures and parks monuments, such as Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mt. Hood and the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.
But for every grand or famous structure, there are hundreds if not thousands of other public works on a more humble scale--the schools, playgrounds, fairgrounds, post offices, armories, courthouses, libraries, museums, park buildings and structures, and more--that were built with labor from the WPA workers. Most of these structures don't bear a plaque... and there may certainly not have been a big celebration at the completion of many of the more humble examples. Few people remember the names of the individual workers who contributed to the projects.
It's also likely that the WPA workers in one community had no idea about any of the projects going on in other parts of the country. They bent their backs in service to their own community. So it's likely that few people even understood the scope and magnitude of what these hundreds of thousands of workers created collectively.
But the fact that so many of these buildings and structures are still in operation today is the real testament to these hard-working men: to the quality of planning, materials, labor and craftsmanship that went into each one of them... back at a time when tools like these were still shiny and new:
Look around your own community the next time you're out with your kids or grandkids... and point out the great buildings, highway projects, monuments and other structures that were made by Great Depression-era hands. Go ahead and take a moment to imagine what your town would be like if those structures hadn't been around for the past 80 years... and give a moment of thanks and appreciation to the workers for a job well done.
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