Oregon History: The Great Depression

silhouette of Herbert Hoover
An image of President Herbert Hoover, who grew up in Newberg, on the side of a building on the campus of George Fox University in Newberg. Learn more about Hoover. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
On October 29, 1929, a calamity rocked the United States. Within hours the stock market, buoyed by speculation and unreasonable expectations, plunged into the abyss of "Black Tuesday." The onset of the Great Depression meant little to tens of thousands of Oregonians. They were already living in depressed circumstances, trying to make a go of arid homesteads, stump farms, or underpaid jobs in sawmills. Those who had savings, however, felt the debacle acutely. Banks went bankrupt. In spite of handsome buildings and facades of stability, white marble counters, brass grills at the teller cages, and hulking vaults, their resources were vulnerable and they fell by the droves, wiping out the accumulated resources of depositors. Bank failures led to foreclosures on homes, farms, and businesses and contributed to the general malaise that had seized the country.
In spite of his reputation as a humanitarian, President Herbert Hoover, a sometime Oregonian who had grown up in Newberg, wrestled unsuccessfully with checking the economic free-fall. Hoover was trapped both by his political philosophy and by problems so complex that no one really had a viable solution for them.
So in 1933 the nation turned to a pragmatist--Franklin Delano Roosevelt--who also did not have solutions but who had promised to try to remedy the Great Depression through bold actions. Roosevelt began deliberately in March. He declared a national "bank holiday," closing all financial institutions across the country so that federal inspectors could examine their books. If a bank reopened, it would do so because the government found it sound. It could be trusted. If a bank's affairs were beyond redemption, it remained closed. Roosevelt also spoke to all Americans--including hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who, since 1921, had purchased radios. In a series of "fireside chats" broadcast from the White House, he waged a campaign to build confidence. He promoted the reform, relief, and recovery agendas of the New Deal.
drawing of CCC worker eating a meal
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) gave jobs to thousands of young Oregonians and left a legacy of public works improvements. (Oregon State Archives image, Box 2, Boardman Collection, Parks and Recreation Department Records)
While few believe the Democrat programs of the 1930s effectively turned around the Great Depression, they were of immense consequence to Oregon. Through deficit spending and passing on payment obligations to succeeding generations, Congress authorized programs that changed the face of Oregon. The Beer Act of March, 1933 set the stage for repeal of Prohibition and permitted hop-raisers and brewers like Blitz-Weinhard to resume production. Far more significant was creation that same month of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Intended to provide unemployment relief for several million young Americans, the CCC developed projects in public land states like Oregon. The CCC established base camps and spike camps in most national forests and began a remarkable program of construction. The young workers cut trail; built roads; constructed bridges; built campgrounds with handsome log facilities for cooking, eating, and public meetings; laid telephone wires; constructed drift fences to manage cattle; built log corrals; enclosed springs; dammed creeks to create small reservoirs; constructed guard stations and ranger stations; and carried the materials board-by-board to lofty peaks for fire lookouts. From Hells Canyon to the Chetco River and from the Oriana Corral on the Fremont National Forest to the campground at Eagle Creek in the Columbia Gorge, the CCC made enduring, handsome improvements on federal lands.
Similarly the Works Projects Administration drew unemployed architects, stone masons, painters, weavers, metal workers, plumbers, and artisans into special Oregon projects. The WPA built Timberline Lodge, a dramatic recreation hotel, on the southern slopes of Mount Hood. WPA artisans created towering murals, iron gates, and furniture for the new library on the campus of the University of Oregon. WPA laborers erected post offices, customs buildings, and federal buildings from Burns to Tillamook. Not since Andrew Carnegie's matching-funds projects for public libraries in the 1910s had Oregon seen such a profusion of public structures.
The Public Works Administration and the Public Buildings Administration worked with the WPA in other ways to transform Oregon. Projects included a city hall in Canby, a dramatic capitol and state library in Salem, an armory in Klamath Falls, a high school in Corvallis, a dormitory at the State School for the Blind, a sewage disposal plant in Medford, and five stunning bridges spanning major estuaries on the Oregon coast. The bridges, completed in 1936, cost $5.4 million. In the midst of the Great Depression Oregon embarked on grading and paving Highway 101 to forge another important transportation link.
photographs of Oregon taken by WPA workers
WPA workers produced the fascinating book Oregon: End of the Trail in 1940. The descriptions from two of the included journeys through Oregon have been combined with vintage photos (Oregon State Archives Photos: Vista House; Mt. Hood skiers; horse seining) in the following Web exhibits:
A 1940 Journey Across Oregon
A 1940 Oregon Coast Tour
The WPA also employed teachers, lawyers, and architects. It mounted the Oregon Folklore Project, the Oregon Writers' Program, and the Inventory of the County Archives of Oregon. These workers published Oregon: End of the Trail (1940), Mount Hood: A Guide (1940), the annual Oregon Almanac: A Handbook of Fact and Fancy, Oregon Oddities--a magazine used in public schools--and 14 of a projected 35 descriptive guides to records in county courthouses. Each guide included an overview of county history based on a review of the archives. In many instances these were the first historical assessments of Oregon counties. Working almost in tandem with the WPA were drafters, historians, and photographers engaged in the Historic American Buildings Survey. They compiled information, including measured drawings, on nearly a hundred significant structures in Oregon.
The New Deal had a grassroots impact in Oregon. This was dramatically confirmed when, in 1935, Congress funded construction of a project that Roosevelt had promised during his 1932 campaign swing through the state. Bonneville Dam, one of the great engineering marvels of the early 20th century, was to span the Columbia River at the western end of the Gorge. Its massive reservoir would back up waters to The Dalles. Its locks would lift ships and barges for easy transit to the grain elevators of the western plateau. Its turbines would generate massive amounts of electricity to power industry and diversify the region's economy. Above all, construction of the dam would provide employment for 4,000 laborers and the multiplier effect would generate thousands more jobs to feed, house, and provide services to these workers and their families. Because navigation was a critical element with the building of the locks, the Army Corps of Engineers secured project supervision. Initial estimates for the dam, lock, powerhouse, and federal townsites for management personnel ran to $81 million.
As the dam neared completion, the Bonneville Power Administration in 1937 took over responsibility for construction of transmission lines and marketing of power to utility companies, public utility districts, and industrial users such as aluminum plants in Troutdale and The Dalles. In 1941 the BPA hired Woody Guthrie to compose and sing songs celebrating power development on the Columbia River. Guthrie's 17 songs included the popular "Roll On, Columbia." Its lyrics touted the New Deal achievements:

photograph of Bonneville Dam
The massive Bonneville Dam harnessed the Columbia River and provided thousands of construction related jobs during the Depression. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks,
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks,
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks,
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

The New Deal touched the lives of Oregonians in other ways. The Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 changed the free-for-all of livestock using the public domain. Henry Gerber and local ranchers in the Langell Valley of Klamath County were acutely aware of the need to allocate grazing rights. The Bonanza Grazing Unit, headed by Gerber, was the first organized in the United States under the Taylor Act. In time the law brought 152 million acres under the U.S. Grazing Service and called for local boards of landowners to allocate the animal units per month allowed in national forests or on lands administered by the General Land Office. In 1946 Congress merged the land office and the grazing service to create the Bureau of Land Management.
The Soil Conservation Service, created in 1936, provided counsel and assistance to farmers faced with erosion by wind and water on the Columbia Plateau. The Production Credit Association worked with farmers to scale down mortgage payments by extending the length of their loans. The Federal Housing Administration, set up in 1934, provided low-interest loans to try to encourage home construction. The Bankhead-Jones Act of 1937 provided federal dollars to buy out impoverished homesteaders and transform the lands into federal holdings. The National Grasslands between Madras and Prineville was a product of the Bankhead-Jones Act. The Rural Electrification Administration worked with private utilities and public utility districts to extend lines to remote areas. By the late 1930s, thousands of rural Oregonians for the first time had electrical service and would be able to use a radio, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, electric stove, washing machine and lights.
The Great Depression took a toll on Oregon but created a setting for massive improvement of infrastructure. Roads, bridges, buildings, dams, locks, powerhouses, electrical transmission lines, recreation facilities, and range management were an impressive tally of accomplishments. While many Oregonians were driven into a subsistence lifestyle of "making do" with homemade clothing, a garden, and austerity, the federal projects infused confidence, generated payrolls, and laid the foundations for new industries and much wider use of public lands in the state.