Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, produced in cooperation with public television's Blueprint America project and WNET.org.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: This great nation will endure as it has endured.
Eighty years ago, another President faced an economic crisis.
Roosevelt: our greatest primary task is to put people to work.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt created jobs by building things. His New Deal transformed America.
Gray Brechin: There are relics all around us that we just don't see.
Robert Leighninger: Waterworks and schools and parks and police offices and city halls.
I'm Stephen Smith. In the coming hour, "Bridge to Somewhere" from American RadioWorks. First, this news.
Tour Guide: All right, what school you guys from?
Kids: Hendrik Hudson High School.
Tour Guide: Hendrik Hudson High School. Well, welcome!
We're standing just outside Franklin D. Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park, New York on the country estate that he lived in a couple hours north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley.
Tour Guide: Don't touch anything. No pictures. No gum or candy, all right?
We're following behind a group of high school students touring the place.
Tour Guide: What do you think about when you think about the New Deal, what kinds of programs that he enacted?
A lot of people in America are looking back at Roosevelt and his administration and how they responded to the Great Depression as a way of understanding what America might need to do now in this time of economic crisis.
Tour Guide: Because a lot of the things that were happening when Franklin Roosevelt was president are happening now.
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "Bridge to Somewhere," produced in cooperation with public television's Blueprint America project and WNET.org. I'm Stephen Smith.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's administration launched an enormous unprecedented campaign of national construction. Now today President Barack Obama is also trying to stimulate the national economy by repairing the nation's infrastructure and expanding it. He, like Roosevelt, wants the nation in part to build its way out of the economic downturn.
Joining us on a walkthrough of the Franklin Roosevelt Museum here in Hyde Park is the library and museum's director, Cynthia Koch.
Cynthia Koch: We're heading into the gallery that is set up to look like a 1930s kitchen [Smith: Aha]. And it's focuses on the radio addresses, the first fireside chat, on banking.
Roosevelt: You people must have faith. You must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear.
Koch: The radio was new technology for people. People had been used to listening to their politicians speaking oratorically. It wasn't something that was conversational. He knew that he could sit down in a room and people could gather around their radios and literally have these chats that came to be known as Fireside Chats.
Roosevelt: We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.
Koch: They listened, they responded by writing back to him, and suddenly for the first time there was a conversation with an American president. The letters came, you know, flowing in to the White House. Previously there had been a mail room with one staff in it. And suddenly, 70 were needed to handle the flow of correspondence.
Roosevelt's political popularity enabled him to push through big building programs that profoundly changed the country, and we are still living with those changes today.
Post Office Employee: Hi.
Smith: Good morning, may I buy a postcard stamp please?
Employee: Sure. There you go.
Smith: Thank you.
We've come to the United States Post Office in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is just a few miles down the Hudson River from Hyde Park, from Franklin Roosevelt's home. This post office was one of many, many post offices built by the big public works program that FDR launched in the Great Depression. With me here in the Poughkeepsie post office is producer Catherine Winter, producer of this documentary. Catherine, tell us a bit about the post office.
Catherine Winter: Well, as you can see it's just a beautiful building with marble columns and murals depicting the history of this region. One thing that's especially interesting about this post office is how intimately involved with its construction Roosevelt himself was. Some people might even have used the word "interfering." He wanted the building to be educational and beautiful as well as functional, and that's typical of structures that were built during the New Deal.
Smith: Now, of course the idea in addition to educating the public was to put the public back to work in huge numbers as quickly as possible in the Great Depression. Over the next hour Catherine will be looking at how New Deal projects transformed America 80 years ago; how they essentially remade the future for whole regions of the country and especially for the people involved in the building projects. Catherine, as you've looked at this catalog what has surprised you the most?
Winter: The thing that surprised me the most was the sheer vastness of it. One agency alone, the Public Works Administration claimed to have had a project in all but three counties in the country. And then some of the projects themselves built by the New Deal agencies are surprising. For example, there's the Riverwalk in San Antonio. There's LaGuardia Airport. Reagan National Airport. The French Market in New Orleans was spruced up by the New Deal. And there's a surprising legacy of the New Deal in Vermont. That one was left by Roosevelt's first and his most popular New Deal agency, the Civilian Conservation Corps. He sketched out the plans for that agency on his inauguration day.
Archival Newsreel: The retiring president and the president elect ride together from the White House with Congressional escort down the long and crowd-packed Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where Roosevelt is to take the oath of office. Enthusiasm is at its height! Never was there such a joyful jubilant yelling applauding inauguration crowd. Roosevelt is the nation's idol here today.
This newsreel from FDR's inauguration in 1933 shows Roosevelt grinning in an open car beside a sullen Herbert Hoover. The country had just given Hoover the boot for failing to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt swept into office on a promise to help "the forgotten man."
Roosevelt: This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper [sound of cheers]. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
In his inaugural address, Roosevelt said only a foolish optimist could deny the dark realities of the moment. Many families had lost their life savings. Many farmers couldn't sell their produce, and let the food rot. Factories closed. Most working people saw their salaries or hours cut back. A quarter of American workers could not find jobs at all.
Roosevelt: Our greatest primary task is to put people to work [sound of cheers]. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.
The new president wanted to get people back to work by stimulating private industry. His administration tried various methods - including this 1933 film from the National Recovery Administration, featuring Jimmy Durante:
Jimmy Durante: "Step out in front, get back of the President, and give a man a job. He bore the brunt. Now bear with the president and give a man a job…. If the old name of Roosevelt makes the old heart throb, you take this message straight from the president and give a man a job."
The president wanted private industry to hire people. But he also believed that, to create enough jobs, the government itself was going to have to hire people. Roosevelt thought that was preferable to a dole. He believed in the dignity of work. In his second fireside chat, he told his radio audience about his plan for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Roosevelt: First, we are giving opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to go into the forestry and flood prevention work.
Historian Robert Leighninger has written about the physical legacy of the New Deal. He says the CCC was meant to address two of Roosevelt's key concerns: conservation, and jobs.
Robert Leighninger: The idea was to take young men, organize them into groups of about 200, give them some basic fitness training and ship them out to national parks, national forests, and other places in the rural and semi-rural landscape and have them plant trees, make fish ponds, fight forest fires, build roads, build recreational facilities…
The CCC turned out to be the most popular New Deal program. Local politicians scrambled to get CCC projects in their regions. Hundreds of thousands of young men signed up. Many of them were desperately poor - like Emerson Baker. Baker's in his 90s now. He was 12 years old, living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, when the stock market crashed.
Emerson Baker: My father had left us, and left my mother with four girls and me and we just had no, nothing at all.
Baker's mother did laundry for other families, and he did what odd jobs he could find, like packing fish and working in a grocery store.
Baker: And in the summer time I caddied on the local golf links but outside of that we didn't have any income at all. Organizations like the Catholic Daughters and a few other religious organizations that heard about our circumstances would bring food canned stuff and that once in awhile.
At the time, it was assumed that charities would help poor people. There was no such thing as federal welfare, and no social security. But private charities were overwhelmed. Too many people needed help. Emerson Baker remembers hearing about the CCC on the radio. After he finished high school, he signed up - and was sent to a camp in Vermont.
Baker: Oh, it was a different world. Oh, yeah. We had to learn not to get friendly with porcupines and woodchucks and things like that and we would hear wolves howling at night and, "What's that?"
Larry Benoit: They didn't know how to operate a saw. Didn't know how to operate an axe. They had to be taught.
That's Larry Benoit. He was in the CCC in Vermont, too. He was a farm boy, but most of the other recruits were from the city. Benoit helped teach the guys to use crosscut saws.
Benoit: And they didn't like that idea of going through the woods shoveling snow about five feet deep to the bottom of a tree to cut it down.
Herb Hunt: They used to bring out our food in big thermos containers and we'd eat out in the cold [chuckles].
That's Herb Hunt. He was a city kid from Massachusetts, but he found he liked working in the Vermont forests with the CCC.
Hunt: They gave us, they did supply us with good warm clothes, you know heavy wool green clothes and long john underwear, you know we were -- and in the barracks at night, inside there would be two or three coal-burning stoves, and we had, the cots were all lined up, it was all open, you know.
Benoit: We had very good breakfasts and a very good supper. Great, big tubs of food. Like macaroni and cheese, potatoes, beef, salt pork, hams. They had it! Thanksgiving, you see two or three big turkeys sitting on your table. Twenty-five or 30 guys supposed to eat all them turkeys. No, we never was hungry.
Hunt: Those, especially those that came from very poor families, they started having meat, which they probably never had at home and they became healthy.
Baker: Some of them came in skinny like I am right now and went away rugged. Oh yeah.
Pictures from the time show young men showing off their new physiques by working shirtless, wielding shovels in the sun.
Newsreel: [Fanfare music] Inspiring his forest army by a personal visit, President Roosevelt makes his first tour of the Civilian Conservation Corps Camps in the Shenandoah Valley [sound of crowd cheering].
This newsreel from 1933 shows FDR with his usual grin, shaking hands with one young man after another in a long line:
Newsreel: After inspecting Skyland, the commander in chief takes a seat at the head of the table, to eat with the boys, and he enjoys every bite of the plain, wholesome food furnished at the camp.
Roosevelt: It's very good to be here at these Virginia CCC camps. I wish that I could see them all over the country. And I hope that all over the country they're in as fine condition as the camps I've seen today. I wish that I could take a couple of months off from the White House and come down here and live with them because I know I'd get full of health the way they have. The only difference is they've put on an average of about 12 pounds apiece since they got here, and I'm trying to take off 12 pounds [laughter].
The CCC members made 30 dollars a month - but they only kept five. The rest was sent directly to their families. That money paid the rent for Emerson Baker's mother. And the camps offered classes. Many young men learned to read and write in CCC camps. Others learned trades - like Larry Benoit.
Benoit: And went to school for learning how to pull wire--electrical. And do plumbing. Mason work. Brick work. To learn how to operate jackhammers--Sullivans, Ingersolls--drive trucks, bulldozers.
Many of the CCC members went on to careers using skills they learned in camp. Larry Benoit built highways. Emerson Baker learned to make maps in the CCC and became a mapmaker. Herb Hunt loved the woods of Vermont so much that he settled there. He raised dairy cattle and Christmas trees. But he also had a military career - like lots of other young men from the CCC.
Hunt: There were millions of boys, 17- to 20-year-olds, that went into there, and it got them to learn to live that kind of a life--in a barracks type life or in the field, and work together. It was invaluable training as far as the Army was concerned.
When the United States entered World War II, the CCC camps emptied out as young men enlisted. The CCC was disbanded in 1942.
In the course of its nine years, more than three million young men passed through its camps. The things they built are still all around us - usually with no sign to say so. Emerson Baker.
Baker: We built a lot of state parks for instance, and we built all the buildings that were in them and picnic facilities. Benches that we built in the '30s are still being used today!
Leighninger: They did things in the national parks and monuments to make things like Mammoth Cave more accessible with lights and walkways.
Historian Robert Leighninger.
Leighninger: They stopped a lot of forest fires from claiming a lot of our natural resources...
CCC members planted more than three billion trees. They built nearly 50,000 bridges, and thousands of miles of roads and trails.
In some places, the infrastructure they built is still an economic engine.
[Sounds of Stowe Ski Patrol room]
On a spring Saturday at the Stowe ski resort in Vermont, the ski patrol's First Aid room has a steady flow of customers-- skiers and snowboarders who've had mishaps on the mountain. A 12-year-old boy is in with his mom. He holds a cloth to his nose.
Ski Patrol Man: OK, you told me your right ski came off and hit your nose, right?
[Sound of a door opening]
Woman: Hi there!
[Sound of door closing]
A man comes in, in ski boots and a jacket with a white cross on the shoulder.
Lindner: My name is Brian Lindner and I'm on the ski patrol here at Stowe and kind of unofficially I serve as the historian for Stowe Mountain Resort.
[Sound of outdoors]
We head outside, and Brian Lindner says that the room we were just in used to be his bedroom - more than 40 years ago.
Lindner: Well, I actually grew up in the base lodge at Stowe cause this is a state forest and my dad was the forest ranger here for 20 years after World War II. We had an apartment in the north end of the base lodge so that's where I lived from the time I was born until I was 10 years old.
The log building itself dates from even farther back, well before Brian Lindner's time.
It was built by the CCC.
Lindner: Well Stowe really wouldn't be here, or at least it wouldn't have started when it did without the CCC, because they were in place here in Vermont, and they were essentially looking for something to do. And our chief forester at the time, a guy by the name of Perry Merrill, had been exchange student in Scandinavia and he had seen what the Scandinavians were doing with Alpine skiing. So the two things got married: Perry Merrill and his vision of skiing, and the CCC.
CCC workers started clearing the first ski trail in Vermont here on Mount Mansfield in 1933. They cut the trees and pulled the stumps out, by hand or using mules, or dynamite. Some of them must have thought the idea was crazy. Back then, there weren't a lot of people skiing. There weren't any chairlifts - in Vermont or anywhere else.
Lindner: Well until 1940, everybody at Stowe, if they wanted to take a run you had to hike the mountain. And maybe on a good day you could get in two runs. If you were really athletic you could get in three runs. But it was hike up, ski down.
The small log building was finished in 1940, and the first chair lift went in soon afterward. Skiing became wildly popular. Hotels and restaurants cropped up to serve the skiers. Today, skiers generate a third of the tourist revenue here, and tourism is a cornerstone of Vermont's economy.
Lindner: Oh, Stowe has changed like you can't imagine since I was a boy living in the base lodge. Today we have modern lifts. We have a whole new hotel complex right here at the ski resort. The complex here at Spruce is massive but it's something that we have to do to be competitive in today's ski world.
Across the road from the old lodge, a huge new complex rises up on the mountainside. A lodge with condominiums and shops and a spa. The industry sparked by the CCC has long since outgrown the little base lodge the men built. But the lodge is still there, and skiers still use it when they're on that part of the mountain. Former CCC member Larry Benoit visits the lodge sometimes.
Benoit: I mean, I don't go skiing. I walk around in there. And I look at the things we built.
Benoit still visits the site of the camp he lived in sometimes, too. The buildings are gone, but over the years he's found things that the CCC recruits left behind. Out on his back porch, among the chickadee feeders, there's an axe and a hatchet he found. There's a crosscut saw he painted with the words, "Lost by a CCC boy."
Benoit: And that saw, lost by a CC boy I went back and found it, knew where it was, where it was lost.
Winter: You found it in the woods?
Benoit: Yep, I knew right where it was. This is 45, 50 years later.
Benoit is 84 now. He was just 15 when he joined the CCC. You were supposed to be 17, but he lied about his age. He says the CCC made him who he is - that's why the license plate on his truck says "CCC BOY."
Benoit: I put it on there a long time ago. And I've had it like that ever since. Never forget it. As long as I live, I will never forget the CC's. What they taught me.
Even though they were poor, and times were tough, and the work was hard, a lot of former CCC members will tell you that it was the best time of their lives. Some of them still get together at alumni association meetings. Emerson Baker runs a local chapter. He tears up sometimes when he talks about those years. Baker says when he meets another CCC alum, they're instantly friends.
Baker: We have a basis of commonality that everybody doesn't have. You know, because we all started out with nothing … and became something, if you will.
Smith: This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to Bridge to Somewhere, from American RadioWorks. This documentary is produced in cooperation with the public television project, Blueprint America, and WNET.org
Archival Film Announcer: No greater attempt ever has been made by man to master the handiwork of nature. No wonder our great writers, engineers and scientists are calling Coulee Dam the 8th wonder of the world.
The New Deal transformed the Pacific Northwest - and remade America
Richard Kirkendall: It didn't bring the Depression to an end but reduced magnitude of it and enabled people to survive who would've had impossible or difficult time surviving without it.
To find out more about the legacy of the New Deal, visit our web site, American RadioWorks.org. You can also learn about what many say is a contemporary infrastructure crisis by checking out the "Blueprint America" project from PBS. That's at American RadioWorks.org.
Support for Bridge to Somewhere and Blueprint America was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute--the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business--www.batteninstitute.org.
Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
[Sounds of fishermen]
Stephen Smith: From the crisp mountain air of Vermont, we are now in the sort of lovely Pacific breeze of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We're at the casting ponds and the Anglers' Lodge, a place where people who do fly fishing come to practice their marksmanship.
Smith: So can we talk to you guys for a minute? We're with public radio. (Oh) And we're doing a project about WPA structures that are still around today, and -
Bert: This was actually part of the WPA project way back in 1930s and the club or the lodge or the ponds were completed in 1938.
Smith: So this is a practice field for fly fishermen.
Nick: Practice and they also hold competitive events. And you can see it was designed by fly fishermen. These rings, of course, are all movable depending upon -
Smith: Wait, let me ask you about that. It looks like out here there are some almost like hula hoops with colored rings inside them. What are those for?
Nick: That's for accuracy casting.
Bert: For accuracy casting.
Smith: To kind of put it in perspective for other people, this to fly fishing would be what Forest Hills is tennis, maybe.
Bert: That's absolutely right.
Smith: Or what the Rose Bowl is for college football.
Bert: Rose Bowl is for college football. Yeah, that's correct.
Nick: If you're a musician, sitting in at Carnegie Hall.
Bert: That's correct.
Nick: Without exaggeration.
Smith: This is the Carnegie Hall.
Bert: That's correct.
Nick: This is sacred ground for me. It's incredible.
Bert: It is, it is. For me to. Either.
Smith: Thanks, guys.
Bert: Thank you, Stephen.
Nick: My pleasure.
Bert: It's been a pleasure.
[Sound of a fishing reel casting]
From American Public Media, this is an American Radio Works documentary: "Bridge to Somewhere." It's produced in cooperation with the public television project Blueprint America and WNET.org. I'm Stephen Smith.
So in this hour we're looking at the massive infrastructure legacy if you will, all the public projects that were built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal - and how that legacy affects our lives today.
So there were New Deal agencies like the WPA - the Works Progress Administration - the CCC--the Civilian Conservation Corps. These really reshaped America's landscape. Gray Brechin who is a historical geographer is joining us here to talk about the New Deal sites in Golden Gate Park and especially these casting ponds and this anglers' lodge.
Gray Brechin: I knew these casting pools were here in Golden Gate Park, I'd found them through walking through the park, because most people aren't aware that they're here, they're kind of back in the trees. And then when I was starting to do research on the project I was back at the National Archives in Washington, going through the photographs of WPA work and lo and behold there was a photograph of the casting pools and the lodge. And actually from that I began to find that the WPA, as in pretty much every park system in country, improved all of Golden Gate Park-in fact they worked in every park in San Francisco. There are relics all around us that we just don't see.
Smith: Shall we go inside?
Brechin: Sure. Mm hm.
Smith : So we're walking now into the Angler's Lodge, which is this sort rustic, timbered building.
Brechin: Everything is very hand made and the idea of that was to give as many people jobs as possible and to train them on the job too. But the main thing is to give people self-respect. There's enormous emphasis on the dignity of labor. You can see, for example, there's a beautiful big fireplace. You can also see that on the shutters of the building there are cutouts of trout.
Smith: Yeah that's lovely, sort of leaping trout
Brechin: Leaping trout and they're embossed in the concrete floor, as well, too. The idea, of course, this is all part of democratizing sports that had previously been only available for the elites, and this is what WPA and the CCC did: they built facilities for people - everybody. The same would be true for horseback riding, for example. We have right near here a WPA-built stables. And previous to this, of course, only the elites would be riding horses or have those facilities available to them. Now it's available to everybody,
That's Gray Brechin, an expert on the New Deal and infrastructure. He's at the University of California Berkeley.
Now in some parts of the country the impact of the New Deal may seem relatively small. You've got an angling lodge here, you might have a sidewalk there, a picnic shelter. But every day we use New Deal infrastructure like airports--LaGuardia in New York, Reagan National in Washington. There's the Triborough Bridge in New York. There's the Outer Drive in Chicago, the Bay Bridge here in San Francisco, linking the city and Oakland.
And in some cases these really big New Deal projects, the infrastructure transformed the entire region they were built in. So, for example, there are the hydropower dam projects, like in the Tennessee Valley. Or along the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Producer Catherine Winter is going to explain now how the New Deal profoundly changed both the economy and the landscape of the northwest. She starts us out in Seattle.
Catherine Winter: Seattle seems like a prosperous place. Fancy houses sit high on its hills with views of mountains and water. The city is high tech and outdoorsy at the same time--home of Microsoft and Starbucks and REI. A lot of people are doing well here - but not everybody.
[Sounds of street]
On a chilly spring day in the university district, one corner of a parking lot is filled with tents. In the middle of the encampment, some homeless people sit around a fire.
Bruce Beavers: You're in Nickelsville. Right now we have 100 people. We have about 75 tents and about 100 people.
Nickelsville is named for Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels. Resident Bruce Beavers says they named the place after the homeless encampments of the 1930s, which were named for President Hoover.
Beavers: Hooverville, Nickelsville. It's about the same. These folks are everyday people. Some have had foreclosures, like myself. Some have been on the streets for awhile. Some have came from other places and didn't have a place to go. And Nickelsville took 'em in.
Nickelsville fits in a small parking lot. [Music] Hoovervilles were much larger, especially here in Seattle. Photographs from the 1930s show a city of shacks in what is now downtown Seattle. You can see men picking through trash. Thousands of people lived in that Hooverville.
John Findlay: That name is an epithet against a president who's seen as doing nothing to be able to help the poor people at the time.
John Findlay teaches history here at the University of Washington, a couple of blocks from Nickelsville. He says back in the 1920s, the northwest wasn't industrialized. It provided raw materials to eastern cities - timber, and coal, and produce. Seattle was basically a logging town. Findlay says the Depression hit hard here in the northwest.
Findlay: People travel through here and find farmers burning their orchards, using the trees for firewood because they can't sell crops they're harvesting to make a profit. Just go to waste. They find people setting forest fires so they can get hired to put forest fires out. Public employees, there's no money to pay them. They take scrip or IOUs basically from government.
Across the country, a quarter of Americans were unable to find jobs, but in the northwest, unemployment was even worse.
The economic disaster led to a political sea change.
Findlay: In 1928, the Northwest had been solidly Republican. I think one or two counties in the three states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington actually voted for the Democrat. By 1932, it's exactly the opposite. Only one or two counties in whole region votes for Hoover; everyone else votes for Roosevelt. So it's a tremendous political transformation.
Roosevelt had courted the Northwest during his campaign. He told voters that if he was elected, he would do something to develop the Columbia River.
Findlay: And everyone understood that entailed building dams.
Politicians and businesspeople in the region had been trying to get money for dams on the Columbia for years. They wanted to irrigate farmland, and they thought hydropower would draw industry to the area. Finally, under Roosevelt, it looked as though the dams might be possible. The new president was promising to build big public works projects all over the country, to try to stimulate the construction industry and put people back to work. He talked about the public works plan in his second fireside chat.
Roosevelt: We are planning within a few days to ask the Congress for legislation to enable the Government to undertake public works, thus stimulating directly and indirectly the employment of many others in well-considered projects.
Well-considered projects like bridges and roads -- and dams.
The first big building agency was the PWA, the Public Works Administration. Historian Robert Leighninger says the PWA asked Americans to propose projects for the government to build, and people sent in ideas.
Leighninger: One was a rocket to the moon. And there was one that proposed a mobile sort of roadway--sidewalk sort of thing, walkway--that would go from coast to coast and various facilities could be built up alongside it.
Leighninger says Roosevelt's advisers were expecting to get some loony proposals.
Leighninger: And what surprised them was there were so few of them. Most of them were solid projects like water works and schools, and parks and police offices, and city halls, and stuff like that.
The PWA went on to build more than 30,000 projects - including what was at the time the biggest thing human beings had ever built: the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.
Clip from "Hold That River": No greater attempt ever has been made by man to master the handiwork of nature. No wonder our great writers, engineers and scientists are calling Coulee Dam the Eighth Wonder of the World.
This film, called "Hold That River," was made when the Grand Coulee Dam was still under construction, in the late 1930s. The camera pans across the dramatic country east of the Cascade Mountains. It's a desert of sagebrush and blowing dust. High rock ledges flank wide, dry valleys - called coulees.
Tim Alling: When Grand Coulee Dam construction started in 1933, '34, there were no towns here. This was just kinda open land. There was, you know, a handful of homesteaders in the area.
Tim Alling lives near the dam; he's retired from a job as a powerhouse operator. He and his 84-year-old mother are having coffee in her kitchen. Edith Lael grew up here. Her dad was a hired man on a sheep ranch. She remembers a day when she was eight years old, and her family drove to the river to watch the groundbreaking ceremony for the Grand Coulee dam.
Edith Lael: They estimated there was 5,000 people came for that. There were people in wagons and some came on horseback. Just down there on the riverbank in the sagebrush and grass and dust [laughs].
When Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the site, in 1934, Eleanor was dismayed at the empty country. She's supposed to have remarked that whoever had sold that dam to Franklin was an awfully good salesman. But many people in Washington state were thrilled.
Clip from "Hold That River": President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt were greeted by more than 10,000 people on his inspection of the dam site
Films and newspaper photos from the August day the Roosevelts visited show a group of nurses standing by in case anyone collapsed from the heat. Eleanor is holding a bouquet; Franklin talks with a native man in a headdress. The pictures show huge, cheering crowds. People must have driven hours to get there.
Lael: Well he was quite a hero. And it was exciting when there was jobs coming to construct a dam.
Edith Lael's dad got work, and so did thousands of other people. They came from all over the country, and from Canada, hoping for jobs on the project.
Other big PWA projects were getting underway around the country, too, but they weren't moving fast enough to kick start the economy as much as Roosevelt wanted. So in 1935, he launched another public works program: the WPA--the Works Progress Administration.
Roosevelt: My most immediate concern is in carrying out the purposes of the great work program jut enacted by the Congress. Its first objective is to put men and women now on the relief rolls to work, and incidentally to assist materially in our already unmistakable march towards recovery.
During one of his fireside chats, Roosevelt told his radio listeners that relief rolls were declining, but he acknowledged that unemployment was still a serious problem. So a new agency would do useful works and provide jobs.
Roosevelt: This is a great national crusade, a crusade to destroy enforced idleness which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without stint and without discrimination.
The idea was that WPA workers would do smaller projects that were quicker to start up. They'd serve school lunches, and sew clothes for poor people, and build sidewalks and schools.
Jason Scott Smith: Some of Roosevelt's advisers themselves actually used the image of, what if we just scattered this money across the country from the air, it would have a similar, it would have an impact.
Historian Jason Scott Smith.
Jason Scott Smith: This idea really comes from John Maynard Keynes. If you put money into empty bottles, buried the bottles, and paid people to dig the bottles up and take the money out of the bottles and go spend the money themselves, you would still stimulate the economy.
But Smith says building things with the money has other benefits. And Roosevelt thought that if the government were paying people to work, the work should be useful - something that would benefit everybody. Still, the idea drew fire from conservatives.
1935 Radio Program: The Roosevelt administration has thrown overboard the Democratic platform and adopted a socialist, communistic program under the name of the New Deal.
Here's the president of the New York Economic Council, in a 1935 radio debate.
1935 Radio Program: This, of course, is nothing but the same old European and Asiatic tyranny from which our ancestors fled Europe in order to establish real freedom.
Critics said the government was interfering with private enterprise. In the mid-'30s, officials defended the WPA in this radio broadcast.
Archival Radio Broadcast: The Works Progress Administration invites you to attend an informal staff meeting of the air.
Here's an exchange between the head of the WPA, Harry Hopkins, and the head of the Farm Bureau, Chester Gray. Gray says some farmers can't find hired hands because government programs like the WPA are luring workers away with higher wages. Hopkins acknowledges that has happened.
Harry Hopkins: But on the other hand, there have been many cases where farmers have raised a terrible rumpus because we did not kick unfortunate people off the job so that they might hire them at starvation wages. However, on both sides of this question there has actually been a lot more smoke than fire.
Chester Gray: But what are you people going to do, Mr. Hopkins, when fellows refuse a decent farm wage - and you know sometimes they do?
Hopkins: Well if a farmer can't get hands he should state his case to his own local WPA official because they have already been instructed that nobody is to have a WPA job who has refused private employment at a fair wage. You can be equally sure though that we are not going to kick anybody out of these low paid jobs just so some bird can get a lot of cheap labor. And that goes not only for the farmer but for any private employer.
Critics also said people were getting government handouts to lean on their shovels and do nothing. The word "boondoggle" came into popular use during the New Deal to mean a silly, make-work project. But historian Robert Leighninger says most people liked the public works projects that were being built in their own towns.
Leighninger: One journalist said he was constantly looking for a real boondoggle, but he was always told it was in the next county. And when he'd get there, he was told it was one in the county further on. So, pork is in the eye of the beholder to some extent.
Still, the program was controversial. A survey in 1939 asked Americans to name the best and worst things the Roosevelt administration had done. The number one answer for best thing Roosevelt had done was the WPA. And the top answer people gave for worst thing the administration had done - was the WPA.
WPA workers wound up making films defending the program and the other building projects. Here's one from the late '30s.
Archival WPA worker Film: With the years of the Depression now fading into the past, with recovery definitely underway and the victory clearly in sight, the nation begins slowly to realize that out of all the misery and horror of those many months there is now emerging a vast planned achievement, an achievement of everlasting benefit to the American people. Never in all history has any people builded on a scale so colossal. The public works program of dam construction, typified by the mighty Grand Coulee on the upper Columbia River, is a program of such immensity as to be almost inconceivable.
The Grand Coulee Dam continued to take shape across the river gorge - more than three quarters of a mile long, and 550 feet high. Workers poured enough concrete to build a sidewalk all the way around the earth.
CBS News: From Washington D.C., the Columbia Broadcasting System brings you - a report to the nation! [Music] Attention citizens!
In 1941 CBS Radio announced the dam's completion.
CBS News: And only three hours ago the largest structure ever built by man-the Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington-started to work for your government two years ahead of original schedule.
A few months later, the government hired a folk singer to write songs about its dams in the Pacific Northwest. Woody Guthrie had traveled with famers forced off their land by drought during the Depression. People called him the Dust Bowl Troubadour. Now he wrote songs like "Roll on Columbia," and "Grand Coulee Dam," and "The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done."
[Music (Woody Guthrie): "I'm from the rocky canyon where the Columbia River rolls/ I've seen the salmon leaping, the rapids and the falls/ The big Grand Coulee Dam in the stage of Washington/ is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done."]
This song runs through big events in history, and in one verse, Guthrie adds this:
[Music (continued): "There's a man across the ocean boys, I guess you know him well/ His name is Adolf Hitler, we'll blow his soul to hell/ We'll kick him in the panzers and put him on the run/ That'll be the biggest thing that man has ever done."]
When the U.S. entered World War II, the need for electric power from the Columbia's dams became urgent. The country needed electricity to make aluminum, for war planes. And soon, power from Grand Coulee dam was tapped for a secret project. Scientists chose a site on the Columbia River to work on a new kind of weapon. Historian John Findlay.
John Findlay: When the Manhattan Project thought about where to place the plutonium plant it looked for places that were close to cheap sources of electricity, and also large rivers that could cool the reactors and carry away some of the waste products and some of the heat. So the Columbia was a natural place to look.
The plant on the Columbia was called The Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It produced plutonium.
Findlay: And it was used in very first atomic bomb that was tested at Trinity in New Mexico in July 1945.
Newsreel: We are delaying the start of our scheduled program to bring you the latest report on the atomic bomb attack on Japan.
Findlay: Hanford's plutonium also used in bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 and that effectively brought a conclusion to hostilities between the United States and Japan in WWII.
The wartime industries that blossomed in the Pacific Northwest continued to thrive through the Cold War. Companies like Boeing Aircraft got a boost from defense contracts, and from cheap electricity.
The Northwest no longer had an economy that depended on raw materials; it manufactured things. And soon a high-tech industry grew. Today, Seattle is home to Microsoft and Amazon.
But the new northwest economy has come at a cost.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation's site is contaminated with radioactive waste. Now, Hanford is getting government money again to try to clean the site up.
And the Grand Coulee Dam itself wreaked havoc on the environment.
Charlie Moses: My name is Charlie Moses, Jr. My lineage, I'm full blood first of all. There's not a drop of non-Indian blood runs in my veins.
Charlie Moses is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Moses raises cattle on a ranch perched on a bench of land above the Columbia, a few miles downriver from the Grand Coulee Dam. He's 73 - too young to remember when the dam began. But he's seen what it did to the reservation where he lives. The lake that backs up behind the dam flooded tribal lands. It submerged burial grounds.
Moses: The old town of Kellifer, for instance, was totally covered and it took a lot of Indian allotments that were along the river. And of course it shut off the salmon runs to the river and that was probably the biggest thing it created was the fact that the salmon or the eels quit coming upriver.
The dam prevented salmon from coming upstream to spawn and wiped out the fish population. People knew at the time that the dam would harm the salmon, but preserving fish wasn't a priority. Most people were more interested in power, and irrigation, and jobs.
Moses: The best memory I have of dam back in about '48 or '49. My brother Harvey, we lived all in a house, up there on Nespelem Flat. At one time there was 13 of us living in a three-room house. Harvey went to work for the dam and so we had some income coming into the family.
Moses says many members of the tribe learned trades on the dam. Still, the tribe had lost rivers and lands, and the salmon they had once depended on. The federal government agreed to compensate them, but the question took years to settle. The native people didn't get any money until 1994. They got a lump sum of $53 million, and they'll continue to get more than $15 million a year as long as the dam produces electricity.
[Sounds of rushing water]
Today, water flows from Grand Coulee Dam down a fantastically complex series of canals and pipes and siphons, a blue river rushing in straight concrete channels through the Washington desert, out to farmers' sprinklers.
[Sound of a ratchet]
An hour and a half south of the dam, on a farm near the town of Ephrata, Tim Franck is taking apart an onion planter in a big, tidy shop.
[Sounds of banging]
Mick Qualls: Tim, do those clean up pretty well, and pretty easy?
Tim Franck: Takes about a half-hour to clean each one, pull it apart.
That's Tim's boss, Mick Qualls, checking in with him. He owns this place, Qualls Agricultural Labs. It's a farm and a laboratory for testing pesticides.
Qualls: What we do here is grow crops, up to 40 different crops. We have an apple orchard that has both pears, cherries; we have strawberries, asparagus. ... You have to keep those crops there in case a chemical company comes and says, "Mick we've got to do this test."
On one wall in Qualls's office is a big satellite photo of this area.
Qualls: What you can see is that there's the Grand Coulee dam. Now, it backs up Lake Roosevelt 150 miles.
We're about 60 miles from the dam. In the satellite photo you can see that we're surrounded by symmetrical rows of green circles on the land.
Qualls: But you're looking at 600,000 acres. The original Roosevelt plan was a million acres- all of this--so you can see half of it didn't get developed. But now you can see all these little, every one of these little circles is 125 acres. These circles are all sprinklers.
Qualls says they need the sprinklers because they don't get any rain. Three and a half inches last year - less than Death Valley.
Qualls: If something happened to that dam today, through terrorism or something, this would all go right back to desert. We couldn't grow anything here if it wasn't for our water. It turns out the highest corn yields in the United States are coming off these circles. The great potato production for McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's is all coming out of here.
Qualls says one reason farmers here grow potatoes for processing is that processing plants have located here where they can use the inexpensive electricity to make French fries. And their industry has come to the desert to take advantage of the cheap power.
This kind of development was what Franklin Roosevelt said he had in mind when he championed the dam project - industry for the future. Industry that couldn't even be imagined at the time.
Scott Hunter is editor of the Star Newspaper in the town of Grand Coulee.
Scott Hunter: Because we have cheap electricity in this region, largely fueled by hydropower, there are server farms.
Server farms are clusters of computers to process huge amounts of data. They use a lot of electricity, for cooling. They also need fiber optic cables and this remote county has installed them. It's sort of reminiscent of the days when the dam was built. When Grand Coulee Dam went up, no one knew what exactly would be done with the electricity. And no one knows yet what else the fiber optic system may bring - though folks are pretty sure it will bring jobs to the desert.
Hunter: That's the story of technology. I'm sure that when the first guy picked up a stick, they didn't realize everything they could do with it. The same thing happened with electricity. You're right, they put in the dam here. The main reason at that time was irrigation. But now we use a lot of electricity. And because it's here, we have this advantage here.
Just down the street from Scott Hunter's office, the Grand Coulee Dam stretches across the river. It's not the biggest structure in the world anymore, but it's still colossal, a vast sweep of stark concrete. If you stand near it, you can feel it thrum and hum with power. Wires swoop over the river to rows of metal towers that march up the dry hillsides. On one hill, up high, is an oversized bust of Franklin Roosevelt. He looks over the towns and the Indian reservation; the dam and the river; the canals carrying the water south; and the man-made lake that bears his name.
Stephen Smith: This is Stephen Smith.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office in 1945. He'd been elected four times - he was the only president to serve four terms.
He left behind a changed country - with a different government and a different landscape.
Historians disagree on how much effect the Roosevelt building projects had on the Depression. But there's no doubt that they did employ millions of people. Historian Richard Kirkendall says building infrastructure did stimulate the economy.
Richard Kirkendall: It didn't bring the Depression to an end but it reduced the magnitude of it and it enabled people to survive who would've had an impossible or very difficult time surviving without it.
And Kirkendall believes the work programs may have had another effect: They may have prevented hungry, angry people from staging a revolution. Historian Jason Scott Smith agrees.
J. Smith: It's a bit of oversimplification to say the least, but it's worth noting that during the Great Depression, the United States elects FDR and continues to re-elect him, and Germany, by contrast, gets Hitler.
Smith says in times of economic trouble, people sometimes turn to extreme solutions.
J. Smith: This was a possibility in the United States and the New Deal did a great deal of work to keep this from happening in a sense. It's always hard to measure things by what didn't happen, but this should be counted in the New Deal's favor on the balance sheet of history, if you will.
Jason Scott Smith and many other historians argue that New Deal building programs laid the foundation for the wartime industry that finally lifted the country out of the Depression. And they literally paved the way for the economic development that continued after the war. New Deal workers built roads to ship goods; dams to make electricity for factories; airports that helped transport products and people. And they built places for a prosperous society to spend its leisure time.
Their goal was to build a bridge to somewhere no one had yet been: a bridge to the future, where we live today.
Bridge to Somewhere was produced by Catherine Winter and edited by Mary Beth Kirchner. We had help from Scott Hunter. The American RadioWorks team includes Kate Moos, Ochen Kaylan, Craig Thorson, Marc Sanchez, Ellen Guettler, Emily Hanford, and Suzanne Pekow. I'm Stephen Smith.
You can learn about the contemporary infrastructure crisis from the public television project "Blueprint America." Just visit our web site, American RadioWorks.org. While you're there you can also see photographs of the Civilian Conservation Corps and other New Deal projects. You can download this and other American RadioWorks programs, and tell us what you think. That's American RadioWorks.org.
Support for this program, and the public television project Blueprint America, was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute-the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business-www.Batteninstitute.org.
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