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Largest WPA Projects During the Great Depression

Though it’d been on the drawing board for years before its official creation, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a much needed shot in the arm for a listless country during the Great Depression.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the WPA into existence by executive order in 1935 as part of his New Deal plan to restart the dormant economy.  

The stock market crash of 1929 had sent the nation into a tailspin, and the massive federal works program provided much needed jobs for nearly 9 million Americans who probably wouldn’t have had them otherwise. 

The WPA functioned well into the World War II years, and large infrastructure projects were among its most notable successes. 

But there were also a number of lesser known programs that focused on things like literacy, mathematics, art and history. 

During the worst years the national unemployment rate topped 20%, and in some industrial areas it was nearly four times higher. 

WPA projects employed hordes of unskilled laborers, as well as experienced professionals and craftsmen like carpenters, masons, engineers, heavy equipment operators and architects. 

All told, the WPA’s staggering workforce built dozens of dams, more than 100 hospitals, nearly 30,000 bridges, and planted more than 20 million trees. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

Tennessee Valley Authority Largest WPA Projects
Tennessee Valley Authority by TVA Web Team is lecensed under CC-BY

Of all WPA projects, the Tennessee Valley Authority was by far the most expansive. 

Originally established in 1933 as one of FDR’s first New Deal programs, the TVA was one of many acronym agencies for which the WPA was famous.

But unlike most, the TVA’s scope was truly enormous. 

It covered a huge geographic area including portions of Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia. 

The region constituted one of the most naturally diverse, underdeveloped, and perpetually impoverished areas of the country, and the TVA set out to address each issue in turn. 

The agency’s primary aims included flood control, reforestation, agricultural development, infrastructure improvements, and rural electrification through the construction of hydroelectric dams. 

The TVA’s legacy is largely linked to the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama on the Tennessee River–a project that had originally been authorized by Woodrow Wilson to provide power to munitions plants during the First World War.

But when the war ended the project languished while politicians argued about what to do with it. 

Some pushed for privatization, while others were adamant that utilities were best kept in public hands.   

Over the next few years the bickering continued, but as the depression worsened, public distrust of large private enterprises deepened. 

Riding the wave of anti-monopoly sentiment, the FDR Administration approved and funded a number of projects throughout the Tennessee Valley, including a massive upgrade at Muscle Shoals.

The dam was built across a particularly rocky and turbulent portion of the river which made construction slow and difficult. 

When it was completed in ‘24, it towered nearly 140 feet and stretched more than 4,500 feet from end to end, making it the largest TVA project of its kind. 

In addition to power generation, the dam’s locks improved navigation and commerce significantly, and each of its 49 original spillways were capable of releasing nearly 400 cubic yards of water per second. 

The final bill was more than $100 million, or ten times that amount today. 

Though numerous lawsuits were brought against the TVA for unconstitutionality, unfair competition, and socialist-style government overreach, affordable rates, reliable power, and jobs won out in the end. 

Conservative pundits and cartoonists often depicted the TVA as a wasteful, money gobbling behemoth rife with fraud and abuse, but by the mid-’40s it had built more than a dozen hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley.

Though commerce, public health and agriculture were all greatly improved, there were downsides too. 

Thousands of families living in Eastern Tennessee lost their homes during the Norris Dam construction project, and most received little compensation or assistance from the federal government.  

Nearly a century ago the TVA brought electricity to many Americans for the first time, and it’s still the largest publicly owned power producer in the country.  

Federal Project Number One

WPA Projects During the Great Depression federal project number one
federal project number one by …trialsanderrors is lecensed under CC-BY

Though its name may conjure sinister images of cold war-era secret weapons programs in shadowy countries behind the Iron Curtain, Federal Project Number one is really all about music, literature and art. 

In addition to infrastructure, the WPA also oversaw a number of initiatives that collectively sought to beautify the country, put artists back to work, and entertain the masses during a particularly dark time.

Federal Project Number One created dozens of art centers in communities all over the country. 

Artists, performers and designers worked on projects ranging from murals and sculptures, to architecture, motivational posters, theater productions, and painting classes for kids. 

The Federal Theater Project was one of five programs that fell under Federal Project Number One, and though it was managed from the nation’s capital it touched nearly every corner of the country. 

Though the Federal Theater Project lasted fewer years than many infrastructure programs, it was responsible for a number of innovations and employed thousands of actors, directors, writers, stagehands, electricians and lighting technicians. 

In addition to providing jobs, the project aimed to make theater a fundamental component of American’s lives.  

Detractors claimed that spending money on frivolities like art and live performances during a national crisis was the height of lunacy, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the program’s biggest proponent

In today’s money, more than half a billion dollars was spent on Federal Project Number One, and it later paved the way for the creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.

At its peak the program employed nearly 40,000 workers, many of whom would go on to become national and international sensations in art, music and acting. 

Before making it big with his paint splattered canvases, hard-drinking abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock worked for Federal Project Number One in a number of menial roles. 

When FDR was sworn in ‘33, he swore that the New Deal was for everyone, including marginalized groups like women, African Americans and Native Americans. 

By some estimates more than 300,000 black Americans found work through the WPA, accounting for nearly 20% of the total workforce. 

Though African Americans worked in nearly every role, many of their most long-lasting contributions were made in the preservation of traditional music, and sharing their oral histories with workers from the Federal Writers’ Project. 

Hoover Dam

wpa projects Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam

Harnessing the power of the mighty Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada, The Hoover Dam is a true megastructure that employed tens of thousands of men and women during its construction.

It spans approximately 600 feet from shore to shore, towers more than 700 feet over the river below, and required more than 4 million cubic yards of concrete. 

The massive project created electricity for large swaths of the American southwest, and funneled nutrient rich water to arid lands that blossomed into agricultural powerhouses. 

Though some workers made the weekly commute from Las Vegas more than 30 miles away, the roads were horrendous, and many more lived onsite. 

The homeless and destitute had no choice but to bring spouses, infants, and elderly parents. 

Many had little more than the clothes on their backs.

A notoriously shabby settlement called ‘Ragtown’ grew in Black Canyon adjacent to the worksite, consisting largely of ramshackle sheet metal, scrap wood, and cardboard structures. 

Summer temperatures could top 110, and at night in winter the mercury often plunged below freezing. 

At its peak more than 5,000 men, women, and children lived in Ragtown, some of whom died from exposure, malnutrition, and disease.

Construction lasted from 1931 to 1936, and cost nearly $3.5 billion in today’s money, but though the region had a large Native American population, few worked on the project. 

The dam is adorned with WPA artwork including murals, reliefs, and sculptures, and it’s still widely regarded as an engineering marvel nearly a century after construction began. 

In addition to providing electricity to faraway desert cities in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, Lake Mead on the dam’s north side is a year-round recreation destination for boaters, fisherman, and sun worshippers from all over the country. 

Blue Ridge Parkway

PWA projects Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina are some of the Eastern United States’ most scenic and undisturbed natural wonders. 

The Blue Ridge Parkway project was an offshoot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both of which were WPA projects. 

Rumor has it that President Roosevelt became so enamored with the area’s splendor and potential on a trip to Skyline Drive in the early ‘30s, that he graciously accepted a Virginia senator’s proposal to connect national parks in his state with others in North Carolina and Tennessee.  

The president asked the state’s governors to assemble a team to consider the ‘park-to-park’ highway’s feasibility, and shortly thereafter a budget equivalent to $300 million in current value was earmarked for the project. 

A well-known New York architectural firm was hired to implement and oversee the program, and plans for the roads, parks and recreational areas that would stretch for hundreds of miles began to take shape. 

But not surprisingly, intrastate bickering caused delays.

A number of routes were proposed, each of which favored particular cities and states over others.

North Carolina had been especially devastated by the depression, and when it was discovered that the leading plan skirted Asheville, city officials and business leaders took action.  

Luckily for jobless North Carolinians, they solicited support from a former friend of Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson who swayed the committee to approve the route through their city. 

But unlike work on many large WPA projects, much of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s construction was subcontracted to private businesses.

Nevertheless, it was a boon for the anemic economy, and thousands of state and local residents went to work. 

By the time World War II rolled around more than 150 miles of the parkway had been completed and opened to the public, and an equal number were still under construction. 

Though the project dragged on during the war years, it was eventually finished in the early ‘50s. 

Over the next few decades the parkway’s length would increase significantly, and it’s now nearly 500 miles long. 

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