Andrew J. Dunar teaches history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He is the co-author of Building Hoover Dam: An Oral History of the Great Depression. He answers a few questions about major building projects of the Thirties, including the Golden Gate Bridge.

Andrew J. Dunar

What were some of the biggest construction projects of the Thirties?

The 1930s witnessed major construction projects from coast to coast. The Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, and La Guardia Airport transformed the transportation network in New York City, and that city's Empire State Building reigned as the world's tallest building from 1931 to 1973.

But the South and the West, regions that had not already experienced development of their infrastructure as had the Northeast, were the principal beneficiaries of 1930s development. In the South, the Overseas Highway linked the Florida Keys, and the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity and flood control to the Valley. Major projects in the West included Shasta Dam in California, Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, the nation's first freeway in Los Angeles, and both the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Why was there so much big building going on?

Several circumstances contributed to this phenomenon. The building of the Panama Canal in the early years of the century was an engineering triumph that led the nation to consider other projects of comparable scale; but World War I intervened before plans could be carried out. For example, planning for Hoover Dam began after the war in the early 1920s, even though construction didn't begin until 1931.

The growth of the West in the postwar years led to the demand for projects there that strengthened the infrastructure. Disastrous floods on the Mississippi River inspired flood control projects. The federal programs of the New Deal provided funds, organizational structure, and workers necessary to complete projects on a grand scale.

Recent decades have witnessed major construction projects that gained status similar to the magnificent achievements of the Thirties. The construction of sports stadiums comes to mind, although with the Astrodome abandoned, and the Seattle Superdome imploded, the monuments of the Thirties gain stature. The Fifties -- with the construction of the Interstate Highway System, the largest construction project ever undertaken, and the St. Lawrence Seaway -- offer competition in terms of scale, if not monumental stature.

Might the Thirties be considered a key era for engineering?

Well, actually, planning had begun on many of these projects before the 1930s, and some of this owes ironically to the vision of President Herbert Hoover. Historians now acknowledge his progressive inclinations, and his commitment to counter-cyclical planning and the belief that the nation ought to have a reservoir of big projects in the planning stages that could be executed when the time was right. Programs begun during the Hoover years, such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, were forerunners of the New Deal, and years later New Dealer Rexford Tugwell acknowledged that -- even though no one would say so at the time -- "practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started."

The impact of the automobile, which became affordable to middle-class Americans in the Twenties, is undeniable -- note how many of these major projects are adaptations to the automobile age: bridges, freeways, and tunnels.

At the same time, engineering advances and new technology made possible projects of unprecedented proportions: on Hoover Dam, for example, such innovations included cableways to transport materials and the means to cure massive amounts of concrete.

Did the federal government play a role in any of the projects?

The federal government's role was indispensable to most of these projects, and this includes more than the New Deal programs initiated in the Thirties. The Bureau of Reclamation began planning in the 1920s for major dams, and supervised their construction in the 1930s. President Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation remained a vehicle for financing projects under the Roosevelt administration. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, of course, were crucial, in particular the Public Works Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

What was the Public Works Administration, and who was Harold Ickes?

The Public Works Administration (P.W.A.) was the New Deal's premier agency for the construction of big projects, and Harold Ickes was its administrator. The P.W.A., created under the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, received $3.3 billion in funding. In addition to its big projects, the P.W.A. built schools, courthouses, city halls, and hospitals.

Ickes served as secretary of the interior throughout Roosevelt's presidency, and became a competitor of Roosevelt adviser Harry Hopkins. Ickes advocated large public works projects to attack the Depression, while Hopkins, who headed the Works Progress Administration, argued for smaller projects meant to have the dual purpose of creating jobs and providing socially useful results. Ickes, often criticized at the time for being too cautious in implementing his projects and thus delaying the creation of jobs, nonetheless developed a reputation for incorruptible management of the P.W.A., and the historian William Leuchtenburg praised him as "a builder to rival Cheops" -- the Egyptian pharaoh whose tomb is the Great Pyramid.

Who found work through the New Deal, and what kinds of jobs did they do?

Millions of people found work through New Deal programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps alone employed two million men (women were ineligible for employment in this agency), and the Civil Works Administration employed twice as many people (of which about ten percent were women). They performed virtually any job imaginable. The P.W.A., of course, offered mainly construction jobs, but other agencies provided diverse opportunities. Perhaps the agency with the widest range of job possibilities was the Works Progress Administration, which included under its umbrella the Federal Theater Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Artists Project.

Where did workers learn the skills for the big construction projects?

Often men had prior work experience in a related field; many of the workers on Hoover Dam had been miners, for example, and their skills were particularly useful during the construction of the diversion tunnels dug through canyon walls on either side of the dam site. But those who won jobs on Depression-era construction projects sometimes had little prior experience, and learned on the job. Managers and equipment operators usually had related prior experience, but workers with little experience at the outset often moved up to higher-paying jobs that they learned during the project.
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Were unions a big factor in 1930s building projects?

Yes, unions were important -- particularly because under the New Deal the federal government for the first time gave its support to the union movement

The major legislation of 1933 aimed at industrial recovery, the National Industrial Recovery Act, included provisions (under the famous Section 7a) to guarantee the right to collective bargaining. After the Supreme Court struck this down, the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) in 1935 strengthened the right to collective bargaining, and made unionization a right, rather than a matter subject to economic circumstances. The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) in 1935 gave further impetus.

Hoover Dam construction began in 1931 with non-union workers, before the government gave its support to labor. The Golden Gate Bridge employed union workers, because construction began after the New Deal had begun to offer such protection. But legislation tells only part of the story; locale was also significant. San Francisco was already a union town in the mid-thirties, and longshoremen in particular wielded power. In contrast, Hoover Dam's location beside the southern Nevada desert -- with the nearest city (Las Vegas, which was then a small city with dirt streets) twenty-five miles away -- enabled the government to manage the entire construction site as a federal reservation, admitting only those who were willing to work on the government's terms.

You wrote an oral history of the Hoover Dam. Did you hear lots of great stories?

Yes! Hoover Dam's workers and their wives told stories not only of the construction of the dam, but of living conditions in the desert environment where the dam was built. During the first year, families, sometimes with infants, lived in tents, drank Colorado River water (after letting the mud settle!), and wrapped themselves in wet sheets to sleep at night when the temperature stayed above 120 degrees.

One of the most dangerous jobs was that of high scaler; these were men who sat on bosun's chairs suspended on ropes from the canyon rim, knocking loose rocks from the canyon walls to prevent debris from falling on workers below. One of our interviewees was a high scaler named Joe Kine, who has recently been memorialized in a statue beside the dam in his high-scaler regalia. I remember his reaction to my question about the dangers of his work: "It wasn't any worse than anything else," he said. "It was a sitting-down job."

Another interviewee told of a fellow worker who was fired at the end of a shift. As the transport truck made its way back out of the canyon on switchbacks that afforded views of the dam rising in the canyon below, the disgruntled worker looked back and said simply, "I hope it leaks."

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