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Subtopic : Oregon in Depression and War, 1925-1945: The Most Visible of Relief Agencies

Themes: Politics and Government, Economics

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Constructing Wolf Creek Highway, 1936
City of Portland Collection
COP 02019 

When the Roosevelt administration used the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 to establish the Works Progress Administration, it introduced the largest and one of the more controversial of all New Deal initiatives. Until World War II, the WPA was the most visible of all federal relief agencies in the United States, employing more than 3 million people in its first year and a total of 8.5 million before the agency was closed in 1942.

In Portland, the WPA put 25,000 people on the federal payroll to work on projects that included building Rocky Butte Scenic Drive and the Portland Municipal Airport. To maximize its potential for direct relief, the agency shied away from using mechanized equipment, and WPA workers relied on hand tools to do most of their work. The Portland airport project, which regularly employed more than 1,000 people, was the most significant WPA activity in Multnomah County, but it was the less glamorous, smaller projects that put the greatest number of people to work. There were hundreds of small-scale projects in the city, including constructing and improving local parks, building roads, and installing street drainage systems. In one of its most significant efforts, workers cleared brush and built an extensive trail system at Macleay Park in the West Hills.

The WPA also hired Portland residents to build the Wolf Creek and Wilson River highways, an undertaking that greatly speeded travel to the coast. The agency used an old CCC camp on the Wolf Creek section to house workers. The WPA also hired skilled Portland-area artisans to produce ornamental wrought iron for projects across the state, including Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. The agency supported Portland musicians who performed in public places around the city, at the Portland Art Museum, and at Marylhurst and Reed colleges. The Federal Arts’ Theater and Writers’ projects were other WPA activities that attracted attention and controversy because conservatives considered such programs frivolous. The Writers’ Project produced the Oregon Guide, a descriptive narrative of the state's history, its physical landscape, and its cultural heritage.

Although the WPA included women in its service-project jobs, females made up only a small percentage of the agency’s work force. Federal, state, and local administrators assumed that useful and productive work primarily involved construction jobs, traditionally the province of males. While Eleanor Roosevelt and a few others spoke out on behalf of WPA employment for women, writer Neil Barker argues that “institutionalized sexism in the WPA guidelines made most women ineligible for work relief.” The few women able to obtain relief work were placed in sewing-related or housekeeping jobs, or they served school lunches to needy children. Portland-area women also found WPA jobs through the household service-training program, a closely supervised plan that provided domestic labor for the city’s elite.

© William G. Robbins, 2002

Themes: Politics and Government,Economics

Regions: Cascades,Willamette Valley

Date: 1925-1945

Author: William G. Robbins

The Works Progress Administration proved to be the New Deal’s most successful direct relief program in Oregon.

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