The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the New Deal: Oregon's Legacy

Article excerpt

LOGGING, FARMING, AND MINing--industries that formed the backbone of Oregon's economy--began sliding during the 1920s and plummeted when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Ten billion board feet of lumber had been produced in Oregon during 1929. The following year, demand for lumber weakened because of a decline in construction, and production decreased 25 percent to 7.5 billion board feet. (1) Drought plagued the dry desert and plateau areas of eastern Oregon, wreaking havoc on farm production and causing increased layoffs in the agricultural sector. Oregon's mining industry also experienced a slowdown. As unemployment rose in Oregon, consumer spending declined, reflecting national trends. Nationally, unemployment peaked at 25 percent in 1933, and many who remained in the workforce were employed at reduced wages. (2) Over half of workers were underemployed or unemployed, impacting many Oregonians and leaving some homeless. In Portland, over 330 people lived at one shantytown at Sullivan's Gulch. (3)

President Herbert Hoover had initiated significant recovery efforts in 1930. Under his leadership, for example, the Federal Reserve System eased credit. Hoover also held conferences in Washington, D.C., encouraging businesses to maintain wages and railroads and utilities to expand construction. He substantially increased the budget for federal public works. (4) As the Depression deepened due to the ensuing banking crisis, however, Hoover's initiatives proved weak and ineffective. The public blamed Hoover for the economic hardships, naming homeless shantytowns "Hoovervilles." Oregon voters joined the rest of the nation in hoping that a political change would bring economic relief.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president of the United States on March 4, 1933, he launched a barrage of legislation--collectively known as the New Deal--aimed at providing reform, relief, and recovery from the Great Depression. Because Oregon's economy revolved around rural industries that were ravaged by the Depression, Oregon was situated particularly well to benefit from Roosevelt's legislation. During the initial "Hundred Days" of Roosevelt's first term, he introduced and Congress enacted legislation that restructured banking, agriculture, industry, and labor relations. One of Roosevelt's first acts, developed cooperatively by members of both his and Hoover's staffs, was the Emergency Banking Relief Act, which was introduced, passed, and signed into law on the same day. (5)

Major legislation from the Hundred Days that impacted Oregonians also included the National Industrial Recovery Act, which created the Public Works Administration (PWA); the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Relief Act, which established the CCC; the Federal Emergency Relief Act; and the BeerWine Revenue Act, which affected Oregon's brewing industry. Legislation enacted during 1935, called the Second New Deal, launched the Social Security System and, under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, established the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Collectively, these programs changed the nation, including Oregon, in significant and visible ways.

The public works programs, such as the PWA, CCC, and WPA, created jobs for many unemployed, destitute citizens. Their work dramatically developed or enhanced use of rivers, national forests, state parks, roads and highways, schools, and post offices throughout the state. The year 2008 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of Roosevelt's New Deal and is an opportunity to acknowledge its legacy, a bequest that transformed Oregon. An exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), Oregon's Legacy: The New Deal at 75, showcases a variety of projects that changed the face of Oregon during the 1930s.

BUILT UNDER THE PWA, BONNeville Dam generated electricity that, starting in 1938, was transmitted to rural regions, some of which had never before been electrified, including isolated farms and towns in valleys throughout Oregon. …