Public Works Administration

Public Works Administration

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The Public Works Administration (PWA) was headed by Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. Congress gave permission for the PWA to spend $3,300,000,000 for various public works projects. This included the construction of schools, hospitals, post offices, roads and dams. By June 1934 the agency had distributed its entire fund to 13,266 federal projects and 2,407 non-federal projects.

I have attempted to sketch briefly PWA's direct contribution to national defense. Because of the leeway that it had under the law to make grants to cover the entire cost of Federal projects, PWA was able to undertake some others that, while useful in peacetime, are just as important for war purposes as are munitions themselves.

I particularly have in mind hydroelectric power developments. Where would we be today with a scarcity of power already making itself felt, and a greater lack facing us during the next few years, if we had not gone in for the most stupendous program of power development in history?

We claim no credit for the conception of Boulder Dam or of the TVA. But we hurried Boulder Dam to completion after we came in in 1933 and finished it two years ahead of schedule. The power now being generated there is indispensable to the war. And while the main credit for the TVA must gratefully go to that really fine elder statesman, George W. Norris, the records will show that it was PWA encouragement - encouragement in the form of coin of the realm - that gave it not only the means but the opportunity to expand into the vitally important project that it is.

Public Works: The Legacy of the New Deal

Much of our nation's infrastructure today is a direct result of the vast public works construction effort undertaken by New Deal agencies and programs during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The thousands of bridges, dams, water and sewer systems, highways, post offices, schools, and hospitals built during this era are the visible evidence of the importance of the Roosevelt era in our public works history.
A less visible but equally enduring legacy is in the way we think about and undertake public works programs. Until the Roosevelt era, there was very little direct federal role in local public works. The contrast has been vividly described by William J. Leuchtenburg, the noted historian of the Roosevelt era (1987, 20):

Whereas before the New Deal, most Americans did not conceive of the national government as an agency that acted directly on their lives, in the age of Roosevelt, they looked toward government in countless ways.
The public works efforts of the New Deal included the expansion of existing programs-flood control and highway construction being prominent among them-and the introduction of such new programs as hydroelectric power generation for rural regions. The projects most closely identified with the New Deal emerged from four agencies: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Moving Beyond Limits
The crisis of the Great Depression challenged traditional notions of the limited role of the federal government. When FDR took office in 1933, there were nearly twenty-eight million people unemployed-many of them having been so for several years. Millions of others who still had jobs nevertheless worried about their economic future. The Depression created a climate of fear that challenged the future of democracy in America. There was a sense of urgency, not only in the first hundred days of the Roosevelt administration, but throughout the months and years that followed. The programs developed to meet this crisis constituted the "moral equivalent of war" that survival seemed to require.
The Depression brought the private construction of new factories and homes to a virtual standstill. Public works construction on the part of state and local governments also collapsed. To meet this challenge, the New Dealers vastly increased the federal funding of public works construction. This funding, however, was increased only enough to cover the amount state and local governments had been spending.

During the late 1920s, federal spending on public works construction averaged $200 million annually. This amounted to about 2 percent of the total public and private spending on new construction. By 1932, the last year of the Hoover administration, the federal amount had increased to nearly $400 million. Until 1930, state and local governments had been spending $2.4 billion annually on public works. By 1933, they were reduced to spending only $700 million.

The New Deal filled the gap by hiking federal funds for public works to an annual average of $1.6 billion from 1933 to 1939. Because private construction in these years had also fallen dramatically-from more than $7 billion annually to just over $3 billion-this meant that federal spending now accounted for fully one third of the total spent on new construction.

The central feature of the New Deal public works program was to provide federal support for state and local public works projects, rather than to substitute federal projects in their place. According to Donald C. Stone, founder of the American Public Works Association and a key figure in developing the administration of New Deal programs:

projects at the local level where people were unemployed had to be the kinds of projects that would put the kinds of persons who were unemployed to work. We couldn't just have some scattering of federal projects around and meet the unemployment problem in the country . . . You had to take the work to where the people are. (Rosen and Pudloski 1992, 45)
New Deal public works programs combined the short-term goal of unemployment relief with the long-term goal of regional economic development:

As FDR himself put it, there was an obvious two-fold objective of public works policy: "to relieve unemployment (and) to develop great regions of our country in the future for the benefit of future Americans." (Daniels 1975, 4)

Try and Try Again
FDR's relief programs began almost immediately with the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in May 1933. Harry L. Hopkins, FERA's chief administrator, oversaw this $500 million program. It was followed by another short-term public works relief program, the Civil Works Administration. The CWA was designed to combat the urgent unemployment problems facing the country during the winter of 1933-34 when, according to Donald C. Stone, "unemployment had begun to peak and destitution was severe" (Rosen and Pudloski 1992, 45). In effect, it federalized state and local officials so that their programs could be considered federally authorized and important local projects could move forward. Officials and contractors were paid directly by federal funds without the money needing to go through local governments.
The Public Works Administration, which began operating in June 1933 with Harold L. Ickes at its head, produced many of the largest and most visible public works projects of the New Deal. Although most PWA projects-and there were thirty-four thousand of them-were relatively small, the program included the completion of Boulder Dam in the Southwest and construction of the Triborough Bridge in New York City. PWA provided some $5 billion in construction grants and loans for the building of literally thousands of schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public buildings highways water and sewer systems electric power systems and flood control and reclamation projects.

The Works Progress Administration, established in the spring of 1935 with Harry Hopkins as its chief administrator, was an extension of the CWA effort to provide short-term unemployment relief. But, unlike the CWA, the WPA served all categories of unemployed workers-including artists, writers, lawyers, and architects-rather than just blue collar workers and engineers. Some eight million persons found work through the WPA, which spent nearly $4 billion on the relief programs it administered. These programs were proposed by state and local governments. Although there were some examples of what became denounced as "leaf raking projects," WPA workers built hundreds of local bridges and maintained thousands of miles of the country's roads.

The $9 billion spent on New Deal public works programs at the height of the Depression (1933-39) was the amount calculated to fill the gap in state and local government spending. (In comparison, after the outbreak of World War II, spending on military construction would amount to more than $5 billion in 1942 alone.) Although thousands of individual projects were undertaken by these vast new federal programs, there was almost no corruption: "It is quite remarkable that there was no significant graft or serious suspicion of graft in any of the major New Deal public works operations" (Daniels 1975, 7, citing Rosenman 1938, 392). This can probably be attributed to the professionalism and dedication of the New Deal advocates of modern public administration, who consciously sought talented and competent individuals to serve in key positions. Indeed, one of the tangible legacies of the Roosevelt New Deal era was that it brought to federal government service both a large cadre of individuals and a series of institutional mechanisms that would make it possible for the United States to respond quickly to the emergencies of war. Perhaps the most important legacy of FDR's public works programs, however, was simply the survival of individuals, families, and the social fabric of democracy.

A "New Frontier"?
The public works systems built during the New Deal era are now aging and in need of repair and replacement. And while the role of the federal government in short-term relief efforts is today undergoing intense scrutiny, its long-term role in facilitating economic development though public works seems to be assumed. If there is a "New Frontier" in public works, it may involve the best possible maintenance of New Deal and other public works investments that have formed the nation's infrastructure. Providing state and local governments with advanced maintenance technologies may be a legitimate and significant federal role that continues the Rooseveltian tradition in public works.

Daniels, Roger. The Relevancy of Public Works History: The Case of the 1930's. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1975.Leuchtenburg, William. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal." In The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present and Future, edited by H. Rosen and M. Reuss. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1987.Rosen, H., and S. Pudloski. "An Interview with Donald C. Stone." Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1992.Rosenman, Samuel I., comp. The Public Papers and Addresses of FDR. Vol. III. New York, 1938.

Howard Rosen is Managing Director of Program Development and Director of the Public Works Historical Society for the American Public Works Association in Kansas City, Mo.

Public Works Administration

The Public Works Administration aimed to create jobs while improving the nation&rsquos infrastructure. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC. Roosevelt predicted that PWA projects would benefit industries directly involved with PWA projects (such as the construction industry). Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Established by Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) was an expansive, Depression-era Federal government spending program that aimed to create jobs while improving the nation’s infrastructure. Although the PWA was not vested with the sweeping powers of the National Recovery Administration, it affected nearly every United States county and indelibly altered North Carolina. Yet the PWA did not move the United States toward recovery.

Though the creation of the PWA occurred at the end of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first “hundred days” in office, Roosevelt’s predecessor Herbert Hoover had, even before his own presidency, supported public works projects. Even so, Hoover never created a government agency dedicated to public works projects, and he supported only projects that paid for themselves in eventual revenues.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, believed public works projects did not have to pay for themselves in revenues. By putting people “back to work,” he believed, the projects would one day stimulate the economy and prove beneficial, irrespective of the utility of the projects themselves. As historian Amity Shlaes and others have noted, the PWA was a program of what economists call make-work. While the object of normal work is to create things of value, the object of make-work is to keep people employed. Roosevelt thought that by keeping people employed first and improving U.S. infrastructure second, the PWA could provide much-needed relief to the U.S. economy.

The PWA was not simply a monolithic government enterprise that began in 1933. Roosevelt predicted that PWA projects would benefit industries directly involved with PWA projects (such as the construction industry) and those that might derive some remote benefit (such as the building materials industry). While the PWA undertook a few projects on its own, it mainly financed state and local projects with grants and loans. Because the agency had immense initial funding of $3.3 billion, strong leadership of the PWA would be needed to prevent misallocation of funds or outright malfeasance. From 1933 until 1939, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes directed the PWA. In addition to being a scrupulous manager, Ickes implemented strict standards for grantmaking and required prompt loan repayment. He hired an expert team of public works planners, mainly engineers who had worked with the Federal government during the Hoover administration.

Despite Ickes’s noble intentions, he was not able to make the PWA an effective contributor to economic recovery. Ickes was so intent on preventing corruption that all project proposals submitted to the PWA underwent a thorough – and slow – review process. Many projects, from the Chicago Subway to the Grand Coulee Dam, were eventually approved and completed. Such projects, however, were completed slowly and most often by private construction companies, which employed workers in no need of relief. Consequently, the PWA did little to decrease unemployment.

In North Carolina, state government and private interests severely restricted the activities of the PWA. Most PWA projects required the cooperation of state and municipal governments such cooperation was not forthcoming in North Carolina. A few major projects were completed: the Blue Ridge Parkway, the expansion and modernization of Fort Bragg, and the conversion of the Cape Fear River into a waterway suitable for navigation.

Such projects, however, were not typical. Many projects proposed by the PWA were blocked by North Carolina politicians under the influence of large private businesses. The most well-known instance of such obstruction occurred in 1937, when the North Carolina General Assembly considered six PWA-sponsored bills that relaxed rules constraining municipal cooperation with the agency. Governor Clyde R. Hoey considered the bills routine legislation and believed that they would pass easily. But to the leaders of the North Carolina-based Duke Power Company, these bills augured the construction of taxpayer-supported municipal power plants that competed unfairly with their own. To preclude such competition, Duke Power lobbied aggressively against the bills, and all six were voted down.

Public Works Administration - History

Many people believe the Triborough Bridge in New York was built by the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. But it wasn’t. It was built by the PWA, the Public Works Administration.

The confusion is easy to understand, given the similar abbreviations of the two New Deal programs. But somehow it’s the WPA that gets all the fame. The PWA seems to have disappeared from Americans’ collective memory, even though its structures are all around us, and some of them are enormous.

PWA workers built the state capitol building in Oregon, the highway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland United States, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C., the city hall in Kansas City, Outer Drive Bridge in Chicago, the Ellis Island Ferry Building, Washington National Airport and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

They built thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of sewage disposal plants, and thousands of schools. They built or improved hundreds of airports.

These PWA projects were meant to create a useful and sometimes beautiful infrastructure for Americans to use, but the PWA’s main purpose was to help the country climb out of the Great Depression.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation authorizing the PWA on June 6, 1933, during his first 100 days in office.

Roosevelt and his advisers hoped that by building public works, the PWA would stimulate the construction industry and put people back to work. As a government report said in 1939:

Here was a country with a great and growing need for more schools, more highways, more bridges, more waterworks, more services of all kinds. Here was an army of men willing and able to build them. Here was industry hungry for orders for the needed materials. The idea was to bring all of them together. The job would have to be done some time, why not now?

The PWA was not a work-relief program, like the WPA, which was created two years later. People working on PWA projects didn’t have to be on relief, but the program was meant to help reduce the relief rolls.

Roosevelt said repeatedly that getting people to work was better than giving them handouts.

“The dignity of work sounds trite, but if you read newspapers in the 1930s, everyone talked about that,” says Lorraine McConaghy of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. “They missed a paycheck, but they [also] missed feeling useful.”

The PWA solicited proposals for projects from around the country, and it received some doozies. “One was a rocket to the moon,” says sociologist Robert Leighninger, author of Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.

“There was the Kansas preacher who thought that this PWA was a program where he could apply for bibles for his community. He didn’t want to build anything, just wanted to spread out bibles. There was a mayor who thought maybe his office could be redecorated with PWA money.”

Workers carry bricks to the PWA construction site of Teaneck High School in New Jersey.Courtesy Library of Congress.

And one applicant suggested building a moving sidewalk across the country.

But Leighninger says most proposals weren’t silly. “Most of them were solid projects like water works and schools, parks and police offices and city halls,” he says.

Some of the projects would be built by the federal government alone, and others were done in partnership with local governments.

The PWA was criticized for being too slow to get started. Part of the problem was that large public works projects require planning before shovels can go into the dirt. And part of the problem was that the program’s director, Harold Ickes, was so scrupulous about vetting the proposals. Leighninger tells the story of Ickes inserting passages of Alice in Wonderland into a proposal, to see whether his staff would read it thoroughly enough to notice. They didn’t, and he let them have it.

PWA projects did not immediately turn the economy around, so Roosevelt turned to other programs, such as the Civil Works Administration, followed by the Works Progress Administration these programs could do smaller projects that were quicker to set up.

The PWA issued a report in 1939, titled “America Builds,” arguing that the PWA had in fact stimulated the economy. By then it had built thousands of projects, spending billions of dollars on materials and wages. The report estimates that PWA projects used more than one billion man-hours – 1,714,797,910, to be exact. The report said that wages paid on those projects were plowed back into the economy many times over:

A worker gets a PWA job. He receives his first pay envelope. He needs a suit of clothes, so he spends a part of his pay at the clothier. The clothing dealer takes part of the money and pays the jobber. The jobber takes part of the money and pays his manufacturer. The manufacturer pays his workers and buys more cloth from the mill. The mill owner, in turn, takes part of the money and buys wool and cotton, and perhaps more machinery, and so on.

In fact, the report argued that the PWA’s success provided evidence that governments should undertake public works during economic bad times to stabilize the economy.

Historians and economists differ on how much effect the New Deal building programs actually had on the economy. The building programs “didn’t bring the Depression to an end, but they reduced the magnitude of it and enabled people to survive who would have had an impossible or difficult time surviving without them,” says Richard Kirkendall, emeritus history professor at the University of Washington.

Kirkendall and many other historians also argue that the infrastructure built by agencies like the PWA was essential to the Allied victory in World War II. PWA dams provided electricity to power war plants its roads and airports enabled troops and goods to move efficiently. The PWA contributed directly to the military, too. It built aircraft carriers, submarines, and military planes.

Many historians argue that the New Deal jobs programs helped preserve capitalism at a volatile time in history.

“It often seemed to me the possibility of some kind of a revolution was there, and these programs were politically significant as well as helpful to individuals and families,” says Kirkendall. “Fascist ideas were circulating in America at the time, as well as socialist. We could have moved in a quite different direction, and I think those programs were helpful in preventing us from moving in a totalitarian direction of some sort.”

After the war, the infrastructure left by the building programs contributed to post-war prosperity, says Jason Scott Smith, history professor at the University of New Mexico and author of New Deal Liberalism.

“This investment in America’s infrastructure is what helps make possible a national marketplace after the end of World War II, connecting regions, building hundreds of airports, building thousands of miles of roads, bridges, sewer systems, you name it,” Smith says.

Smith points out that Americans are still using that infrastructure today, both the huge things, such as bridges and dams, and the smaller things, such as schools and sidewalks, usually with no idea that they were built by the PWA.

“Bridge to Somewhere” is an American RadioWorks production as a part of Blueprint America. Produced by Catherine Winter and edited by Mary Beth Kirchner help from Scott Hunter. The American RadioWorks team includes Kate Moos, Ochen Kaylan, Craig Thorson, Marc Sanchez, Ellen Guettler, Emily Hanford, Suzanne Pekow, and Stephen Smith.


James MacGregor Burns, a Roosevelt biographer, described the president as a "creative thinker in a 'gadget' sense." The president was idealistic yet pragmatic the projects he cared most about were those that improved the lives of Americans in observable, day-to-day ways: better housing and schools, improved roads and public transit, airports for the new mode of transportation, more parks and forests for recreation, rural electrification, and sanitation systems for the nation's cities. It was a public philosophy shared by most of those who worked in the Public Works Administration, including Harold Ickes. He too loved building things of permanence that would benefit the greatest number of people in the long run, a quintessentially utilitarian philosophy. While others in Roosevelt's administration concentrated on combating the Great Depression in the most immediate ways—Harry Hopkins, for instance, whose famous statement, "People don't eat in the long run," summed up his role in the New Deal—the PWA functioned with both the short- and the long-term in mind.

The PWA's dual objectives resulted in considerable criticism in the press for the relative slowness with which it operated. An editorial in a 1933 issue of Business Week, for example, complained that "Mr. Ickes is running a fire department on the principles of a good, sound bond house." Although such criticism smarted, and Administrator Ickes was not shy about firing back, it was a trade-off he was willing to make. But in addition to insisting that public works projects be of high quality and designed to last, Ickes insisted on keeping corruption out of his organization. This objective, too, resulted in a certain amount of delay in the project review process, but it also produced a federal agency that was remarkably free of corruption. As Roosevelt told his cabinet in December 1934,

When Harold took hold of public works, he had to start cold. He had no program and he had no organization. It was necessary to develop both. A lot of people thought that all he would have to do would be to shovel money out of the window. There have been a good many complaints about the slowness of the works program and Harold's caution. There hasn't been even a minor scandal in public works and that is some record.

In 1935 Ickes published a book titled Back to Work: The Story of PWA. Its purpose was to tell the American public what the agency had accomplished in its first two years in operation. (It also may have been written in anticipation of the 1936 presidential election.) More than 19,000 projects were either completed or underway, he wrote. They were located in all forty-eight states and spread across 3,040 of the nation's 3,073 counties. The U.S. territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and the Panama Canal Zone all had ongoing projects. A fundamental goal of the PWA was to distribute projects among the states and territories as equitably as possible, so a formula based on the state's population and its percentage of unemployed served as the primary method of determining how many projects each state would be granted per year. Despite these efforts at achieving fairness, critics often complained about inequities in where PWA money was going. One of the agency's most vociferous critics was the publisher and editor of Ickes' hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune Colonel Robert McCormick's charges of favoritism produced a long-running and very public row between himself and Administrator Ickes, an individual who never avoided a good political fight.

In addition to the construction of dams previously mentioned, the first 19,000 PWA-funded projects included 522 public schools, 87 hospitals, nearly 600 municipal water systems, 433 sewer lines and sewage disposal plants, and 360 street and highway improvements. But it was in the area of public housing that the agency broke completely new ground: For the first time in America's history, the federal government embarked upon a policy of providing decent, affordable housing for all of its citizens, regardless of race. Ickes was especially enthusiastic about this aspect of his agency, for he had a life-long commitment to racial equality. In the slum clearance and public housing component of the PWA, Ickes, and indeed the president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, found a means to improve dramatically the lives of the nation's most desperately poor. These Americans, as often as not, were minorities.

History was made in October 1934, when the PWA embarked on its first slum clearance project. The sites chosen were in Atlanta, Georgia, and Administrator Ickes was present for the historic occasion. In his Secret Diary he described how a small entourage of politicians and administrators proceeded to the two sites scheduled for demolition: One near Atlanta University, a "black college," and the other adjacent to a "white college," Georgia Tech. "There I made another extemporaneous speech from a temporary platform," Ickes recalled, "spoke for a couple of minutes before the newsreel machine, and then blew up another house."

It was an impressive beginning for a program that would continue for four more years. The emergency relief program proved to be so popular with the public, and so needed, that Congress appropriated nearly $5 billion for its continuance in 1935. The bulk of that money went to the new WPA, but PWA also received increased funding. More money was appropriated in 1936, a presidential election year. Roosevelt's landslide victory in the November election was due in no small part to the activities of the PWA and the other emergency relief programs. The 1936 election, often referred to as a realigning election, marked the appearance of a new political coalition in American politics. Due to the administration's efforts at including minorities in all phases of the New Deal recovery programs, support for Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in the 1936 election by minority groups that traditionally voted Republican (if they voted at all) was unprecedented.

Orchard Beach Bathhouse — Bronx, New York

(Tom Stoelker)

Set on a mile-long artificial beach overlooking Long Island Sound, this New York City landmark is "recognized as being among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States." When it was built in 1936, it was the largest WPA project in a city that, thanks to the clout of legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Department Commissioner Robert Moses, was the biggest single recipient of New Deal largess. The two-story crescent-shaped, nautical-motif bathhouse was designed by Princeton-trained architect Aymar Embury II in the Modern Classical style and built using inexpensive concrete, brick and limestone, terra-cotta tile and terrazzo. In its heyday, the pavillion had a restaurant, dance floor, changing rooms, showers and a laundry and served generations of working class Bronx residents. But salt air and water eventually took a toll and the crumbling bathhouse is now closed and fenced off from beachgoers. Benepe estimates it would take up to $50 million to restore, an unlikely prospect in a time of tight budgets and long after the era of the rented swimsuit: "It'll probably never again be used as a bathhouse." In March 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $65 million plan to revitalize the area, including plans for the WPA bathhouses. The ideas include a recreation center, a pool or a nature center.

About Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics and foreign affairs for USA TODAY and other large media outlets, for more than three decades. She is now a freelance writer.

Public Works Administration - History

For more than a decade, the Great Depression devastated Pennsylvania and the nation. It also forced Americans to grapple anew with fundamental questions about the role of government. In desperate need of change, the nation in 1932 elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president.

Once in office, FDR and Congress created a package of programs that provided relief for the jobless through public works projects and pro-labor legislation that empowered those with jobs. For the first time in American history, the federal government assumed responsibility for the basic welfare of impoverished Americans. Many hailed Roosevelt's New Deal as a monumental victory for the common man and woman. Others feared it represented an insidious threat to the Republic.

In 1930, Pennsylvania had a mixed economy based on diversified industries and agriculture, and a blend of urban and rural populations. Employing nearly a million factory and mill workers, the Commonwealth was an economic powerhouse, out-produced in manufacturing only by New York. The Great Depression hit Pennsylvania hard.

Between 1927 and 1933, more than 5,000 manufacturing firms closed, and factory jobs plummeted by 270,000. Cities, where the most jobs were lost, suffered terribly. Joblessness, poverty, and destitution also found their way into Pennsylvania's rural areas into farms in mountain hollows, patch towns in the coal regions, and logging villages in upstate forests. In rural Fayette County, for example, 37 percent of the work force was jobless in 1937.

In Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the nation, traditional forms of poor relief through private charities, county poor boards, and urban political parties quickly collapsed under the weight of the unprecedented mass misery wrought by the Depression. Efforts on the part of the financially drained state and local governments also failed to alleviate the suffering. In August 1931, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot proclaimed that "the only power strong enough, and able to act in time, to meet the new problem of the coming winter is the Government of the United States." Pinchot inaugurated an ambitious state work relief program, hiring thousands of unemployed men to construct roads that would "connect farm to market." Substantial action by the federal government did not come, however, until after FDR took office in January, 1933.

To revive the nation's economy, Roosevelt supported "priming the pump," by generating jobs and consumer spending through federally financed public works projects. Created by the National Industrial Recovery Act on June 16, 1933, the Public Works Administration (PWA) budgeted several billion dollars for the construction of public works.

Overseeing the PWA and other New Deal relief programs was Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes , who had been born in Altoona, PA. Between July 1933 and March 1939, the PWA spent over $6 billion on more than 34,000 construction projects, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike , the nation's first limited access superhighway. To put unemployed young men to work, and at the same time conserve timber, soil, and water resources, Congress also established the Civilian Conservation Corps , which in Pennsylvania alone employed more than 200,000 young men.

Dominated by conservative Republicans who opposed federal intervention in state affairs - and feared that it would invigorate their Democratic opponents- Pennsylvania's state legislature refused federal funding. Only after the 1936 election, in which Democrats gained control of the state House and George H. Earle became the first Democratic governor since the 1890s, did New Deal moneys flow more freely during what became known as Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal."

In the years that followed, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed Pennsylvanians to construct bridges, schools, courthouses, hydroelectric dams, parks, and roads . In addition, the WPA's Federal Art, Theater, and Writer's Projects funded cultural programs that employed teachers, writers, artists, and musicians. The works of local WPA artists, depicting regional scenes of farmers, miners, and factory workers, still grace the walls of courthouses, schools, post offices, and other public buildings throughout the state.

In the wake of the great Flood of 1936, which caused more damage in Pennsylvania than any other state in the Northeast , Congress passed The Flood Control Act of 1936. This act subsidized construction of a system of dams, levees, and channels along the state's numerous flood-prone waterways. Most notable of these was the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project , which became the second largest flood control project of its type in the nation.

New Deal programs also reached out to rural Pennsylvanians. In 1936, 75 percent of the Commonwealth's farm families still lived without electricity. Under the guidance of John M. Carmody, an industrial relations expert from Towanda, PA, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) provided low-cost loans to consumer-owned electric cooperatives that would serve neglected rural areas. Between 1936 and 1941, the REA funded the formation of fourteen cooperatives in the state, including the Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative , which in May 1937 became the Commonwealth's first cooperative to provide the "miracle" of electricity, to 92 farm families. Pennsylvania power companies vehemently opposed these publicly funded cooperatives, building "spite lines" until backed down by Adams County farmers in the " Battle of the Post Holes ," in January, 1941.

Although Pennsylvania escaped the prolonged drought that turned the American West into the wind-swept Dust Bowl, millions of wooded acres in Pennsylvania faced dire peril. Clearcut by loggers and the then left exposed to the elements, irreplaceable top soil was being lost through erosion. In 1939, the U. S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS) provided technical assistance to six Bucks County farmers that enabled them develop a cooperative plan to protect a 700-acre watershed located on their lands. In the years that followed, their Honey Hollow Watershed would serve as a prototype for thousands of watershed areas established throughout the nation.

The New Deal also began to tackle the national crisis in housing. In Philadelphia, the PWA built public housing projects. In western Pennsylvania's rural Westmoreland County, Congress funded the construction of Norvelt , the fourth of nearly 100 cooperative "subsistence homesteads" for unemployed industrial workers that sprouted up across the nation. To help jobless bituminous coal miners and their families in hard hit Fayette County, the American Friends Service Committee constructed Penn-Craft , one of the few planned communities founded by a private, "faith-based" charitable organization.

Decades of laws and court rulings had left millions of American workers at the mercy of their employers. Under provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, promoted by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins , and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, the federal government for the first time in American history guaranteed the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The provisions of these two acts were reinforced by Pennsylvania's "Little Wagner Act" of 1937, which created a state Labor Relations Board.

The New Deal's pro-labor legislation fueled a national labor movement in which Pennsylvanians played a leading role. When the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company refused to abide by a National Labor Relations Board's ruling, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in a precedent-setting decision, NLRB vs. Jones and Laughlin , upheld workers' right to organize and bargain collectively.

Mobilized by wage cuts and devastating unemployment, workers across the Commonwealth joined unions, engaged in public protests and strikes, marched on Harrisburg, elected pro-labor candidates to public offices, and struggled for a living wage and worker rights. Beginning in 1935, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) organized unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers not represented by the trade union-oriented American Federation of Labor. Led by National Director John Brophy , a United Mine Workers organizer from western Pennsylvania, the CIO found fertile recruiting ground in Pennsylvania, successfully enrolling large numbers of textile workers, miners, and steelworkers.

Steel was one of the last major industries to hold out against unionization. Empowered by the Wagner Act, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) on June 17, 1936, launched a drive to organize labor from its new headquarters in Pittsburgh. By the end of the year, SWOC had enrolled 125,000 members. In 1937, strikes broke out in Reading, Johnstown, and among the chocolate workers in Hershey .

That May, U. S. Steel finally recognized SWOC as the bargaining agent for its workers. Not all steel companies, however, followed its example. Convinced that New Deal programs and the gains of labor were jeopardizing the nation's economic future, Pennsylvania conservatives mobilized voters, regaining control of state government in the election of 1938, and worked to turn back the rising tide of change. Abroad, fascism and world war represented new challenges that would soon engulf the state and the nation.

Public Works

The Department of Public Works' mission is to provide public services for the convenience and safety of residents and visitors to the City. These services include: Engineering, Fleet Maintenance, Parks and Forestry, Street Maintenance, Waste and Recycling Collections, Snow and Ice Control, and functions of the Stormwater Utility, which enhance the daily lives of our residents and visitors.

Our staff is proud to serve the City of Kenosha, to ensure it stays beautiful for all to see and use.

Download the Kenosha City App

The Kenosha City App is a great resource for:

  • Receiving the latest press releases
  • Accessing important city links
  • Reporting potholes, overhead street light issues, long grass/weeds

For instructions on how to download and use the Kenosha City App, click here.

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Signing up for the City of Kenosha's AlertSense allows you to recieve important city notifications, examples include: the start and end of snow emergency parking bans or the disruption of curbside waste collection services.

  • Phone : 262.653.4050
  • Fax : 262.653.4056
  • Email :
  • Office : 625 52 nd Street Room 305,
    Kenosha, WI 53140
  • Office Hours : 8:00am - 4:30pm

Shelly Billingsley, MBA, PE
Director of Public Works

Public Works Administration (PWA)

Organized with funds from the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 1933, the Public Works Administration (PWA) was one of the New Deal’s several attempts to revive the nation’s depression-ridden economy. Designed to provide unemployed workers with wages as well as to stimulate the building industry, the PWA’s main focus was on large-scale construction projects. From 1933 to 1939, the PWA spent six billion dollars in constructing 70 percent of all educational buildings built in the country 65 percent of all the courthouses, city halls, and other nonresidential public buildings 65 percent of all the sewage treatment plants 35 percent of the hospitals and public-health facilities and 10 percent of the roads, streets, and bridges. The PWA also completed numerous public housing and public utilities projects.

In the South, where the Great Depression had only worsened an already lame economy and where urban infrastructures were inadequate and public and private construction had virtually stopped, the PWA eventually made a noticeable difference. From 1933 to 1938 the South received over $500 million from the PWA. Besides the many miles of roads it surfaced and hundreds of buildings it constructed, the PWA in the South built Florida’s Key West Highway, Atlanta’s Techwood housing complex, the man-made port at Brownsville, Texas, the Virginia State Library in Richmond, Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and a water supply system in rural Alabama.

In Tennessee, the PWA employed thousands of jobless workers. It built, surfaced, and resurfaced over two hundred miles of roads over the state, built numerous bridges and rail crossings, paved city streets, repaired power plants, constructed waterworks, and helped erect numerous public buildings, including new county courthouses in Davidson, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lewis, Madison, Obion, and Sumner Counties.

In its large construction projects, the PWA especially was active in Tennessee’s cities. For instance, PWA boosted Nashville’s dollar-poor public education system by building several new elementary and junior high schools, West End High School, and the Pearl High School for African American students. PWA workers also built schools in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Jackson, and Memphis.

At the same time, the PWA began over fifty housing projects in twenty-nine states, including Tennessee. In Memphis the PWA constructed the Lauderdale Courts for white tenants and the Dixie Homes for blacks. In Nashville PWA workers built the Andrew Jackson Courts for African American residents and Cheatham Place for whites.

In Tennessee, the presence of the PWA may have been more prominent than in other states because of its association with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in providing electric power for its citizens. Municipalities such as Knoxville and Chattanooga obtained PWA financing for the construction of public power distribution centers and local power stations smaller towns like Lewisburg also benefited from new power distribution centers. PWA loans also helped bring TVA electricity to thousands of Tennesseans over the state.

PWA grants to cities for large-scale construction projects permanently changed urban landscapes in Tennessee. In Memphis, the PWA built a juvenile court building, the John Gaston Hospital, and dormitories at the University of Tennessee Medical School. In Chattanooga, besides its rather substantial school construction program, the PWA added a building to Silverdale Hospital, constructed the combined Public-University of Chattanooga Library building, and financed an addition to the Hamilton County Courthouse. In Knoxville, PWA funds added buildings to the sprawling campus of the University of Tennessee. The PWA especially was generous to Nashville. There it helped construct the Tennessee Supreme Court Building, the State Office Building, a new post office on Broadway, and the Davidson County Public Building and Courthouse on the city’s Public Square.

By the late 1930s, growing opposition to the New Deal and the approach of World War II resulted in a shift of public spending from civilian to military construction. Ongoing PWA projects received final funding and the agency was terminated, but in Tennessee, almost six hundred projects costing federal and local governments $90 million had not only provided wages for thousands of depression-weary Tennesseans but had enhanced significantly the physical portrait of the Volunteer State.

The Public Works Administration (PWA)

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was charged with developing very large public works construction projects. Between 1933 and 1939 PWA invested more than six billion dollars and 4.75 billion man-hours of labor in constructing about 10 percent of all the new transportation facilities (roads, bridges, etc.) built in the United States during the period, 35 percent of the new hospitals and health facilities, 65 percent of city halls and courthouses and 70 percent of all the educational facilities. (TFC, Vol 4, p. 132.) During its existence, almost 50 housing projects were built as well. People referred to the PWA as “Poppa Working Again.” (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 106.)

One of the best known PWA projects was the Grand Coulee Dam located northwest of Spokane, Washington on the Columbia River. Construction started on July 16, 1933, and the first water over-topped its spillway on June 1 of 1942. The Bureau of Reclamation in 1932 estimated the cost of constructing Grand Coulee Dam to be $168 million its actual cost was $163 million. The Grand Coulee Dam provides water to irrigate approximately 600,000 acres in the Columbia Basin Project, where apples, pears, cherries, wheat and potatoes are grown. It is also a significant source of hydro-electric power, generating more than 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough power to supply 2.3 million households with electricity for one year. In addition to its irrigation and power functions, Grand Coulee Dam is a primary factor in controlling floods on the Columbia River. (

Providing jobs to unemployed workers was the most immediate benefit of the project. Around 8,000 people worked on the project. The workers building the dam received an average of 80¢ an hour the payroll for the dam was among the largest in the nation. The workers and all support personnel had to be housed. Thus, small towns with all necessary support facilities and infrastructure had to be built to accommodate the workers and their families. Women were allowed to work only in the dorms and the cookhouses. (Id.)

A look at auxiliary construction on collateral projects necessary to support the actual construction of the dam provides an idea of the huge scope of the project:

In order to provide adequate transportation facilities, highways leading to the dam site were regraded, widened, and hard-surfaced by the State a hard-surfaced road from the Grand Coulee to the dam site was built by the Government bridges across the river replaced a primitive ferry and 32 miles of standard gauge railroad from Odair, on the Northern Pacific Railway near Coulee City, to the mouth of the Grand Coulee and into the river canyon were built by the Government, to be operated by the contractor. A 110,000-volt transmission line, 31 miles long, was built from the Washington Water Power Co.’s lines near Coulee City to Mason City by the contractor. Telephone and telegraph lines were built in by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. and the Western Union Telegraph Co.

Woody Guthrie, who loved the Pacific Northwest, was hired by the federal government and the Bonneville Power Administration to compose several songs about the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams. Guthrie spent a month in the Columbia Basin and wrote 26 songs. Two of those songs are “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Roll on, Columbia.” He was paid $266.66 for his work.

“Roll on Columbia” (1941) became the signature song to rally support for the federal government’s Columbia Basin Project, and later it was adopted as the state song of Washington. Words by Woody Guthrie, music based on “Goodnight, Irene” by Huddie Ledbetter/Lead Belly.

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on

Chorus: Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Other great rivers add power to you
Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too
Sandy, Willamette and Hood River too
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

It’s there on your banks that we fought many a fight
Sheridan’s boys in the blockhouse that night
They saw us in death but never in flight
So roll on Columbia, roll on


Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on


These mighty men labored by day and by night
Matching their strength ‘gainst the river’s wild flight
Through rapids and falls, they won the hard fight
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

“Grand Coulee Dam, was written and sung here by Woody Guthrie. (1941)

Well, the world has seven wonders, the travelers always tell
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well
But the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land
It’s that King Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam

She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide
Comes a-rumbling down the canyon to meet that salty tide
Of the wide Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the west
And the big Grand Coulee country in the land I love the best

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of Thirty three
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me
He said, “Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me”

Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum
And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream

Watch the video: Public Works Administration Department - Audrey


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