How the New Deal built Nevada
The Depression in Nevada was beaten back by workers who built, planted and even died for the state
Dominick Gadamowitz was born in Flushing, N.Y., in 1918, the oldest of 11 children. At age 13, two years into the Great Depression, he dropped out of school to work in his father’s business as a construction laborer.
“I felt as if I had an obligation to help Pop feed the rest of the family because we were really beginning to feel the effects of the Depression,” he later said.
Then in 1935, another opportunity came his way—a new federal program called the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“This was my chance to get away from all of the problems at home and still be able to help provide for my family. … My best friend and I enrolled in the CCC at our local post office. Within two weeks we were sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for a medical, which we both passed. We learned that we would be working at Battle Mountain, Nevada. We were sent home to gather our clothes and inform our parents of where we were going, how long we would be there, and any other necessary information that they might have needed to know. Later that week, we rode across country by train to Nevada.”
The CCC is often described as a means for rural youth, who normally might never have traveled more than 50 miles from their homes, to see the nation. It also worked the other way around. It was a way for urbanites like Gadamowitz to see places like Battle Mountain. The creation of the CCC and other New Deal “alphabet” programs began 75 years ago this year.
One day in 1920, a train that included the private car of Democratic vice presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt pulled into Las Vegas for a few minutes on its way to California. The candidate stepped off the train while he waited, chatted with a few local folks, said some nice things about former U.S. Sen. Charles Henderson of Nevada, then climbed back on the train and continued on his way.
That unplanned appearance was about the extent of Roosevelt’s personal knowledge of the state that would one day benefit more than any other from his New Deal.
“Per capita expenditures of selected New Deal agencies from 1933 to 1939 were greater for Nevada than for any other state,” historian Russell Elliott wrote in 1973. “Not only was Nevada first in total per capita expenditures, but first, also, per capita in loans, Civil Works Administration (CWA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) funds, and funds for public roads.”
This was not peculiar to the New Deal. Nevada had long been a welfare state, living off the taxes paid by people elsewhere, more so than any other state. In 1924, five years before the stock market crash, Nevada received 200 percent more funding from the federal government than it contributed in taxes.
“Nevada was not industrialized like some states were, and [it] suffered in that way,” according to historian Phil Earl.
But the New Deal brought an investment in Nevada unlike any before. It was like a blitzkrieg, only a constructive one—schools and bridges, roads and dams, drought projects and reforesting swept across the state like a benevolent army.
It is titillating in retrospect to imagine what New Deal officials must have thought as they surveyed the needs of the state. Nevada was a place that barely had an infrastructure. Schools were built grudgingly, roads and bridges only as absolutely needed. Nevada’s boom and bust history gave the whole state a mindset of temporariness. In many cases what infrastructure there was in booming communities followed departing residents out when busts came or deteriorated untended in remote locations. The rare instances of serious money being spent, such as on Virginia City’s Fourth Ward School or the Belmont court house, were exceptions.
Reno had more substantial infrastructure, but only because it was a more substantial town. It still lagged behind other towns of its size outside the state and tried at every opportunity to depend on others for money and programs, as with its library, which was built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie’s local library program. So when the New Dealers came to Nevada they found a primitive society.
The tree army
Among the earliest arrivals were the CCC units. This program had gotten going quickly after Roosevelt became president—and over the objections of the president’s own advisors and cabinet members—because he believed it was the fastest way to show the public evidence of action. The construction of post offices, say, would take time for design, acquisition of property and construction. But work crews building roads could be in evidence rapidly.
Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933. He proposed the CCC to Congress 17 days later, and Congress had the bill on his desk for him to sign 10 days after that. The first recruits joined on April 7. Soon there were CCC camps at places in Nevada like Berry Creek, an old sawmill site in White Pine County, and Deer Creek in Clark County. CCC members at Deer Creek began work on roads and campsites in the Charleston Mountains on July 18.
Soon the young workers were proving their value. On Nov. 28, U.S. Rep. James Scrugham asked for a CCC camp at the Lehman cavern to provide for maintenance of the site.
The members of the CCC were paid a dollar a day. Of this $30 a month, $25 was sent home to their families. What cost $30 in 1933 would cost $451.48 in 2007.
Tree stumps were removed, trails cleared, campgrounds created, cabins built, fires fought, trees planted. To this day, hunters and hikers use CCC trails that crisscross Nevada mountains, and there are rustic cabins at Overland Lake in the Ruby Mountains. Three native sandstone cabins in the Valley of Fire were used by campers for decades and are preserved today.
While the CCC was providing visibility for the New Deal’s work programs, others were proceeding at a slower pace.
On July 3, the Nevada Highway Department adopted a plan for $4,545,972 allotted to Nevada for highway construction as part of New Deal job creation programs ($4,545,972 would be $68,413,289.08 in 2007 dollars). On Aug. 24, the U.S. Public Works Administration (WPA) approved $2 million for a Humboldt reclamation project. On Nov. 16, New Deal relief administrator Harry Hopkins announced that from a recently enacted $400 million public works program approved by Congress for relief of unemployment, 3,000 jobs were being allocated to Nevada. A federal building was constructed in Las Vegas, one of the first Nevada public works built as a New Deal project.
Although a couple of White Pine County road projects were rejected on Dec. 1, that county was still getting plenty of other forms of help, and three days later Federal Land Bank Office reported that Nevada farmers had received $38,200 in aid during the single month of November, the Civil Works Administration approved numerous work projects to create jobs in the state, and Scrugham said a 50-person Civilian Conservation Corps camp at the Lehman cavern had been recommended by the National Park Service.
And that was just in 1933.
New Deal water
Nevada is a desert state. This has been the controlling fact of the state’s existence since white men arrived. Many of the New Deal programs tried to stretch the available water. No other field serves better to demonstrate the enduring impact of the Roosevelt programs on Nevada. The state has lived off New Deal water ever since.
Besides the Humboldt reclamation program (reclamation is the use of irrigation to convert desert to farmland) already mentioned, there were dozens, then hundreds of drought relief projects—the drilling of wells, the development of springs, the building of dams. By Oct. 22, 1934, the Nevada office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) reported that of 712 drought relief projects launched in the state, 596 had been completed. Rye Patch Dam was constructed. An emergency Works Progress Administration project in Goldfield relieved a severe water crisis by connecting mains to a supply in Rabbit Springs. A waterworks was built in Lund. Watersheds were created and smaller dams repaired.
During all this, other projects came, were completed, and the years passed. Robert Mitchell School in Sparks got a new playground with supervised play for children from FERA. Hundreds of CCC boys worked on a lake rim highway at Lake Mead and put the Boulder City airport into shape. The WPA and other federal agencies subsidized the operations of the Nevada Planning Board. In 1935, FERA reported that $4,760,390 had been spent in Nevada on Depression relief and that $2,389,320 was being planned in Works Progress Administration projects in the state.
The Boulder Canyon Project, which built Hoover Dam, was inherited from the Hoover administration and embraced by the New Deal. The dam was completed in 1936. (As the project neared completion and its workforce shrank, the CCC purchased buildings for dormitories from Six Companies, the conglomerate formed to build Hoover Dam.)
In 1936, a highway from Las Vegas to Death Valley by way of Pahrump was under construction. An addition was built on Reno’s Southside School. Reno got a new municipal swimming pool, funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA). A couple of hundred men were working on WPA public works while staying at Galena Creek south of Reno. A Chicago architect designed the $75,000 hospital for the Duck Valley tribal reservation.
Thanks in part to night work crews, the WPA quickly created what became known as Virginia Lake Park south of Reno. The lake was designed for swimming and wading with an average depth of five and a half feet. It was one of many Nevada parks created.
The PWA in 1937 approved a Las Vegas electric plant, a Fallon government building, a Lund waterworks, a Clark County distraction center, education projects in Clark County and Ely and Elko, and street projects in Sparks and Las Vegas, all at a cost of $1,193,818 in federal funds.
Nearly $100,000 was spent in 1939 on a federal building in Tonopah, and the next year the WPA funded $24,578 in street improvements throughout Tonopah. The WPA also provided $20,864 for planting of trees, construction of sidewalks, and landscaping in Las Vegas, $1,902 for a tennis court at Mineral County’s high school, and $8,096 for a telephone system and rifle ranges in Washoe County. The historical site of Fort Churchill was restored by the CCC. The Federal Commodity Credit Corporation provided loans to farmers.
In 1940, the CCC completed a 55-mile Las Vegas/Pahrump Valley truck trail that took a 30-person crew 13 months to build, and in 1941, the Works Progress Administration approved a $14,121 grant for improvements at the Winnemucca general hospital.
These examples are intended only to provide a taste of what was going on in Nevada during the New Deal. They represent only the tip of the iceberg.
One thing Nevada seems to have gotten little of was the cultural benefits of the New Deal, probably due to its small size. One thing Nevada—like every state—received was a guidebook to the state, produced by the Federal Writers Project. Published in 1940, Nevada/A Guide to the Silver State was a more elaborate tourist promotion tool than the state had ever enjoyed, though it did repeat some of the fakelore about the state. (It was reprinted by the University of Nevada Press, complete with errors, in 1991.)
The public art contributions to Nevada are even less visible. Roosevelt himself was reportedly nervous about this program because he didn’t want “a lot of young enthusiasts painting Lenin’s head on the Justice Building.” That didn’t happen, though public art praised working people in a way they had never been before. Sites in Nevada are very much in keeping with that theme—a mural in the Yerington post office that portrays homesteaders working their land, painted by Adolph Gottlieb (later a leading abstract expressionist). There is also a mural in Lovelock’s post office of miners on the Comstock Lode, but one in the Reno post office has vanished.
The Reno mural was done by an artist named Ben Cunningham. Historian Mella Harmon says, “It was there, but there’s no photographs that exist of it and no documentation other than some reminiscences of people who knew it was there. And it’s become this huge mystery. It’s like—is it still there, under a coat of paint?”
Harmon says one major cultural contribution to Nevada was the organization of its archives. “But I’ll tell you, the WPA Historical Records Project in this state—boy, they were just inventorying things all over the place. They did all kinds of stuff.”
In other cases, what could have been pedestrian buildings became themselves works of art. That is certainly true of Reno’s downtown post office, a U.S. Civil Works Administration (CWA) project completed in 1934. Its gorgeous art deco design (Zig-Zag Moderne) and ornamentation is one of Reno’s points of pride.
Some projects were rejected or delayed by the New Deal. The PWA declined two proposed Las Vegas projects—a $30,500 sidewalk project and a $126,680 street project. The WPA rejected two Clark County applications for construction of a Las Vegas grammar school and of a water system in North Las Vegas.
But in more cases than not, projects were approved.
Historian Mella Harmon says the New Deal brought some things to Nevada that are easily overlooked, such as “walls—miles and miles of stone walls that were put up by WPA groups all over the state,” dividing plots of land, lining roads, and so on.
Her favorite is the Nevada Fly-Proof Privy Program, an important advance in public health. “It was a collaboration between the WPA and the Public Health Service whereby they developed a vermin-proof outhouse design and sold them very inexpensively to rural areas, rural communities that didn’t have their own sanitation systems and ranches.” Just as important she says, was instruction given to people in installing the privies. “In those days, people were putting their outhouses over irrigation ditches and close to houses where it was very unsanitary.” Harmon interviewed one homemaker who delighted in the fact that the privies could be hosed out.
WPA workers in Reno signed petitions asking for fewer hours, part of a national effort against grueling work rules. There was a court battle over whether the Nevada industrial insurance commission was required to write workers injury insurance for FERA workers.
Transient shelters of the kind portrayed in the film The Grapes of Wrath were established in Nevada—"one of which was a former brothel called the Green Lantern,” said historian Earl. “And I think it was out East Fourth Street. For some reason the Green Lantern had closed and was taken over by the WPA and they set up a transient camp for single men.” They were given room and board. There were also family camps and, in Verdi, a camp for teen boys.
While there were occasional unpleasant incidents, mostly there was a comfort level between Nevadans and the New Deal program participants.
Dozens of CCC camps were built around the state. One of them, Civilian Conservation Corps camp No. 2436, was established five miles southwest of Reno, built for 206 enrollees with four barracks. Some of the members were recruited from Nevada, but more came from out of state.
In February 1937, Native Americans, CCC workers, and forest service workers were credited with opening snowbound roads across western Nevada after unexpected winter storms hit the region. More than a thousand Nevada tribal members served in the CCC.
Nevada’s three Civilian Conservation Corps camps for Native Americans—at Jack’s Valley, Stewart, and the Walker River Reservation—held open houses.
The CCC “boys” at Camp Reno held a dance for themselves and the people of the town before they ended their work and returned to their homes in the east. (The CCCers were commonly called boys, though they were aged 18-25, and Roosevelt eventually raised age limits so veterans of the world war and even the Spanish war could join.)
After the Sparks Tribune reported that the U.S.S. Nevada was still flying an obsolete Nevada state flag, Works Progress Administration seamstresses produced a new one.
On July 29, 1939, five young CCC men were burned to death while fighting an 8,000-acre range fire near Orovada. They were members of Company 1212 Nevada CCC, F-5, recruited mostly from New York state. The five were Ernest Tippin, 21, of Oswego, Kan.; 22-year-old George Kennedy of New York City; Walter James, 18, of Ridgewood, N.Y.; Frank Barker, 20, of Brooklyn; and 20-year-old Frank Vitale of Brooklyn.
While the New Deal agencies gave the state an infrastructure, they also gave it an economy during the Depression. “There is little doubt that the many federal spending programs initiated during the New Deal were of substantial help in maintaining the state’s economy,” historian Russell Elliott later wrote.
The New Deal was also distinctly different from the 1960s Great Society with which it is often compared. New Deal programs were more locally based and less bureaucratic. (Archival correspondence files of Nevada political leaders contain appallingly little about the intent of the programs and much about who would get local administrator appointments.)
After the war, Nevada politicians reverted to their pre-Depression habits. In 1950, Charles Russell was elected governor on a foolish no-new-taxes pledge that did enormous damage to Nevada when the baby boom hit the state like a sledgehammer. Soon, Nevadans were organizing community groups to demand higher taxes to relieve the state’s hard-pressed education system—but the Russell pledge prevented any action until 1954, after he was reelected and freed from the pledge.
After or during the war, many of the Depression agencies began to shut down, and those that survived were not necessarily in keeping with the economic populism of the New Deal. Depression agencies that survived were misused. For instance, Reno’s Mapes Hotel began having financial problems almost from the day it opened. In 1949, the First National Bank of Nevada and Trans-America Corporation threatened foreclosure. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (a Hoover administration program retained by Roosevelt) advanced $975,000 and convinced FNB to provide another $325,000. Corporate welfare for casinos was hardly the idea behind the RFC, and it prompted a congressional probe.
The RFC was shut down in 1957, and others of the alphabet agencies also disappeared, but their legacy is all around in Nevada.
And many of those who came to Nevada never forgot the experience, reminders of which occasionally surface. A quarter of a century later, in 1964, Temple Sinai in Reno got its first rabbi—Julius Leibert, who said, “Nevada is the only state that has shed hypocrisy by allowing liberal attitudes.”
He had just arrived. How did he know what Nevada was like? He explained he had lived in the state before—while in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938.