Seattle Now & Then: A “New Deal” for Hard Times

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: An Emergency Relief Administration wood pile took temporary quarters on the southeast corner of S. Alaska Street and 32nd Ave. S. in 1934.   (Courtesy, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Libraries.)
THEN: An Emergency Relief Administration wood pile took temporary quarters on the southeast corner of S. Alaska Street and 32nd Ave. S. in 1934. (Courtesy, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Libraries.)
NOW: For his “repeat” Jean found a reminder of the wood pile, a long hedge also running along the south side of S. Alaska Street.
NOW: For his “repeat” Jean found a reminder of the wood pile, a long hedge also running along the south side of S. Alaska Street.
Same day, same photographer but with the loaded trucks on their deliveries.
Same day, same photographer but with the loaded trucks on their deliveries.

The longest pile in this Columbia City wood yard extended about 430 feet, stretching east of 32nd Ave. South, along the south side of Alaska Street.  The photograph’s caption, bottom-left, dates it Sept. 26, 1934.  We may say that this wood was paid for by the charisma of the nearly new president. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s popularity was nearly spiritual, and under FDR’s command and the cooperation of a new congress, it was often possible to fund both relief and public works projects. Most of the federal money was managed by states.  Here it was the Washington Emergency Relief Administration – the W.E.R.A.- that stacked these cords of fuel.

The August 14,1935 signing of the Social Security bill, with FDR in saintly white and smiling.
The August 14,1935 signing of the Social Security bill, with FDR in saintly white and smiling.
FDR - and everyone - still in white for an undated White House Tunic Party.  Once they were popular - when Latin was still taught regularly in public schools.
FDR – and everyone – still in white for an undated White House Toga Party. Once they were popular – when Latin was still taught regularly in public schools.
More togas - these standing guard.
More togas – these standing guard for a Pax Americus..

Many relief efforts in the 1930s were started by concerned citizens.  In King County the self-help and bartering group that named itself the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) was especially effective.  After the Crash of late 1929, unemployment snowballed through the cold months and then kept rolling hot and cold for years to come. The League responded. By New Years Day, 1932, the UCL’s swelling membership had harvested eight railroad carloads of surplus potatoes, pears, and apples in Eastern Washington, borrowed fishing boats to catch and preserve 120,000 barrels of fish, and cut over 10,000 cords of firewood.

A parading truck load of UCL members giving a sense of gang fun.     [Courtesy, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Libraries]
A parading truck load of UCL members giving a sense of political activism  fun. [Courtesy, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Libraries]

By 1931 unemployment reached 25 percent.  While government at most levels still did little, the UCL opened 18 commissaries throughout King County to distribute fuel and food to those wanting in the “Republic of the Penniless.”   When all was quickly consumed in a great display of public necessity and community activism, the new federals in the “other Washington” started spreading fat-cat wealth – funded by taxes – among the down-and-out with FDR’s “New Deal” of relief and public works agencies, known by their “alphabet soup” names, such as PWA, WPA, CCC and ERA.

A W.E.R.A. sewing center in Auburn, Feb.27,1934.
A W.E.R.A. sewing center in Auburn, Feb.27,1934.
The Auburn Sewing Center, Feb. 27, 1934
The Auburn Sewing Center, Feb. 27, 1934
The Kent W.E.R.A. sewing center, also on Feb. 27, 1934.
The Kent W.E.R.A. sewing center, also on Feb. 27, 1934.
W.E.R.A. skilled labor constructing a log cabin on Oct.2,1934 about two miles east of Renton, (which may help one find it.)
W.E.R.A. skilled labor constructing a log cabin on Oct.2,1934 about two miles east of Renton, (which may help one find it.)
A display for one of the finer accomplishments of the depression era "make work" public works: Washington State's contribution to the American Guide publishing project.  We have two copies.
A display for one of the finer accomplishments of the depression era “make work” WPA  public works: Washington State’s contribution to the American Guide publishing project. We have two copies here in the office.

As the 1934 photograph’s own caption at the top of this feature explains, this was government wood headed for “delivery to (the) needy.”  Jean and I figure that these four trucks are briefly posing before heading out to comfort families.  And we too were comforted that Hawthorne School at 4100 39th Ave. S. appears on the right horizon.  It showed us that the unnamed W.E.R.A. photographer was pointing east-northeast.  We already knew that she or he was on the previously vacant southeast corner of 32nd Ave. South and South Alaska Street, for all the other corners were stocked with houses.  We expect and hope that in some state archive there is a receipt that reveals that the lots on this block were temporarily loaned to W.E.R.A. for processing their cheering wood in a spirit of free assistance.  The loan was a brief one.  A 1936 aerial shows the block cleared of everything, including anything resembling lumber.

A detail from the 1936 aerial survey of Seattle and surrounds.  The wood pile site - not the pile itself, which is gone - is the barely marked block right-of-center.  [Courtesy, Ron Edge]