The New Deal put tens of millions of people to work and changed the landscape in every New England city and town. It put sidewalks on streets, bridges over rivers, hiking trails in forests, seawalls on beaches and public buildings in cities and towns. Much of the New Deal legacy is still in use and still visible today.
President Franklin Roosevelt insisted relief programs provide jobs and not handouts. Over eight years, the Works Progress Administration alone employed more than 8 million Americans. The Civilian Conservation Corps put 3 million young men to work at a monthly wage of $30 — $25 of which had to be sent home.
Roosevelt intended to revive the ideals of civil society, collective governance, and social well-being. He took a special interest in building post offices because they were so rooted in the life of a community. He insisted his home post office in Hyde Park, N.Y., be modeled after one of the oldest houses in the town. His friend and relative Olin Dows painted the murals, which depicted both Roosevelt and Dows ancestors who lived in the Hudson Valley.
Southington Post Office Mural
In Connecticut, the U.S. Treasury Department built or expanded more than 25 post offices and paid for more than 25 post office murals between 1934 and 1943. (Click here for a list of New Deal projects in Connecticut.)
Typically, the government oversaw the way federal buildings were embellished. But during the Depression, artists were struggling along with the rest of the work force. During the New Deal, government for the first time aimed to support and encourage artists. Such noted artists as Reginald Marsh, Rockwell Kent, Philip Guston and Ben Shahn were hired to paint post office murals.
Artists vied for mural contracts by submitting sketches in national and regional competitions. The winners were chosen for their skill and for the way they showed ordinary citizens, their community and their history.
A goal of the post office mural program was to link people to an earlier time and place when Americans faced great obstacles and overcome them.
In the East Hartford post office a mural illustrated “The Stop of Hooker’s Band in East Hartford before Crossing the River.” In New Haven, it was the “Pursuit of the Regicides.” Torrington remembered its native son in “Episodes in the Life of John Brown.”
Other Connecticut post offices depicted the industrial or agricultural heritage of their communities. In the Southington Post Office lobby, a mural shows the town’s industry, agriculture and landmarks. It was painted by Ann Hunt Spencer, who studied art in Paris and received the Kosciuszko Foundation’s scholarship in 1937 for study and travel in Poland.
The post office is at 125 Main Street in Southington. For a list of WPA post office murals in the United States, click here.
Acadia National Park
By the time of the Great Depression, Acadia National Park was nearly 20 years old. It was mostly overgrown and inaccessible. Its facilities were few and far between, not nearly enough for the park’s many visitors.
Superintendent George Dorr dreamed of improving the park, and he saw his chance in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He asked Roosevelt for a camp at Acadia. Eventually some 3,000 poor boys, mostly from Maine, came to Acadia for six months or longer to work as part of Roosevelt’s ‘Tree Army.’
The CCC ran three camps in and around Acadia National Park. They opened new trails and improved old ones, planted thousands of trees, made fire roads, fought fires, built footbridges and constructed two campgrounds, Blackwoods and Seawall. They built Ocean Drive, which loops around the park with stunning views of the coast and opened hiking trails to Echo Lake, Long Pond and Beech Cliff.
To find other New Deal projects in Maine, click here.
Cape Cod Bridges
The Cape Cod Canal celebrated its grand opening in 1914. Its private owners hoped to cash in by charging tolls for shipping traffic. Mariners avoided the canal, though, because three drawbridges over the canal were such a navigational hazard. The canal enterprise lost money.
The Corps hired Fay, Spofford & Thorndike to design and supervise construction of the bridges so they would allow large oceangoing ships to pass below.
The Boston architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson was hired to design the appearance of the bridges. The firm’s principal, Ralph Adams Cram, pioneered the Gothic Revival Style of architecture in buildings such as The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Emmanuel Church in Newport, R.I., the Princeton University Chapel and many buildings at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He is honored with a feast day in the Episcopal Church of the United States.
The identical bridges were both opened on June 22, 1935. A miniature copy of the bridges was used for the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge, which connects I-95 from Newburyport to Amesbury.
On a summer day, the two bridges might together carry 130,000 vehicles.
Manchester Airport Terminal
The New Deal brought dozens of improvements to New Hampshire: the Hampton Beach seawall, town halls in Dover and Nashua, the Concord library, Cannon Mountain Ski Resort, schools, post offices and bridges.
The New Deal also brought to Londonderry in 1937 an Art Deco style airport terminal and control tower. The building evolved into the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, now the fourth biggest airport in New England. It carries more than 2 million passengers a year.
The 1937 terminal continued in service until the airport was expanded in 1995. The terminal was slated for demolition, but saved by the airport, the New Hampshire Aviation Historical Society, the City of Manchester and the Town of Londonderry. It is now home to the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.
You can visit the historic terminal on Friday and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm
Thomas P. McCoy was the colorful mayor of Pawtucket who wore shamrock-patterned ties and a red rose in his lapel. The undisputed head of the city’s Democratic Party, he was nicknamed ‘The Prince of Pawtucket.’
McCoy used his political clout to get a baseball stadium from the New Deal. He laid the cornerstone on Nov. 3, 1940.
McCoy had chosen swampland called Hammond Pond as a building site, which guaranteed years of employment for hundreds of workers. Vehicles and equipment were swallowed overnight in the bottomless muck. In the end, the stadium cost more to build than the assessed value of Fenway Park.
In 1945, Mayor McCoy died suddenly. The stadium was named after him and dedicated to his memory in 1946.
McCoy Stadium struggled for years, intermittently attracting farm teams for the Boston Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. In 1977, a Canadian businessman named Ben Mondor bought the Pawtucket Red Sox out of bankruptcy and visited McCoy stadium. “What a dump,” he said. He turned around the team and the stadium, making it a family-friendly place where Girl Scouts camped overnight on the outfield, children got free medical checkups and fans saw their birthdays and weddings celebrated on the Jumbotron.
Future Hall of Famers have played at McCoy. In 1981 the Pawtucket Red Sox played the longest game in baseball history against the Rochester Red Wings. Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken, Jr., played against each other in the 33-inning game.
McCoy Stadium was renovated in 1992 and expanded to seat 10,000 in 1999, surviving efforts to abandon it.
To see other New Deal projects in Rhode Island, click here.
Stowe Mountain Resort
Vermont’s New Deal history – in fact, Vermont’s history – can’t be told without state forester Perry Merrill. When the Civilian Conservation Corps started up in the 1930s, few states were prepared with projects. Merrill had the foresight to draw up a long list. He had already led long-range conservation, flood control and forest management projects following the Great Vermont Flood of 1927.
Vermont was originally scheduled to get four CCC camps. Merrill wrangled 30 camps from Washington, with nearly 41,000 men working in them from 1933-42. CCC crews planted more than a million trees, built dams and cleared more than 100 miles of roads.
Merrill had seen ski areas built in Scandinavia and understood how they provided jobs and recreation. On his list of projects were ski trails on Mount Mansfield. The CCC boys built the Ski Master, the Overland, the Perry Merrill, and Lord, the S-53, and the Nose Dive.
They also made a large parking lot for several hundred cars. In 1940, state officials signed a lease with the Mount Mansfield Company to build a ski lift up Mount Mansfield.
Today, that CCC project is the Stowe Mountain Resort — the premiere ski resort East of the Mississippi.
Photos: McCoy Stadium scoreboard, By Giants27 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16035253.