An Enduring Legacy Franklin D. Roosevelt Completely Changed The Face Of The Inland Northwest
People cried openly in the streets of Spokane on April 12, 1945.
Men in uniform, women with small children, store owners and office workers clustered around newsstands and accosted paperboys, asking if the unthinkable were true.
It was. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead.
“It was as though people were frozen in place, immersed in their own sorrow. All along Riverside, Post and Wall, they were standing like statues, tears running down their faces,” recalled Dorothy Powers, then a young reporter for The Spokesman-Review.
A man who was more than a father - in some homes, only slightly less than God - a leader who had given the country hope through the Depression and was leading it through a war, was gone.
Most people didn’t know Roosevelt was in failing health. Some didn’t even know that their president had been confined to a wheelchair for years. How could he be dead?
The Spokane Chronicle stopped its presses in midrun, ripped up a front page that predicted the fall of Berlin to Allied armies and produced a page with a 2 1/2-inch-high red headline: “Roosevelt Passes.”
News washed across the city and the region on telephone lines as husbands called wives, children called parents. Switchboards of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. were jammed as the load on the telephone system surpassed the day Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
Slowly, the news sank in.
For two days - until Roosevelt’s funeral on a rainy Saturday - the nation grieved. While a caisson transported the president’s casket through the nation’s capital that afternoon, about 5,000 people gathered at Gonzaga University’s stadium for a memorial.
Downtown shops and department stores sent employees home at 12:30 p.m. to allow them to attend services. At 1 p.m., the official time for FDR’s burial, city buses paused along their routes, and waiters and waitresses in the city’s restaurants stopped serving meals.
Only vital war operations, such as the Army air depot where bombers were being repaired or the aluminum smelter and mill, continued without a break.
New Deal, new Washington
The Inland Northwest changed more in the 12 years of Roosevelt’s presidency than in the 50 years before - or the 50 years since.
“There really wasn’t much difference between the state of Washington by the end of the 1930s and the pioneering state,” said Robert Ficken, a Northwest historian and author.
Spokane County had about 150,000 permanent residents at the beginning of the Great Depression. Unemployed men rode freight cars into town, looking for work and living in shantytowns, called “Hoovervilles,” on the north bank of the Spokane River. The old Schade Brewery, closed by Prohibition, was turned into a shelter.
Welfare as it is now known didn’t exist. Some who were out of work and money could sign up to be “on the county,” recalls the Rev. Frank Costello, now vice president of Gonzaga University, then a teenager on North Lidgerwood. That meant a county worker delivered a sack of flour and sugar, a few other staples and - if road crews recently had cut trees - firewood.
In the Palouse, wheat prices fell to 25 cents a bushel, not enough to pay for production. Banks and insurance companies that held farm mortgages eventually began to foreclose.
“It was a hard thing for me to understand. People were starving in the cities and we had a glut of wheat on the farm,” said Cliff Wolf, whose family farmed near Lewiston.
In Spokane, banks that promoted thrift by urging schoolchildren to save a nickel, dime or quarter a week went bust.
“A few people standing in front of a bank would cause a run,” said Phil Brooke, a retired attorney.
It was this kind of panic Roosevelt addressed in his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Costello remembers listening to that speech on the family radio. “The most important thing was the mood. He was inspirational to us.”
Geraldine Roe, a lifetime Spokane resident, recalled one other item in that speech: FDR’s plan to spend $4.8 billion - an unimaginable sum - on new programs to help those without jobs and money.
One of Roosevelt’s first acts was to declare a bank holiday. All banks closed, and those that were solvent were allowed to reopen.
The bank holiday helped stabilize the banks, but it didn’t cure the underlying economic problems. Roosevelt created programs, a veritable alphabet soup of agencies trying to chip away at the Depression.
“Some of his stuff worked and some of it didn’t, and we’re still getting rid of it,” said Horton Herman, a retired Spokane attorney. “It seems like he had a new program about every week.”
For farmers, he created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the seed from which today’s system of farm programs sprang.
That agency tried to push up the price of farm products by reducing the supply. Farmers received cash payments to destroy some of that year’s crop and take land out of production the following year.
Wolf remembers destroying harvested wheat and young piglets on his parents’ farm. “It seemed a shame at the time. But it gave people some money to exist on.”
He still recalls Roosevelt’s favorite explanation for his many work programs: Prime the pump.
City residents needed jobs to prime their pumps. Roosevelt created what today would be known as “workfare” through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Unemployed men were fed, housed and given $30 a month to build public projects.
WPA workers built the sewer system on Spokane’s North Side. In Uniontown, Wash., they hauled rocks to a crusher in wheelbarrows, then shipped the gravel off for road projects.
CCC workers fought blister rust in Idaho forests and cleared roads and trails, planted trees and built fire lookouts and parks.
Roe’s father was a supervisor at one of the Inland Northwest’s 45 CCC camps, and she recalled him talking about the men in his charge. “Most of them were from the East Coast; they had never seen tall trees,” she said.
Ozzie Hoffman joined a CCC camp in Missouri in 1936 and soon transferred to the Northwest. Like many others, he was “feeling pretty sour” about the country, with little money and less hope.
“Then we got in there working and saw it (the country), saw how we could help it, and it just turned us around.”
The camps were run with strict military discipline. At the beginning of World War II, many CCC workers went from work camp to boot camp.
A big dam project
In 1933, Roosevelt approved the largest public works project in Northwest history: Grand Coulee Dam. He had championed the dam during his 1932 campaign. Incumbent Herbert Hoover, an engineer, considered it a folly.
Northwest residents backed the dam primarily for irrigation and erosion and flood control. National farm organizations opposed it - farmers were going bust across the country and didn’t need another 2 million acres in production.
Most politicians argued there was no need for a hydroelectric dam in a sparsely populated region with little industry.
“This was nothing but sagebrush and rattlesnakes; there was nothing here,” said Fred Meyer, a member of the Grand Coulee Dam Chamber of Commerce.
Soon, the central Washington desert swelled with 10,000 dam workers, most fiercely loyal to Roosevelt. In 1936, he received 72 percent of the Lincoln County vote and 86 percent in Grant County.
No matter how they had voted in previous elections, “we were all Democrats here,” said former dam worker Elmer Raunch.
When economic growth came quickly during World War II, the dam made it possible.
“Without the New Deal setting the foundation, you wouldn’t have had the changes of the war, largely because we wouldn’t have had the cheap hydroelectric power,” said Paul Pitzer, author of a recent book about Grand Coulee Dam.
War and boom
For all of his pump-priming, Roosevelt could not spend the nation out of the Depression. After seven years of the New Deal, Spokane’s unemployment rate was at 12 percent, down only slightly from a decade earlier.
But suddenly, the nation needed warplanes, and planes required aluminum.
Making aluminum required abundant power, and the Northwest had it. Aluminum smelters were built in the Spokane Valley and along the Columbia River.
To train crews for its B-17 bombers, the War Department built Geiger Air Base, a place now called Spokane International Airport.
About seven miles up U.S. Highway 2, it built a depot to repair bombers. Locals called the depot Galena; today, it’s Fairchild Air Force Base.
The Navy built a camp to train its new recruits in North Idaho. Farragut Naval Station is now a state park.
The Navy stored its supplies in the Spokane Valley, a place far enough inland to be safe from enemy bombers. Velox Naval Supply Depot later became the Spokane Industrial Park.
Washington state’s population jumped by 643,000 during the 1940s, more than in the previous three decades combined. The rate of increase has not been matched since.
State demographics changed as well, as laborers came to work on the dams, in the shipyards and at Boeing. The number of African-Americans living in Washington grew from about 7,500 in 1940 to more than 30,000 in 1950.
Power lines from Grand Coulee stretched to a secret nuclear laboratory to the south, where scientists were working on a weapon to end the war.
“You probably had more intellectual firepower in Hanford than anywhere (else) in the Northwest,” said Bill Lang, director of the Center for Columbia River History in Vancouver, Wash. “Before that, it was railroads and agriculture, and in just a couple of years, it was transformed.”
Farm prices rose. So did the demand for lumber. Factories went begging for workers.
Throughout the war, as he did through the Depression, Roosevelt kept the nation’s spirits up.
“He exuded confidence,” said Brooke, who described himself as an ardent Republican but added, “Most fair-minded people admit he exhibited the qualities of leadership.”
By the spring of 1945, Roosevelt was worn out from his three full terms as president, the Depression and World War II.
“He was so much a part of everyone’s life, it made it hard to imagine the country without him,” said Kathleen O’Sullivan, whose father had helped convince FDR to build Grand Coulee Dam.
Many people were apprehensive about the man who was to replace him, a relatively unknown former senator from Missouri named Harry Truman.
FDR’s face is on the dime; the lake behind Grand Coulee Dam carries his name. At his request, there was no Roosevelt monument built in Washington, D.C., after he died.
A half-century later, work has begun on a memorial in the nation’s capital.
But historian Pitzer contends the nation doesn’t need that type of monument. It has Grand Coulee.
“In fact, there is no more fitting memorial to Roosevelt than the dam.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LISTEN TO WORDS OF FDR You can hear some of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most famous speeches on Cityline. Call 509-458-8800 in Washington or 208-765-8811 in Idaho on a Touch-Tone telephone, then press the following extensions to hear: 6204: First inaugural speech, in which he tells nation we have “nothing to fear but fear itself.” 6205: War address to Congress after Pearl Harbor attack. 1149: Leading nation in prayer on D-day. 1151: “We shall not fail” from fourth inaugural speech. 1152: “Citizens of the world” from fourth inaugural speech. 1153: March 1945 report to Congress on Yalta peace plans. 1154: Report to Congress on status of U.S. troops. 1155: Plans to set up United Nations. 1156: Call for Germany’s unconditional surrender. 1157: Description of unity among the Allies. 1158: President Harry Truman telling Congress he will carry on Roosevelt’s ideas after FDR’s death.
This sidebar appeared with the story: LISTEN TO WORDS OF FDR You can hear some of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most famous speeches on Cityline. Call 509-458-8800 in Washington or 208-765-8811 in Idaho on a Touch-Tone telephone, then press the following extensions to hear: 6204: First inaugural speech, in which he tells nation we have “nothing to fear but fear itself.” 6205: War address to Congress after Pearl Harbor attack. 1149: Leading nation in prayer on D-day. 1151: “We shall not fail” from fourth inaugural speech. 1152: “Citizens of the world” from fourth inaugural speech. 1153: March 1945 report to Congress on Yalta peace plans. 1154: Report to Congress on status of U.S. troops. 1155: Plans to set up United Nations. 1156: Call for Germany’s unconditional surrender. 1157: Description of unity among the Allies. 1158: President Harry Truman telling Congress he will carry on Roosevelt’s ideas after FDR’s death.