As the United States entered the third year of a great economic depression triggered by the 1929 stock market crash, many Americans put their hope in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his pledge to give them a “new deal.” During his first term (1933–37), he pushed Congress to pass legislation stabilizing banks, giving relief to the destitute, creating public and private jobs, enhancing the bargaining power of working people, assisting farmers, and providing pensions for retirees over 65. Other Roosevelt initiatives aimed to expand the money supply, check deflation, increase trade, and regulate banks and Wall Street, but most people remember the New Deal for its relief, work, and farm programs designed to help ordinary Americans recover from the Great Depression.
Like the rest of the nation, Colorado desperately needed help. In the early 1930s the price of wheat and other agricultural commodities plummeted, bankrupting some farmers and pushing many others to the brink of insolvency. Unable to collect on their loans, some banks failed, wiping out the savings of their depositors. In cities and towns thousands of unemployed sought work and scrounged for food. In Denver the Unemployed Citizens League, a self-help organization, claimed 30,000 adherents in a city of around 290,000 people. They traded labor for farm produce and fetched timber from the mountains to use as fuel. The homeless slept in abandoned cars; in shacks along the South Platte; and in the elephant barns, zebra stalls, and lion cages of a defunct circus in west Denver.
With Congress controlled by his fellow Democrats, Roosevelt moved fast to create massive assistance programs. One of the first, the Federal Emergency Administration (FERA) gave food to the hungry, aid to transients passing through the state, and support to self-help groups. FERA and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) made jobs primarily by financing small public projects such as renovating Loveland’s library, landscaping an addition to the cemetery in Brush, making airport improvements in Grand Junction, and creating a scale model diorama of Denver in the early 1860s for the Colorado Historical Society in Denver.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed men between eighteen and twenty-five, also got to work quickly. From camps across the state—Boulder, Buena Vista, Castle Rock, Delta, Hugo, Lake George, Morrison, Norwood, and more than 160 others—CCC recruits went forth to plant trees, kill bugs, stock fish, pull weeds, fight fires, dig wells, line irrigation ditches, and build trails, dams, reservoirs, and roads. To make the splendors of Colorado National Monument west of Grand Junction easily accessible to auto tourists, the CCC and the CWA constructed the twenty-five-mile Rim Rock Drive, which cost nine CWA workers their lives in a rockslide on December 12, 1933. CCCers helped dig Kiowa and Elbert out of the mud after both towns flooded in late May 1935. To control the St. Charles River south of Pueblo, CCC men constructed a 700-foot-long earthen dam, behind which rose Lake San Isabel.
In late 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later renamed the Works Projects Administration, and other federal agencies replaced FERA, which had spent more than $45 million in Colorado; the state supplied 15 percent of the sum. The WPA, which focused on giving people jobs rather than providing direct relief, employed tens of thousands to make civic improvements and eventually to build or expand defense facilities such as the Army Air Corps’ Lowry Field, straddling the Denver-Aurora border, and the Army’s Fitzsimons Hospital in Aurora. Together the CCC and the WPA built the 10,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater near Morrison in the foothills west of Denver, and the WPA constructed Alameda Parkway to link the theater to Denver. Scores of cities and towns lapped up WPA funds. Monte Vista got a hospital, Del Norte a courthouse, Alamosa a school, Boulder a golf course. In Colorado Springs WPA workers served as lifeguards at the Broadmoor Hotel pool. Near Brighton WPA workers built outhouses for farm workers. A 1941 report tallied more than 5,000 Colorado WPA projects including sixty-three schools, twenty-eight dams, twenty-six sewage disposal plants, and twenty-one airports.
Recognizing that writers, musicians, artists, and actors needed to work so they could eat, Uncle Sam made jobs for them through the Federal Theater Project, which ran a theater in Denver; the Federal Music Project, which sponsored an orchestra in Pueblo; and the Federal Writers Project, which produced a guidebook to the state. Artists got WPA and other federal money to spruce up public buildings. Paid by the US Treasury Department, Ernest Blumenschein painted a mural of the Spanish Peaks for the Walsenburg Post Office and Gladys Caldwell Fisher sculpted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep out of limestone to flank the southwest entrance of Denver’s Post Office at Eighteenth and Stout Streets. An offshoot of the WPA, the National Youth Administration provided jobs for thousands of Colorado high school and college students so they could continue their education. By the time the WPA ceased operations in the state in early 1943, some 150,000 Coloradans had at least briefly worked for the agency.
Unlike the WPA, which usually concentrated on small- and medium-sized tasks and which generally required 10 to 15 percent in local matching money, the Public Works Administration (PWA) required more matching funds and undertook some large projects built by private contractors using skilled labor. PWA grants helped Western State College in Gunnison, Adams State College in Alamosa, the University of Colorado in Boulder, and other universities and colleges construct buildings. The state used PWA support and money from the Bureau of Public Roads, an agency that predated the New Deal, to pave more than 3,500 miles of roads, bringing Colorado’s total paved miles to 4,000 by 1940. Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Denver reaped millions of PWA dollars for water and sewage treatment projects, including the Moffat Tunnel water diversion project, which brought Western Slope water under the Continental Divide to Denver. Late in the 1930s, the Bureau of Reclamation, another pre–New Deal agency, advanced recovery goals by backing the Colorado–Big Thompson project, another massive water diversion, which began construction in late 1938 and was completed in the late 1950s.
Farmers enjoyed federal price supports that helped ensure a steady income. Drought and dust storms in the mid-1930s prompted the federal government to buy marginal land in northeastern and southeastern Colorado, creating the Pawnee and Comanche National Grasslands. By removing tens of thousands of acres from production, the government reduced the likelihood of another dust bowl and through the Resettlement Administration helped some displaced families secure better land. By 1939 more than 4,000 Colorado farms were getting electricity that they previously lacked thanks to the Rural Electrification Administration. Colorado-born Roy Stryker directed a small federal effort, the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, that sent talented photographers—including Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott—to Colorado and other states to document life on farms and in small towns. Today their photographs are available online through the Library of Congress.
Edward P. Costigan championed the New Deal in Colorado and nationally. Once a Republican Progressive, he switched parties and was elected as a Democrat to the US Senate from Colorado in 1930. Even before Roosevelt used the term “new deal,” Costigan advocated for federal relief programs. His work on behalf of Colorado’s sugar beet growers resulted in the Jones-Costigan Sugar Control Act (1934), designed to raise the price of sugar. Costigan’s ally and close friend Josephine Roche controlled one of the state’s largest coal mining companies and also backed the New Deal. She ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1934, but was defeated in the primary election by Edwin C. (Big Ed) Johnson, a far more conservative Democrat. Later in 1934 Roosevelt appointed Roche assistant secretary of the treasury, which made her the second highest-ranking woman in his administration. Costigan ally Oscar Chapman became assistant secretary of the interior, where he oversaw the huge Public Works Administration. In 1949 he became secretary of the interior. Charles F. Brannan, also a Costigan backer, likewise flourished in the federal bureaucracy, becoming secretary of agriculture in 1948. Yet another Costigan protégé, John A. Carroll, launched a political career in the 1930s that eventually took him to the US Senate (1957–63).
Edwin C. Johnson, Colorado’s governor from 1933 to early 1937, accepted New Deal help for the state, but at times was lukewarm and even hostile toward Roosevelt’s initiatives. A consummate politician, Johnson adroitly courted anti–New Dealers who faulted programs such as FERA for waste and inefficiency, who resented the expansion of federal power, hated labor unions, chafed at taxing the rich to assist the poor and middle class, and worried that feeding people and giving them work would destroy their appetite for private-sector jobs. When a heart attack sidelined Costigan in 1936, Johnson easily won election to the US Senate, where he and Colorado’s other senator, Alva B. Adams, were counted among the conservative Democrats Roosevelt could not count on. Teller Ammons, a Democrat elected governor in 1937, remained friendly to the New Deal. In 1939 he was replaced as governor by Republican Ralph L. Carr, whose antilabor attitudes and willingness to slash support for education and welfare instead of raise taxes angered New Dealers.
Despite the political battles, many Coloradans benefited from the New Deal. By the early 1940s, when work programs faded away mainly because World War II defense demands fostered full employment, Colorado had received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, about twice as much as its citizens sent the national government in taxes. Thanks to federal support for sewer treatment plants, the water that flowed north from Denver through Adams and Weld Counties was less likely to sicken and sometimes kill infants and children. Thanks to Uncle Sam, hundreds of thousands of people had been spared hunger and given jobs. Thanks to prewar WPA and PWA military expenditures, the nation was better prepared to meet the challenges of World War II. And thanks to Roosevelt and the New Deal, Colorado made road, water, and other infrastructure improvements that provided a significant part of the foundation upon which the state based its post–World War II boom.