The Great Depression in the Pacific Northwest– The Human Cost of Infrastructure Development

The Great Depression’s effect in the Pacific Northwest revealed the human cost of New Deal policies and the displacement they wrought. Although FDR’s attempt at stabilizing the economy did provide the much-needed relief for men and women across the nation, infrastructure projects like large dams resulted in the displacement of communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The global economic collapse, later recognized as the Great Depression, wrought localized devastation that collectively brought the global economy to its knees. In the Pacific Northwest, Hoovervilles, homeless communities named after President Herbert Hoover whom many blamed for the severity of the depression, emerged in Seattle, Portland, and many other cities throughout the United States.[1] The multitude of factors contributing to the depression, thoroughly analyzed by experts spanning various fields, indicate that overspeculation, bank runs, agricultural crises, and federal miscalculations were the key factors responsible for the nearly decade-long economic catastrophe that plagued the world for nearly a decade.

Though the global repercussions were evident, the localized consequences of the Great Depression varied greatly. The Pacific Northwest served as a unique case study. Unlike the Midwest and other agrarian regions effected by the Dust Bowl,[2] which disrupted farming stability and led to mass migration westward, the Pacific Northwest showcased the effectiveness of New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); although, the negative human cost of the effects of these programs remains understudied.[3]

In response to the dire state of the nation’s economy, President Franklin Roosevelt implemented the ‘New Deal,’ a comprehensive plan involving the allocation of federal resources to restore economic stability. A prominent symbol of the New Deal’s success was the construction of dams and other infrastructure projects, which served as tangible indicators of progress and recovery. These projects played a crucial role in revitalizing the nation’s economic landscape.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to the Grand Coulee Dam in August 1934, marked a historic occasion, as he declared that this monumental structure would herald a long-awaited respite for the unemployed and impoverished citizens of Washington State, shining as a beacon of hope and opportunity. And while the residents of Washington and other eras targeted for dam development received the much-needed economic reprieve the New Deal was aimed at providing, the displacement of those whose homes were standing in the way of this progress represented a negligible loss to the powers that be.

The lumber industry, a cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest’s economy, suffered during the Great Depression. Preceding the Depression, a gradual decline in timber prices had already weakened the regional economy. Historian William Robbins noted, “Shifting capital investments, rapid timber liquidation, and boom-and-bust cycles for towns dependent on forest resources have characterized the lumber and forest products industry for the past 150 years.”[4] This, coupled with the economic shock of the Depression, dealt a severe blow to the lumber industry, leaving many unemployed. Surprisingly, Oregon lawmakers, in contrast to their traditional stance on federal intervention, welcomed federal support to subsidize the lumber industry and aid broader economic recovery efforts.[5] The lumber industry’s decline in the early twentieth century was exacerbated during the Great Depression by a sharp drop in lumber prices due to overproduction and unsustainable logging practices.[6] In response to ecological concerns and the looming collapse of this vital industry, FDR initiated measures to provide financial support to rural communities in the Western regions. The federal government’s strategy aimed to create jobs and stabilize the national economy through public works and subsidies. While the New Deal’s primary goal was to restore the economy to pre-1929 levels of prosperity, its infrastructure projects represented significant advancements in American development.[7]

In Detroit and the broader Willamette Valley Project, a series of thirteen dams to be built over the course of five decades presented an opportunity for Oregon residents to recover financially. Census records from the 1940s and 1950s reveal that hundreds of men were contracted to work on the Detroit and Big Cliff Dams as well as other important infrastructure projects. Additionally, the census demonstrates the New Deal’s support for those unable to secure employment in the Willamette Valley, as nearly two hundred residents received “emergency wages” from agencies specifically created to address such employment challenges.[8]

While the Depression was undeniably devastating, the solutions implemented to address its economic fallout had far-reaching consequences. The CCC and its workers embarked on projects like dams and public works, which were seen as signs of progress and engineering achievements. However, the construction of dams, and the reservoirs they created, often necessitated the displacement of numerous communities. Old Detroit, Oregon, exemplifies this narrative, with the planning for construction beginning during the peak of the Great Depression. Despite a pause during World War II, the momentum and financial support from the Army Corps of Engineers – alongside the promises of hydropower, flood control, and irrigation support– ensured the completion of the WVP dams.

The Atlas of Drowned Towns remains dedicated to recovering the histories of everyday people in towns large and small nationwide; it is critical to our mission to comprehend and convey the reasons behind dam construction as it plays an important role in displacement. Stay tuned as we continue to provide these stories to our stakeholders and uncover the histories of drowned towns!

[1] “Economic and Political Change between the Wars, 1919-1939.” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest,

[2] The effect of the Depression on agriculture was felt throughout the country. The New Deal attempted to remedy the rural catastrophe by stabilizing prices through the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) which was designed to return crop prices to pre-depression levels.

[3] Sarah Baker Munro, “The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the New Deal: Oregon’s Legacy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2008): 304–11.

[4] William G. Robbins, “The Social Context of Forestry: The Pacific Northwest in the Twentieth Century,” The Western Historical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1985): 413–27,

[5] William G. Robbins, “The Great Experiment in Industrial Self-Government: The Lumber Industry and the National Recovery Administration,” Journal of Forest History 25, no. 3 (1981): 128–43,

[6] Paul L. Kleinsorge, “The Lumber Industry,” Monthly Labor Review 82, no. 5 (1959): 558–63.

[7] J. Henry Richardson, “The ‘New Deal’ in the United States,” The Economic Journal 44, no. 176 (1934): 567–615,

[8]   “United States Census, 1940,” database with images, FamilySearch, Oregon > Marion > Breitenbush Election Precinct, Detroit > 24-5 Breitenbush Election Precinct, Detroit, unnamed island > Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 – 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012.

Detroit dam’s construction in May, 1951. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.
Old tree stumps are left exposed due to drought at Detroit Lake, Friday, September 18, 2015, in Detroit, Ore.
Barren forest typically submerged by the Detroit Reservoir. Courtesy of the Statesmen Journal.
FDR Touring the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy of the American Presidency Project.

Further Reading

  • Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. “Economic and Political Change between the Wars, 1919-1939.”
  • Kleinsorge, Paul L. “The Lumber Industry.” Monthly Labor Review 82, no. 5 (1959): 558–63.
  • Munro, Sarah Baker. “The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the New Deal: Oregon’s Legacy.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2008): 304–11.
  • Reading, Don C. “New Deal Activity and the States, 1933 to 1939.” The Journal of Economic History 33, no. 4 (1973): 792–810.
  • Richardson, J. Henry. “The ‘New Deal’ in the United States.” The Economic Journal 44, no. 176 (1934): 567–615.
  • Robbins, William G. “Surviving the Great Depression: The New Deal in Oregon.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2008): 311–17.
  • Robbins, William G. “The Social Context of Forestry: The Pacific Northwest in the Twentieth Century.” The Western Historical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1985): 413–27.
  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Stein, Harry H. “The Oregonian Navigates the Great Depression.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 114, no. 2 (2013): 174–203.
  • The Oregonian has great articles and editorials from the depression era that shed light on the effects of the economic disaster available on their website here.

Citation Info

Warner, Jack. “The Great Depression in the Pacific Northwest.” The Atlas of Drowned Towns (blog). September 8, 2023.

Published by Jack Warner

Research Assistant and Graduate History Student at Boise State University.

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