Las Vegas and the New Deal

The Great Depression is now 70 years gone and its hard, sometimes for us to imagine just how hard those times were. Banks failed and took people’s life savings with them, men and women lined up for food from soup kitchens and in bread lines. Men took to riding the rails in search of jobs. The Dust Bowl swept across the Great Plains instigating the largest migration of people until Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. Those that didn’t flee their homes, ecked out a living filled with roaring winds, dust-filled lungs and dirt in everything from their food to their bed clothes.

In Southern Nevada, the construction of Hoover Dam helped the little railroad town known as Las Vegas to weather the hard times, perhaps a tad better than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Though there are plenty of old timers like George Foley, Sr who still remembers sitting down to Sunday evening dinners and watching his dad worry where next Sunday’s dinner was going to come from. Donna and Gail Andress remember being poor but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal because everyone was poor.

Word that the Dam was going to be built sent a flood of men arriving in town by any means possible, with hopes of finding work. For every job available on the Dam, there were nine or ten men who hoped that job would be his. They camped out on the lawn in front of the old Train Depot, there was a Hooverville down by Woodlawn Cemetery, the Dam offered the one thing that many places around the country couldn’t, the chance to work and earn some much needed cash.

Though Hoover Dam construction began in 1931, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 the government began to help the country trapped in the throes of the Great Depression. Over $70 million dollars was sent to Southern Nevada between 1931 and 1939. This money was used to pave roads (especially Fremont Street to Fifth Street), sewers and the $300,000 federal building that would house the Courthouse and the Post Office. Maude Frazier’s dream of a high school would become a reality at the corner of 8th and Bridger.

Southern Nevada Gas spent $175,000 for a new plant and pipes. Southern Nevada Telephone budgeted $400,000 to increase its network and bring long distance calls to town. Southern Nevada Power updated its grid and later hooked into Hoover Dam when the Dam started generating electricity in 1937. Clark County announced plans to build a new hospital on West Charleston that would cost $100,000 (Today's UMC Hospital).  Federal officials promised to build a highway connecting the Dam construction area with Las Vegas.

With the closing of Rockwell Field (at the corner of Sahara and Paradise), there was no air service. Pop Simon built a new facility seven miles north of the city (Nellis Air Force Base today) and began tri-weekly service to Reno. Western Air Express regained its federal airmail subsidy and they leased the field from Simon and then bought it. When city fathers sought New Deal money to buy the field back, Western Air Express refused to cooperate.

The New Deal also brought unions to Las Vegas in a big way and with unions come labor organizing. Since it had been a railroad town originally, workers in Las Vegas formed the Central Labor Council and hundreds joined.

By 1938, the hotel workers formed the Culinary Union.

Senator Key Pittman and Pat McCarran made sure that Southern Nevada received its share of federal dollars. The War Memorial Building was built, streets were paved throughout the community, City Park’s athletic fields were completed, a new grammar school, the Fifth Street School, was built, a municipal golf course and a $60,000 fish hatchery at Lake Mead were all completed with New Deal money.

In anticipation of the Dam, the State of California had paved Highway 91 to Stateline, Nevada. With New Deal funds, the highway was widened and paved all the way into town.

The construction of the Dam, the tourism that came to watch the Dam go up and those that visited to see the modern engineering marvel of its day and the New Deal all helped Las Vegas and Southern Nevada to weather the Great Depression.

With the coming of World War II, Las Vegas would become a focal point with the building of Basic Magnesium and the Gunnery School that trained pilots for the war effort.

Join us Wednesday evening as we talk more about the Depression, the New Deal and Las Vegas at our Classic Las Vegas Roadshow event at the Nevada State Museum.

5:00 pm Reception

6:15 pm Roundtable Discussion

Panelists include:

Historians Dennis McBride and Peter Gough as well as long-time residents Mike and Johnny Pinjuv and Bonnie Rams.

It will be a great evening of history, memories and fun.