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Wyoming History

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Great Depression

Part two of three parts

Part 1

Part 3

Continue to Endnotes

Federal Government Response in 1933

DepressionIn May of 1933, the programs of the New Deal began to draw both the interest and ire of citizens statewide. The attention of Sweetwater County residents began to focus on the potential opportunities offered by Roosevelt's administration. While the citizens of Rock Springs looked forward with keen anticipation, the newspaper editorials turned nasty. The editor for the Rocket, Harry C. Dustach, who would leave the paper before the decade was over, offered a satirical warning to followers of the New Deal. In his editorial column, Dustach proclaimed "It is good to be alive [in] these times. It's fun to sit and gaze upon the shattered standards we worshipped so few years ago." The self-labeled "Progressive" newspaper went on to bitterly state: "Not so long [ago] we looked with scorn upon people who would tolerate dictatorship in their midst, and here we are today following the dictator of dictators with hosannas and fervent plaudits of hero-worshippers." The editorial held we do not call "our dictator by that name - we still refer to him as `president.'" Franklin Delano Roosevelt had succeeded in gaining "hegemony" over "foreign nations" as well as control over "Wyoming sheepmen, Iowa corn growers, Kentucky cotton growers, eastern industrialists and millions more . . . looking to the White House for the ultimate solution of domestic and international ailments." The fickle nature of the newspaper business led to a reversal of opinions and soon the Rocket began to sport the NRA Eagle on every issue of the paper. This reversal in stances towards the New Deal was more than likely due to the large labor population in the city and the fact that they were ardent backers of the Democratic Party. Beginning in early June, the paper began to fall in line with the subscribers when it realized the National Recovery Act (NRA) would actually be a "boon to coal" in Sweetwater County.

DepressionWhen Wyoming received the federal relief monies in late June 1933, Sweetwater County immediately benefitted. Of the $44,626 reportedly given Wyoming, Sweetwater County received $4,500. Instead of putting the monies directly into the relief funds, the revenues were to be "used in doing work on county roads and towns." Unemployed men would be given jobs on the project. It was announced that from June 20th, 1933 on "any future highway construction work and all other projects to be carried on under the Industrial Recovery Act" and would be coordinated by the central relief committee. Sweetwater County was now part of the New Deal.

Optimism, clearly not seen in earlier editorials, returned to the pages of the Rock Springs Rocket. It was projected that under the new relief programs, "all jobless in Sweetwater County" would have employment. On June 22, 1933, the front page reported thirty-one men bound for Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) work in Yellowstone, and the paper projected the New Deal could potentially aid farmers in Wyoming. Then on July 27th, the paper on the first page proclaimed, "Rock Springs Opens Drive for Economic Recovery." Statewide the diverse recovery programs were taking root. Even the editor of the Rocket, Harry C. Dustach urged the people of Rock Springs to support the National Recovery Administration (NRA). On September 7th, the Rocket even signed the recovery code for newspapers. Dustach's dictator had won not only the election in Sweetwater County, but the minds of the people. Of course, Sweetwater County had citizens who were both members of the Democratic Part and in dire straits.

DepressionOther Wyoming counties also stood behind Roosevelt's efforts. Notably Albany County, where the University of Wyoming was located, benefited due to CCC camps in the National Forest southwest of the town of Laramie. While there was some ambivalence towards the federal government's involvement in Wyoming's affairs, some agencies, such as the CCC were warmly welcomed. The success of the CCC was due in part to the programs it undertook. Whether it was stringing telephone lines into remote areas or improving irrigation systems, their efforts were seen as valuable to the state's long term well being. In Albany county, the Laramie Republican-Boomerang noted that in August of 1933, "Roads are being improved, culverts and cattle-guards [installed], dams constructed boundaries surveyed and [forests] thinned by civilian conservation crews in the mountains around Laramie...."

In the vast Medicine Bow National Forest of Albany and Carbon County, several Civilian Conservation Corps were established in Albany County. This was a great benefit to Albany County where twenty-eight percent of the people "were jobless" in April of 1933. The total number of individuals registered on the relief and unemployment roles stood at 3,920. In 1930, the county's population was 12,041. The Laramie Republican Boomerang reported, "of the men out of work at present, 259 are single men with no dependents and 20 are single men with dependents and 835 are married men and widowers with families." The opening of the CCC camps in mid-1933, greatly aided the unemployed in Albany County and throughout the state.

Corporate and Business Response to the Depression

While federal funds greatly aided the recovery from the Depression, private investment and corporate endeavors played a role in offering employment in the critical years following 1933. By looking at Sweetwater County, the efforts of corporations and bankers in Wyoming can be viewed on the county level.

DepressionSweetwater County began to slowly emerge from the Depression in the late 1930s. This slow recovery came about due to two factors. First, federal funds such as those administered by the CCC and the Work Progress Administration (WPA) greatly boosted the area's economy. Two CCC camps were located in the county during the depression. One was on the banks of the Green River; the other in the Eden Valley. Revenues in the form of wages and government contracts to provide services to these camps added a needed infusion of capital to the local economy. Secondly, Union Pacific Railroad and Coal Companies took advantage of depressed wages and costs to initiate much needed upgrading of their facilities and equipment. At Reliance, for example, they built a state of the art coal loading facility. This steel coal tipple, built in 1936, provided local construction contractors with much needed work. Elsewhere at Superior, Union Pacific opened the D. O. Clark Coal Mine in 1937 and completely equipped it with modern machinery. It was one of the first underground mines in the state to rely entirely on machinery for both mining and then hauling coal to the surface.

The interplay between private and public efforts are especially intriguing in southwestern Wyoming. Leonard Hay, whose family owned and operated the solvent Rock Springs National Bank throughout the Depression, worked the family ranch and has a unique perspective of both life in Rock Springs and on the range. During the Depression in Rock Springs, Hay said, "you didn't have government relief . . . all of those times. We would bring in mutton and donate for the soup kitchens." From the towns of Farson and McKinnon, "people . . . would donate potatoes" for unemployed miners and their families in Rock Springs. Hay remembers "we pretty much took care of the people. The people took care of the people . . . . Not the government." Hay's father was Rock Springs major banker and "during the Depression, many of the banks foreclosed on their customers, took them over, land and livestock." Yet, Hay recalls, "My father [John Hay] never foreclosed on one customer. He stuck with every customer he had." Neither the Hay's bank nor ranch failed during the Depression. The Hays had branch banks in Laramie and Cheyenne. Leonard Hay noted neither of these banks failed and repeated the fact that also in these two towns, "he stuck with his customers. It was remarkable. Some of the old ones will tell you today about him. They would never have [stayed] in business" if it would not have been for his father, John Hay.

Corroboration for Leonard Hay's claim is difficult to obtain from independent sources, but local folklore supports his contention. Two points, however, need to be clarified. First, some ranchers simply abandoned their ranches statewide. They simply walked away from their homes unable to bear the stress and strain of trying to make ends meet. Second, with the bank holding the mortgage, if a piece of property was abandoned, it became the bank's property. In these instances, there was no foreclosure. Some older local ranchers, however, do confirm Leonard Hay's contention that his father never foreclosed on a rancher. For example, Dan Budd, a rancher near Big Piney, Wyoming, stated in one oral interview that John Hay helped a lot "up in the upper county around Pinedale, not so much in Big Piney -- some in Big Piney, but Cokeville areas [around] Pinedale -- this area John Hay never foreclosed one of his customers, and consequently never lost any -- I've heard either. John was a good banker." In another oral interview, Seana Hinesley, states: "A lot of businesses closed down and miners didn't work very well. What helped save Rock Springs was the sheep, the big ranches, John Hay, Thompson [and] Gottchee." Hinesley does not expand on who Thompson and Gottchee were. Apparently, they were local ranchers who provide food or employment in the area.

DepressionThe use of private investments to modernize outdated facilities during the Depression is most easily seen in the case of Union Pacific Coal Company. This is readily gleaned from corporate records that report the modernization of outdated facilities. Modernization, coming in the Depression as it did, had two affects. First, it created short-term construction jobs. Second, the newly constructed or remodeled facilities, whether they be power plants at Rock Springs, water supply systems in Superior, or the Tipple at Reliance, decreased the need for maintenance and workers. Modernization was a double edged sword. One blade brought short term jobs, the other took away the work of maintenance men, coal miners, and operators. A good example of efforts to modernize are seen at Reliance.

Coal production totals at the Reliance coal mines rose steadily until the end of World War I. At the end of the war, production began to decline. The Depression hit the Wyoming coal industry a decade before it hit the rest of the country, and this contributed to the decline of production at Reliance. Not until the mid-1930s did the mine production at Reliance begin to recover. In 1936 new mines were opened just east of Reliance. In addition, a new steel and concrete tipple was erected. Tipples are loading and sorting facilities used to transfer coal from carts to railroad cars.

The opening of new mines coupled with the building of a new tipple were intended to increase production at Reliance. Increased productivity, however, did not necessarily mean more jobs. Throughout the late 1930s coal production rose. Additional improvements at Reliance included placing a concrete portal at the No. 7 Mine and installing a hoist house equipped with a 300 horsepower motor. In 1938 and 1939, the Union Pacific added pumps, generators, air shafts, and a fan house. Then, in 1940, additional surface structures were built. The new surface facilities included a new hoist house and a compressor shop. The surface facilities at the Reliance No. 7 Mine were relatively extensive and, according to the State Coal Mine Inspector's reports, were built primarily between 1938 and 1940. Continual improvements were made after that time, but most of the support structures were built during the two-year time span between 1938 and 1940. Once the buildings were in place and equipment installed, the construction crews moved on to other jobs or returned to the unemployment rolls.

The new tipple at Reliance was built to handle the increased output from the new No. 7 mine as well as from No. 1 and No. 4 mines. By 1942, more than 1.2 million tons of coal were being produced at Reliance. This rose to 1.4 million tons in 1943. This increased production occurred during World War II, but it was made possible by improvements put in place during the depression. Tracing the economic and construction history of the Reliance Tipple is enlightening in showing the nature of corporate investments during the Depression.

DepressionThe Reliance Tipple was completed in September of 1936. Prior to that time, the mines at Reliance were served by a smaller wooden tipple. The construction of the steel tipple was a sizeable project and generated employment for both Reliance and Rock Springs. Allen and Garcia Company of Chicago, Illinois, was awarded the engineering contract for $12,000. A & G, as they were called, estimated their actual costs at $13,400. Naturally, A & G wanted to be compensated for the cost overruns. This would not be the only cost overrun Union Pacific encountered. Union Pacific attempted to utilize local contractors. For example, Kellogg Lumber in Rock Springs helped with the concrete work in the construction of this "ultra-modern" facility. Ultimately, thousands of dollars would be pumped into the local economy. The total cost of the tipple came to $232,700.83. The structural steel alone cost $32,789.07 which included the purchase price and installation. Yet, the biggest single expenditure was $90,854.83 spent for 350 mine cars.

On September 30, 1935, Burkhardt and Sons of Denver were awarded the contract for the steel work. By the spring of 1936, Burkhardt was accused by Allen and Garcia of being too slow in shipping steel to Reliance. Burkhardt countered by claiming due to weather delays and the alleged slowness of A & G to provide engineer drawings, the steel shipments were delayed. Allen and Garcia lost patience with the Burkhardt's, calling them "a bunch of stubborn Germans." Steel would not be in place at Reliance until May 1, 1936.

DepressionFrom the beginning, Allen and Garcia Company did not like the Union Pacific's choice of Burkhardt and Sons to do the steel work. In a somewhat condescending tone, a representative from the A & G Company wrote the home office reporting: "I feel that they are doing everything possible to get this job out for you. There is this drawback, however - you must remember that steel fabrication in Denver has followed rather simple lines, such as buildings and bridges, and steel organizations in Denver are not fully familiar with tipple fabrication." S. Tescher, who wrote the letter, goes on to write: "The drawings are rather complicated for men that have been accustomed to fabricating framing for steel buildings and bridges. The numerous bends, angles, and other intricate details have slowed up this work considerably." Of course, you cannot read blueprints that have not been drawn, and Burkhardt commonly countered with the response, he had no blueprints. Burkhardt always contended the steel would be ready by May 1, 1936, a promise he fulfilled. Amazingly, in spite of the delays, by September 1, 1936, the tipple was essentially completed.

The Rock Springs Daily Rocket for October 1, 1936, described the tipple in detail. The newspaper reported, "The new ultra-modern tipple which the Union Pacific Coal company has had erected for its two mines at Reliance has been completed and this week is being operated by the company . . . ." The reporter also pointed out, "From the efficiency angle the plant is a marvel. It has been designed so that men and machines will make no waste motions, so that both may accomplish the most in output with the least energy, and so that the maximum of productive and repair work may be done without danger to the men or to the machinery." The newspaper captured the essence of the effort by the Union Pacific. The facility had been built to increase efficiency and ultimately reduce the number of people needed to operate the equipment.

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If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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