Hooverville: Shantytown of Seattle's Great Depression

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 1/18/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 741
During the fall and winter of 1931 and 1932, unemployed workers established Seattle’s "Hooverville," a shantytown named in sarcastic honor of U.S. President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), on whose beat the Great Depression began. In October 1931, an unemployed lumberjack by the name of Jesse Jackson and 20 others started building shacks on vacant land owned by the Port of Seattle located a few blocks south of Pioneer Square.

Within a few days, they built 50 shanties. After the squatters were brought to the attention of the City of Seattle, the Seattle Health Department posted notices on every shack to vacate within one week. Seven days later the Seattle Police arrived with cans of kerosene and burned down the shacks.

The squatters immediately rebuilt. About a month later the city burned down the shacks once again. This time the residents burrowed into the ground and constructed roofs made of tin or steel. The city relented and allowed them to stay on the condition that they adhere to safety and sanitary rules.

The Mayor of Hooverville

The man named Jesse Jackson became the liaison between Hooverville residents and City Hall and local businesses. He was the most public Hooverville resident and people began to call him the Mayor of Hooverville. He stated:

"I am just a simple person, living among simple people, whose status in life is the same as theirs, trying to do the best I know how to administer in my poor way to their wants. The men often seek my advice and bring their troubles to me. I advise them the best I can on many questions. I am often able to prevent many little rows that might develop into big ones" (Schmid, p. 291).

Home of the Homeless

The residents named the shantytown Hooverville in sarcastic honor of President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), on whose beat the Great Depression began. It was the former location of Skinner and Eddy Shipyard Plant 2 that closed in 1920. A census taken during March 1934 counted 632 men and seven women living in 479 shanties. Their ages ranged from 15 to 73. Included were 292 Caucasians foreign born, 186 Caucasians born in the United States, 120 Filipinos, 29 Negroes (African Americans), three Costa Ricans, two Mexicans, two Indians, two Eskimos, and one Chilean. Hooverville remained in existence till the end of the Great Depression.

Sources: Jesse Jackson, “The Story of Seattle’s Hooverville,” in Calvin F. Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1944), 286-287.

Related Topics:   Buildings | Seattle Neighborhoods | Society

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