Great Depression, 1929-1939

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/06/2002
  • Essay 3717
See Additional Media

For 10 years beginning in 1929, most of the world experienced the largest economic depression in history. The Great Depression devastated national economies, threw millions out of work, and contributed to the outbreak of World War II. In Seattle and King County, the Depression resulted in tens of thousands unemployed and underemployed, the reemergence of organized labor, and a redefinition of state politics. The most enduring symbols of the hard times were the shanty towns called Hoovervilles, thrown up by the homeless. Recovery programs under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) produced an array of public works projects from parks to dams to public housing. The hard times ended with the rapid growth in employment and government spending for World War II.

Days of Crisis

In 1929, just after Republican President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) took office, the U.S. economy contracted, after eight years of unprecedented growth. Then, on Black Thursday, October 24, the stock market took a nosedive. The following week, further steep losses were recorded on what became know as Black Monday and Black Tuesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 40 percent of its value in eight weeks. Economists and historians cite many causes of this Depression, and all agreed it was the most serious economic calamity yet experienced.

The Hoover Administration took the position that government should not interfere with capitalism, but President Hoover and the Congress did pass protective tariffs on imported goods. This action might have supported domestic industries, but it also served to export the depression to Europe, which in the years since World War I had become heavily reliant on U.S. markets for its goods.

Hard Times at Home

It would take about a year for the full effect of The Depression to hit Seattle and King County. Virtually every sector of the economy was hit. Exports through the Port of Seattle dropped, leaving maritime and dock workers unemployed. Construction, which had boomed in the 1920s, slowed dramatically. Wood products industries reduced production. Manufacturers lost orders and lay off workers or cut back their hours. Coal mining, which had been a foundation of the Puget Sound economy for decades, ended.

Probably the first political group to take action in the hard times after the stock market crash was the Communist Party. They demonstrated against the capitalist system on Armistice Day, November 11, 1929. Mayor Frank Edwards adopted a hard line and ordered 31 people arrested. Nationally, the Communists organized the National Unemployed Council, which had a local affiliate.

This group demonstrated on February 26, 1930 and Edwards ordered more arrests. All the charges were thrown out and Communists continued to hold street meetings. They focused their rhetoric on unemployed seasonal workers the Pioneer Square area. Edwards declared, "There will be no bolshevist or soviet uprisings or demonstrations in Seattle while I am mayor" (Berner, 292). Edwards's pronouncement was typical of responses of conservatives to any proposals for political and economic reform.

In June 1930, massive reductions at lumber mills began, followed by reductions in other industries, particularly the seasonal sectors such as fishing, flour milling, ship building, and coal mining. Those businesses that avoided layoffs maintained wages, but cut back the number of hours worked. Workers shared jobs. By the fall of 1930, volunteerism and local charities were at their limits serving free meals to long lines of jobless men.

There are no reliable statistics, but the best estimates hold that Seattle had 11 percent unemployed in April 1930, rising to 26.5 percent in January 1935 (Berner, 302). Statistics did not account for employees who worked, but experienced drastically reduced wages and could not consume goods and services as they had before. Conservatives believed that relief was the responsibility of charities and local government. But these resources were quickly overtaxed. The unemployed began to organize.

Power to the People

The Conference on Progressive Labor Action, formed by labor organizers, favored industrial unionism, a new political party representing farmers and workers, a five-day work week, workmen's compensation, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions. When the state legislature ignored conference petitions for unemployment insurance in January 1931, the unemployed began to organize.

Closely tied to the issue of unemployment was that of municipal ownership of utilities. Supporters of public power had long advocated that low-cost and plentiful electricity was the key to prosperity for all citizens. Among conservatives, the idea of public power was socialistic. Seattle City Light had been battling the investor-owned Puget Sound Power and Light to supply electricity to Seattle. Public power was an important issue to residents who struggled to make rent and mortgage payments.

In March 1931, Mayor Edwards found himself the subject of a recall campaign after he fired the popular City Light Superintendent, James D. Ross. "JD" Ross was a vocal proponent of municipal ownership. Supporters of Ross and of public power quickly organized recall petitions. Edwards claimed that, "Communism is the root of the present trouble" (Berner, 300). He was recalled from office in July 1931. Leaders in the recall campaign such as John F. Dore (1881-1938) and Marion Zioncheck (1901-1936) emerged by advocating relief and social programs.

Rise of the Left

In August 1931, Unemployed Citizens Leagues (UCL) were organized by members of the Conference on Progressive Labor Action with Socialist and labor union backgrounds. The UCL proposed self-help programs. UCL locals cut wood for fuel from vacant land, harvested unsold crops, planted gardens, and caught fish, all with volunteer labor. An emergency health clinic was started by members who would later found Group Health Cooperative. These efforts supplemented work and relief programs by the city and the county, but it was not enough.

In the March 1932 elections, the UCL successfully supported John Dore for mayor and candidates for city council. Dore had promised to help the unemployed, but once in office, he quickly changed his position by laying off city workers and cutting their pay. When Republican Governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952) rebuffed Dore's and other mayors' requests for state relief, the UCL took up the cause of state assistance. On July 4, 1932, the UCL marched on Olympia, but Communists in the group created a split over what benefits to request. The governor still refused to act. Whenever state or local government did take action to help the needy, it was generally because of the threat of the collapse of public order rather than any sense of civic duty.

Communists moved in to subvert the UCL to their agenda. Other UCL organizers moved on to form the Commonwealth Builders, Inc. and then the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a coalition of the unemployed, organized labor, and Democrats. The WCF became a significant force in state politics working towards old-age pensions. The presence of Communists would haunt the leaders of these groups for decades.

Other groups emerged in response to the Depression. Technocracy espoused a principle under which engineers would run the government and the economy by applying the imperatives of technology. This movement grew to as many as 60,000 advocates statewide, but was short lived because it refused to get involved in politics. The New Order of Cincinnatus grew out of the non-partisan Municipal League in 1933. Restricting membership to men under the age of 35, the conservative Cincinnatans were organized along military lines. They sought to bring young men into politics and to reduce taxes and fight corruption. Republican Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) started his political career as a Cincinnatan. He was elected to the city council in 1934 and went on to become mayor in 1938, and governor in 1940.

A New Deal for the American People

In November 1932, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected President, but by the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1933, the banking system across the nation was near collapse. Rumors of insolvency caused runs on banks as panicky depositors withdrew their savings. The day before, a Friday, Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) declared a bank holiday. The following Monday, Roosevelt expanded the closures nationwide. Consumers used IOUs and scrip to buy groceries and pay bills until they had access to their accounts. Once auditors verified that institutions were solvent, the banks reopened.


In 1934, Longshoremen along the West Coast struck for recognition and for working conditions. The struggle resulted in several deaths in the Seattle area. San Francisco experienced a general strike after two strikers were killed by police. The end of the strike saw the Longshoremen and industrial trades squared off against the Teamsters, under Dave Beck, and the American Federation of Labor, over leadership of the labor movement.

Business preferred Beck and his program of labor peace and fixed prices to the more radical Longshoremen and their allies. Labor became a political force once again. The Teamsters and the Longshoremen battled each other -- literally -- over control of groups such as warehousemen. After Beck helped win for reporters and other newspaper workers the 1936 strike against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he enjoyed undisputed control over the area's labor relations and much of the economy for the next 20 years.


The Depression made Washington a two-party state. Republicans had dominated state politics since before statehood and conservatives had held sway since the end of World War I. In the 1920s, there were few Democrats in the legislature and most of them mirrored the views of their Republican colleagues. Roosevelt's New Deal became a rallying point for liberal Democrats. Within the Democratic Party there was a split between the New Dealers and those led by Governor Martin. Liberal Republicans, including Homer Bone who would go to the U.S. Senate in 1933, crossed party lines. Political battles usually shaped up between New Deal Democrats on one side and Martin Democrats and Republicans on the other. Despite these divisions, voters continued to send New Deal Democrats to Congress.  

Unemployment gradually declined with relief measures, particularly those of the Civil Works Administration and later the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed as many as 49,000 people in King County in a variety of public works. The Seattle Parks system benefited as men were put to work maintaining and upgrading facilities. Other projects were undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Not all of the private sector was immobilized. The Ford Motor Company built an assembly plant at the south end of Lake Union. J.C. Penney built a store downtown. When the Puget Sound Navigation Co. (Black Ball Ferry Line) purchased the fire-damaged Peralta, the hulk was transformed into the Kalakala at the Lake Washington Shipyard in Kirkland.

The Boeing Co. maintained its skilled workforce mostly with military orders, but handled increased activity with overtime rather than new hires. After some delays because of the depressed bond market, Seattle City Light built a new headquarters downtown and started work on the powerhouse at Diablo Dam on the Skagit River. In 1938, the state began construction on the Lake Washington Floating Bridge.

Down Again

In 1937, the WPA began to cut back on public works jobs and unemployment climbed back up. A new recession set in. Voters defeated a plan to scrap the decrepit electric trolleys of the municipal railway in favor of trackless-trolleys and buses, in part because of opposition from the motormen's union, which feared the loss of jobs. A relief crisis rose. To conservatives, particularly in rural Washington counties, unions' demands for higher wages and better working conditions were a barrier to recovery, not to mention the Communist influence. The anti-union Initiative 130, titled Prevention of Labor Uprisings was also called the right-to-work initiative. It was defeated in the November 1937 general election, but a majority of the states 39 counties supported it.

In 1939, the Roosevelt Administration announced funding for public housing that would result in the Yesler Terrace Housing Project. This restarted the dormant construction industry, which required labor and lumber. Consumers started spending money again. In June 1940, France fell to German forces and the Congress began a defense buildup. Contracts and money flowed into Seattle and the Puget Sound region for ships and planes and tanks, bringing not only full employment, but a massive influx of war workers.


Richard Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom To Bust, (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); Historylink Timeline Library ( ).

Note: This article was corrected on June 9, 2021.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You