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When America Works, America Is Great: A History of WPA Projects in the Hamptons.

WPA projects helped pull Long Island out of the Great Depression.

During the 1932 Democratic National Convention—three years and one week after the Great Market Crash of 1929—Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Rollin Kirby picked up on that phrase—“new deal”—and soon newspapers all over the country were referring to Roosevelt’s plan as such.

After his landslide 1932 election over incumbent Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt set about bringing relief, recovery and reform in response to the Great Depression. In 1935, the president announced what is commonly known as the Second New Deal—another series of federal programs, public works projects, financial reforms and regulations—and was again elected in a landslide (he won 46 of 48 states and collected 523 of 531 electoral votes).

The Second New Deal’s largest, most ambitious agency, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration), or the WPA, employed mostly unskilled men to carry out public works infrastructure projects. At a cost of about $10 billion ($135 billion in 2018 money), the WPA built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, constructed 29,000 new bridges and 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees—all while keeping some of the East End’s favorite artists, like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, afloat during periods of relative impoverishment.

Many of the numerous WPA projects completed throughout the East End helped pull Long Island out of the Great Depression and were instrumental to cleaning up the devastating effects of the Hurricane of 1938, and they still benefit its residents more than a half century later.

Aftermath of the 1938 Hurricane
Aftermath of the 1938 Hurricane, Photo: East Hampton Historical Society

EAST HAMPTON

The WPA gave East Hampton Town $16,400 grant toward the total cost of a road-paving project in Montauk, specifically, around Montauk Point. In 1935, the village of East Hampton was granted $17,480 for general road improvements and a further $7,678 for the construction of a storm sewer.

In 1936, the WPA approved $90,000 for the construction of a municipal airport in East Hampton. Work began in October 1936 and was completed by mid-1937. The project employed more than a hundred men over seven months. Three runways were built as part of the project. The agreement stipulated that the federal government would pay labor costs, while the town would supply material and equipment. The airport, for the pleasure of some and to the dismay of many, is still in operation today.

QUOGUE

The Beach Lane bridge in Quogue was so badly damaged by the Hurricane of ’38 that it had to be destroyed. A bridge across Post Lane had already been condemned, and so an entirely new bridge was called for to replace them. The total cost of the new bridge, according to the Mid-Island Mail, was estimated to be $256,000. The WPA would grant $115,000 to the project. The approaches to the bridge could cost another $25,000, almost half of which would be covered by the WPA. The bridge was completed in 1940 and is still in operation today.

SOUTHOLD

The WPA granted money to the Town of Southold in October 1936 “for the restoration and replanting of trees along the highways of Southold Town” and promised the “technical supervision of the Long Island State Park Commission,” according to The Long Island Traveler newspaper.

According to the Suffolk County News, $1.2 million in federal WPA funds were spent in Southold between 1935–36 to improve recreational facilities at Orient Point State Park as well as Sunken Meadow, Heckscher, Wildwood, and Hither Hills. The Southold Town website notes that many of the roads we use in Southold today were built by the WPA.

WESTHAMPTON BEACH

In 1935 the WPA funded a small double-leaf bascule drawbridge on Beach Lane in Westhampton Beach. The bridge survived the Hurricane of 1938 and it’s still-extant Art Deco tower served as a safe haven for many residents who waited until it was almost too late to flee that storm.

The Westhampton Beach Historical Society notes: “Through the Federal Art Project…H.M. Ericsson, a Westhampton Beach artist who is also credited with designing a three-cent stamp, designed the bas-reliefs on the bridge.” The bridge was demolished in 1993, though two of the original bas-reliefs designed by Ericsson are now on the ground of the Historical Society. The reliefs we see on the towers today are replicas.

The Westhampton Beach Post Office, designed by Louis A. Simon as part of the New Deal, contains a mural called “Outdoor Sports,” commissioned by the WPA and executed by Sol Wilson in 1942. Simon was an employee of the Federal Arts Project (FAP), a division of the WPA.

FAP artists included Hamptons-favorite Jackson Pollock, who, as a member of the easel division, would create paintings of his own design in his own studio, and deliver one or two of them every month to the WPA office, Lee Krasner, Ilya Bolotowsky and Willem de Kooning, who later said of the FAP, “The Project was terribly important. It gave us enough to live on and we could paint what we wanted.”

Plum Island
Plum Island, Photo credit: Josip_Brombauer/iStock/Thinkstock

PLUM ISLAND

Suffolk County News reported that during August 1940 the WPA assigned a force of men to work on improving the previously abandoned Fort Terry on Plum Island. That work included repairing the soldiers’ barracks, officers’ quarters and all roads on the island. Additionally, the harbor was dredged and new wharves were constructed. New armament, including anti-aircraft guns and other artillery, were already installed by that time and a landing field was soon to be constructed.

The WPA, however, is not to be confused with the similarly named PWA, or Public Works Administration. Though both were New Deal programs, the PWA projects were much larger in scope, including giant dams, schools, libraries and other large federal buildings. The WPA, on the other hand, hired only people on relief who were paid directly by the federal government.

According to Suffolk County News, PWA allotments for post office buildings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties amounted to more than $500,000: “This sum will provide three new post office buildings in Suffolk as follows: Bay Shore, $71,270; East Hampton, $73,400; Riverhead, $81,000.”

Also according to the Suffolk County News, the PWA granted $750,909 toward the construction of a new high school building in Riverhead in 1935. This building serves as Riverhead’s fifth- and sixth-grade school. The Pulaski Street School in Riverhead was funded by a $750,000 government grant. Quogue School, still in use today, was a PWA project; Amagansett School, also still in use today, was constructed in 1936 with the aid of a $76,000 PWA grant and opened in 1937.

Another important PWA project was the Shinnecock Canal. $420,000 in PWA funds were allocated toward its completion, including two jetties at its northern entrance.

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