Lurching out of the gate, the agency committed some costly missteps in its early days. Two of them occurred in Florida.
In the Florida Keys, some 700 world war veterans, among the remnants of the Bonus Army, were building a road that paralleled Henry Flagler’s rail line to Key West. It was part of the push to increase Key West tourism that had seen Civil Works Administration workers cleaning up the town itself. The road job, sponsored by the Florida Highway Department, had started under FERA and was to be transferred to the WPA.
As Labor Day weekend approached, hurricane warnings went up over the Keys. As the storm bore down, a train was assembled in Miami to evacuate the workers from the camps where they were living, many with their families. One was on Windley Key and two on Lower Matecumbe Key, about eighty miles south of Miami. The train left Miami a little after 4:00 P.M. on Labor Day, September 2. It steamed south to Homestead under darkening skies. In Homestead, near where the mainland gave way to the curving string of islands, the engineer reversed the train and backed a string of empty coaches down the rails across islands where the trees were flattened by the wind and over bridges lashed by crashing waves. Night fell and the winds grew even stronger as the train chugged deep into the danger zone. It had reached Islamorada on Upper Matecumbe Key when a wall of water seventeen feet high surged over the island and swept the coaches off the rails. Only the engine, Number 447, survived the tidal wave. The wave and winds as high as 200 miles an hour ripped the flimsy workers’ camps apart. Some of the veterans had tied themselves to trees or to boats at anchor as the winds rose. Most of them didn’t make it. The hurricane’s narrow path spared Miami to the north and Key West to the south, but it killed more than 420 people in the Upper Keys—most of them veterans and their wives and children.
Hopkins immediately sent $200,000 for cleanup and relief to Florida. WPA and CCC workers and volunteers plunged into shredded mangrove thickets to look for bodies and found them bloated and deteriorating in the late summer heat, lying in the shallow water or in the trees they had tried to cling to for safety. Governor David Sholtz hinted that the rescue train had not been sent soon enough. “Grand carelessness somewhere was responsible for the tragedy,” he said.
Hopkins’s first response was to blame the weather forecasts: “I don’t think, from reading those weather reports, that anybody would necessarily have evacuated those people,” he said. But the weather reports had been accurate enough to persuade a Florida State Highway Department supervisor to move his equipment to high ground and tie it down, and an outcry rose from veterans groups, including the American Legion. Hopkins sent Aubrey Williams to conduct an investigation. When Williams concluded that the disaster was an “act of God” beyond any “human factors,” the veterans groups and others, including Key West resident Ernest Hemingway, dismissed his report as a whitewash. The novelist’s indignation produced a scathing piece that he wrote for the Communist Party USA journal New Masses, implying that Roosevelt and the New Deal were guilty of manslaughter for sending the veterans to the Keys and keeping them there during hurricane season.
The WPA’s credibility was not much harmed by Hemingway’s fulminating in a Communist house organ; if anything, criticism from the left counterbalanced the generally harsher attacks coming from the right. But the start-and-stop history of another project in the state had the potential to do much greater damage. This project was the Florida Ship Canal, an overreaching effort to dig a route for deepwater shipping across the peninsula of Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a lobbyist’s creation, promoted by business and banking interests in Jacksonville, which would be the canal’s Atlantic entry point, and it had some military backing, since a canal would allow tankers carrying Texas oil to reach East Coast refineries without going around Florida’s “hurricane-blistered thumb.” It would also protect them from submarine attacks, a form of naval warfare that had emerged during the world war. Such a project normally would have fallen under the War Department budget as approved by Congress, but the day after the Labor Day hurricane struck the Keys, the White House announced a $5 million grant of work-relief funds to jump-start work on the canal.
This was a pittance compared to its eventual cost, projected at nearly $143 million, with construction estimated to take several years under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for projects on navigable waterways. WPA projects generally were expected to start and end within a single fiscal year, but Roosevelt was eager to push it forward. Moreover, it would employ 6,000 or more men, a high percentage of them from relief rolls, when the job was fully under way.
The canal work attracted laborers from as far away as New York and California to Ocala, the small farm town in north-central Florida where the work was centered. Their first paychecks, distributed on September 17, were a bonanza for Ocala merchants. The J. C. Penney store downtown cashed 700 checks in ninety minutes. Work clothes and boots flew out the door. The butchers at the A&P and Piggly Wiggly couldn’t cut steaks and pork chops fast enough, and quickstepping stock boys wore themselves out keeping potatoes in the produce bins and filling the shelves with cans of pork and beans. Fred Malaver waited on a customer at his clothing store who told him, weeping, that it was the first paycheck he had seen in six months.
Two days later, on September 19, the canal got its official kickoff with a ceremonial dynamite blast triggered by Roosevelt himself from his home in Hyde Park, using a special telegraph keyboard covered with nuggets from Alaska’s Klondike gold rush; it had been used by presidents since William Howard Taft to launch significant events. By the following Tuesday, September 24, 3,000 men were on the job and the project faced a labor shortage. WPA officials in Jacksonville issued an ultimatum: men who refused to leave their homes in other counties to live in the tent camps along the route and work on the canal would be ineligible for any jobs with the WPA. Yet even as merchants restocked for the second WPA payday, the future of the canal appeared to be in trouble.
Lieutenant Colonel Brehon Somervell, supervising the project for the Corps of Engineers, went to Washington on October 1 to say he was going to be out of money. The work was going so fast, he told the chief of engineers, that his initial $5 million would run out by the end of the year, and he needed another $20 million. Meanwhile, farmers around Ocala claimed the canal would admit seawater to the Florida aquifer, the state’s source of fresh water, and harm both crops and drinking water.
At the same time, a new source of opposition was developing. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 affirmed one of Congress’s most jealously guarded prerogatives, the power of the purse. It prohibited the construction of any bridge, dam, dike, or causeway over or in navigable waterways of the United States without the approval of the Congress. Roosevelt’s allotment of relief funds to begin construction of the ship canal did not alter that prerogative; it merely bypassed it temporarily. And on February 10, 1936, the House Appropriations Committee carved $12 million Roosevelt had requested for the ship canal out of the War Department’s appropriations bill.
In the short term, work continued under previously signed contracts; almost 7,000 men worked alongside big draglines and earthmovers to excavate and groom the canal route. But more bad news followed swiftly. On March 17, the Senate voted with the House against the ship canal. A second vote, set up by a call for reconsideration, also failed. Roosevelt could smell defeat. On March 19, he sent Hopkins a memorandum saying, “I am inclined to think that we should take immediate steps to stop the relief workers now on the canal, or at least have them try to do permanent, useful work, such as clearing the lands” along the right-of-way.
On April 10, with a new relief request of $1.5 billion before the House Appropriations Committee, Hopkins promised committee members that none of the money would fund further work on the canal. Roosevelt, five days later, affirmed that he would give it no more money without specific approval from the Congress.
There was one final effort at revival, a proposal to place the canal’s fate in the hands of an independent study group of engineers, but it too failed. Republican senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, the chief opponent of the project, scoffed at the “pipe dreaming on the phantom Florida canal” and said there was never any justification for it.
Almost as quickly as it had become a boomtown, Ocala became a backwater again. Employment on the ship canal stood at 2,750 at the end of May, but the Ocala Star reported that by August, the only workers left would be caretakers and watchmen.
In Washington, Hopkins and his aides salvaged what they could from the abandoned project. More than $5 million had been spent with no discernible return, but the administration wanted to report something positive, since the country would soon be waking up to the fact that it was an election year. Eventually Hopkins was able to turn the buildings constructed in Ocala to serve as a headquarters for the canal into a WPA-sponsored vocational school, and the political fallout was kept to a minimum.
The huge earthmoving machines that worked on the canal were either dismantled and moved or left to rust. A big steam-powered dragline abandoned near Dunnellon became a boys’ plaything. When it was operating, men had fed six-foot logs into its firebox to keep its big bucket clawing out the earth. Now the bucket was drawn up and locked at the end of its ninety-foot boom, but the machine’s pivot point was unsecured. A few boys pushing could make the cab and boom spin over its earthbound treads, so some would climb up the boom and ride the bucket while their friends pushed them in a circle over the sandy landscape that was once again sprouting with weeds and oak and pine saplings. And with the moldering equipment and revegetating landscape came a political reminder that the president would disregard at his peril in the future—that to ignore the Congress was to invite its opposition.