5. THE ROOSEVELTS AT TIMBERLINE

The recessionary signs were deepening, but were not yet acute, when the president and first lady embarked on a two-week trip to the Northwest in early fall. Although 1937 was not an election year and the trip was billed as an inspection tour, it had a political feel. Bloodied in the court fight by a majority of newspapers—he was convinced that 85 percent of them were “utterly opposed to everything the administration is seeking”—and still angry, he wanted to bypass them and their sniping columnists and connect directly with the people. He had called a special session of the Congress for later in the fall to revisit wages-and-hours and other legislation that had stalled during the court battle, and he hoped to generate momentum for the bills he wanted to push through. Perhaps most important, he wanted to call attention to the lavish investment in jobs, public works, and public benefits the nation’s citizens had financed with their tax dollars at some major dams and building sites.

The presidential train left Hyde Park on September 22. It reached Iowa the next afternoon and started making whistle stops, the president emerging onto the rear platform to observe that the corn was a “little bit taller” than his corn back in the Hudson Valley and that looking over the country “at first hand…'is the right thing for a president to do.” The stops continued into Wyoming. In Cheyenne, Roosevelt reminded his audience that the government had spent “a great deal of money in putting people to work” building, among other things, thousands of airports and schools. In Boise, Idaho, after a two-day stopover at Yellowstone National Park, he said meeting the American people gave him renewed strength like Antaeus, the Greek giant of mythology who drew strength from contact with his mother the earth. Indeed, the crowds that gathered seemed to Roosevelt to be larger than ever, and to have lost none of their affection. He gave the glad hand to senators, governors, and local politicians, though he also signaled displeasure with some—Montana’s Wheeler was one—who had opposed him in the court fight. There were visits to WPA parks and anti-erosion projects, irrigation projects sponsored by the Bureau of Reclamation of the Department of Interior, and PWA-funded buildings, and then the presidential party headed west to Oregon.

Here he began a series of stops that put the magnificent vision of the New Deal on full display. At eight on the morning of September 28, the train rolled to a halt in Bonneville, on the Columbia River forty miles east of Portland, and the party shifted to a motorcade to inspect the Bonneville Dam and locks, a $51 million joint effort of the Public Works Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers. Bonneville was precisely the value-laden project Harold Ickes envisioned spending work relief money on. Its navigation lock, then the world’s largest single-lift lock, would extend shipping 188 miles upriver to the Snake River inside Washington State; it would provide irrigation water for arid eastern Oregon; and its hydroelectric turbines would generate 580,000 horsepower of affordable electricity to feed aluminum plants operating in the area as well as rural consumers in Washington and Oregon. What was more, $3.2 million of its cost had gone into fish ladders that would allow Pacific salmon to reach their upstream spawning beds.

The president spoke of navigation and electricity in his brief remarks at Bonneville. Then the party headed south in a motorcade to Mount Hood, Roosevelt and his wife in an open car wrapped in blankets and robes. It was less than twenty-five miles as the crow flies, but more than sixty skirting the mountain to the west, and by the time they arrived at Timberline Lodge in the early afternoon of September 28 they were cold. Eleanor was ushered to one of the rooms to get warm, while the president chatted with E. J. Griffith, the Oregon WPA administrator, and took stock of the crowd from the balcony above the main entrance. Two or three hundred people were standing around the south front of the still-unfinished lodge, many of them masons, carpenters, and craftspeople who had been working on the structure nonstop since it had gone “under roof” the previous December. More watched from the large dining room windows behind him, and from a viewing platform built for the occasion. Still, Roosevelt probably wished the crowd were larger, given the semi-political nature of his trip and the cost of Timberline. It had ballooned to $1 million and counting when road building and landscaping were figured in and because Harry Hopkins kept saying yes to Margery Hoffman Smith’s arts-and-crafts proposals. The president was to give the lodge its formal dedication now, although its opening was still four months away. Just to reach this point had stretched the WPA work crews, and the artists and craft workers, to their limits.

Even after the lodge was roofed, outdoor work had continued. A small crew of quarriers working in snow trenches that were over six feet deep cut granite for the interior stonework and loaded the stones into canvas-tented truck beds. At the lodge itself, carpenters nailed on shingles, clapboard siding, and board-and-batten to complete the exterior walls ahead of the rising snowdrifts. The masons working on the headhouse roof to complete the main chimney labored with only a wooden shelter to protect them.

The jobs of the road-clearing crews were among the most dangerous on the mountain. It was easy to lose men in a blizzard, and back in January two had gone missing. Only after a suppertime roll call came up two names short did the workers turn out to form a human chain to search the road below the lodge. Remarkably, they found the men still alive and brought them back to safety. Down at the camp, Albert Altorfer kept two men and sometimes three busy chopping wood for the cookstoves. His head cook, responsible for rousing the kitchen crew to start the morning meal, discovered that a bucketful of snow was good for waking up men who clung to the warmth of their cots in the predawn cold.

While carpenters, plumbers, and electricians completed their tasks within the lodge, other workers devoted themselves to the architectural and decorative flourishes. Ray Neufer’s woodworking shop handled an array of tasks. Men carved old cedar telephone poles into newel posts with eagles, beavers, squirrels, and other animals at the tops. Other carvers shaped ram and buffalo heads that would be part of the exterior decoration. Still others rendered “Native American” petroglyphs to decorate interior doorways; their designs were cribbed from the Camp Fire Girls handbook. Cabinetmakers working under Neufer built most of the lodge’s furniture, including tables, chairs, beds, and dressers. In the blacksmith shop, Orion Dawson directed workers, including Henry Moar, as they built wrought-iron gates, lamps, and chandeliers, as well as straps, knockers, and handles for the lodge’s heavy wooden doors.

Back in Portland, Hoffman Smith had WPA craft shops humming at full speed, with women hooking and weaving rugs and bedspreads and upholstery fabrics. She also commissioned art to support the frontier and outdoor themes that were part of the lodge’s brawny Western beauty. Douglas Lynch, the Portland muralist, would use linoleum to carve and then paint scenes of camping and fishing for the coffee shop walls. Modernist C. S. Price painted large-scale western scenes on canvas. Karl Fuerer, who had spent his career reproducing old-master paintings, did watercolors of local wildflowers for the guest rooms that would bear their names (although the Skunk Cabbage Room would later be renamed to improve its occupancy rate). A room intended for wood storage was turned into the Blue Ox Bar, with art by Virginia Darcé based on the Paul Bunyan legend. When the lodge was finished it would be, inside and out, a salute to the people of Oregon: their ingenuity and their surroundings.

In the days before the Roosevelts’ arrival, the Timberline architects had received a new rush commission: based on sketches sent by the White House, they were to build a podium for the president to speak from. Linn Forrest described it as “like an apple box, with a couple of handles for him to hold onto and a seat like a bicycle seat to sit on.” This, and the plywood sheeting requested by the White House for the ramp up to the balcony where he would speak, brought home to Forrest the efforts made by the president’s team to disguise the extent of his paralysis, a subterfuge at which they were now expert.

Roosevelt made his way to the podium midway through the afternoon, with Eleanor looking on, warm again after the cold ride. It was a clear, sunny day, and before them lay the magnificent fifty-mile view down the Cascade Range to Mount Jefferson. The president spoke briefly, saying the lodge and projects like it would attract more recreational users to the national forests and quoting from the dedication plaque; it was “a monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the rolls of the Works Progress Administration” and “a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come.”

Rooms had been prepared for the presidential party. Neufer’s woodworking shop had even designed a special armchair for the president, and Griffith tried to persuade them to stay overnight. But the Roosevelts were traveling with their daughter Anna, her husband, John Boettiger, and their two young children, and they were eager to get to Seattle, where the Boettigers lived. After they left, the frantic pace of work continued, so as to ready the lodge for paying guests in February 1938.

And before those first guests arrived for their skiing, and for the views downrange from the dining room where they ate 75-cent veal chops and 50-cent beef jardinière polished off with coffee and 15-cent huckleberry pie, there was a lively party for the WPA-paid construction workers. As they milled around their former workplace they were both awestruck and bereft. It had been an extraordinary experience. “They were doing something that was really creative and they could see the results of it, and it was their building, their lodge,” said Hoffman Smith afterward. “A lot of those men cried. I wouldn’t have believed they could be so moved but they literally cried, thinking that the project was over.”

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