Lilac Way was built during the Great Depression.

In October 1929, a stock market crash panicked Wall Street. Losing over $30 billion in two days, it signaled the start of the 12-year Great Depression.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, when 14 million Americans were unemployed and unemployment climbed to 25%.

In Minnesota, things were even worse—nearly 1 in 3 adults were out of work.

9,000+ U.S. banks failed in 1930-33, 30% of the banks that existed in late 1929.

1936. J.T. Weisz (L) & John Hackett tend pile driving device day and night in extreme cold. Photo: Hennepin County Library
1936. Using shovels to prepare Glenwood Ave. approach. Photo: Henn. Cty. Lib.

FDR launched the New Deal – a program to provide employment and stimulate the economy. Congress created the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The WPA hired unemployed workers for labor intensive projects, becoming a partner to create Highway 100’s Lilac Way, one of Minnesota’s largest federal relief construction projects.

From 1934-1941, the Minnesota Department of Highways (now MnDOT) joined with FDR’s WPA program to build 12.5 miles of Highway 100. Soon known as Lilac Way, it remains historically significant as one of Minnesota’s largest federal relief projects.

In 1935 alone, this project employed between 2,500 and 3,000 men working as
  • power shovel operators
  • truck drivers
  • blacksmiths
  • landscapers
  • stonemasons
  • manual laborers

It cost $2,000,000 to build the Belt Line and Lilac Way in 1939. Adjusted for inflation, that is comparable to more than $35,000,000 in today’s dollars.

The WPA’s main objective was to provide employment and income for Americans during in the Great Depression.

Homeless men from Minneapolis’ ‘Gateway District’ were hired to help build Highway 100 during the Great Depression.

Unemployed men who lived in the Gateway District (the ‘Skid Row’ of Minneapolis) were bused in to help build Highway 100’s Lilac Way section. The area consisted of bars, flophouses, pawnshops, burlesque houses, charity missions, and office buildings.

Encompassing 25 blocks centering on the intersection of Hennepin, Washington, and Nicollet Avenues, the neighborhood was demolished in 1959-63 as part of the first federally funded urban renewal project in America.

Unemployed at Gateway Pavilion and fountain, Minneapolis' Skid Row, 1937. Photo: Russell Lee, Library of Congress

How Lilac Way benefited from the WPA

A large percentage of funding was from the WPA program

Federal highway allocations required that at least 1% was used for roadside improvements (Lilac Way’s roadside parks included picnic tables, beehive fireplaces, ponds, and signage)

The WPA’s purpose was to provide useful work for millions of victims of the Great Depression and preserve their skills and self-respect.

The economy would in turn be stimulated by the increased purchasing power of the newly employed, whose wages under the program ranged from $15 to $90 per month.

  • By 1936 the WPA had employed over 3.5 million people
  • During its eight-year existence, the WPA put 8.5 million people to work (over 11 million were unemployed in 1934)
  • It cost the federal government approximately $11 billion
  • In 1939 the Works Progress Administration altered its name to Work Projects Administration
  • Increasing charges of mismanagement and of abuse of the program by workers led to a reduction in appropriations
  • A strike by construction workers against wage cuts was unsuccessful
  • The WPA was terminated in 1943, with low unemployment during wartime