Researching New Deal Historic Resources

Unlike the research of properties from the 1800s, when researching New Deal era projects you will likely be able to find some documentation regarding the initial construction of the resource. Not only are New Deal projects from the more recent past, but they were also government financed public projects – all features which make finding at least some data easier.  Nonetheless,it can still be frustrating to search for New Deal material without some advance planning.

Before beginning any research project, conduct a file search at the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation at the Colorado Historical Society to see if the building/project has been previously surveyed or is already listed on the State or National Register.  If this has occurred,use the sources cited and local contacts as a starting point for research.  One of the best overviews of how the New Deal affected Colorado is James F. Wickens’ Colorado in the Great Depression (1979).

Determine the federal agency responsible for building the project

While this may seem obvious, it is not at all uncommon to confuse the countless New Deal programs and agencies and all of the acronyms that made up Roosevelt’s Alphabet Army.  For example, the WPA and PWA are often confused simply because of the similarity of their names.  Furthermore, some New Deal Programs would initiate a project and another would finish it.  For example, the CWA was the predecessor to the WPA, and the former program sometimes started a project while the latter finished it.  For different reasons, projects initially approved by the PWA might later turn into WPA projects.  Finally, some of the agencies worked together on some projects.  The CCC and WPA sometimes cooperated on conservation projects in eastern Colorado; the WPA also built some power plants used by the REA.  Examples of the confusion were discovered during this survey phase.  One of the town wells in Flagler, for example, has historically been referred to as the “WPA” well when in reality is was constructed by the CWA.  Willow Creek Park has a large sign at one entrance proclaiming it as the first WPA project in Colorado when it was actually the first CWA project in the state.  It is critical to know the correct New Deal agency or program not only for research purposes, but to properly evaluate the significance of the property. A list of acronyms for the various New Deal programs associated with construction are found in Appendix A.

Locate the source for the Federal program information

Unfortunately, at the present time there is no single repository for statewide information on New Deal projects.  Since these were federal programs, the state of Colorado did not retain many records for their own archives. Information is spotty at best at the other main research libraries in the state.  At the conclusion of the various phases for this survey project, all material will be deposited in the Stephen H. Hart Library at the Colorado Historical Society, with copies of the reports  also available at the Colorado State Archives and the Western History and Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library.

Recommendations on sources for various New Deal programs

Local sources

Local sources include the building/resource itself, property owners, local newspapers, and local historical societies.  The historic resource may have a plaque, cornerstone,or an  inscribed date located somewhere on the project.  The concrete coping on the bridge railings in Baca county, for example, often featured hand-scrawled writing stating the agency (WPA), date, and project number.  Unfortunately, many of these are beginning to deteriorate. Many buildings feature a generic WPA plaque, which obviously identifies the agency but does not provide any project-specific information.

Local newspapers are generally good sources for information on relief construction projects. Since little other construction took place during the Depression era, New Deal projects were major news items in most places.  However, media coverage could be partisan.  If a newspaper was strongly Republican in its coverage, it might ignore a  construction project associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal.  For example, the Lamar Republican rarely, if at all, covered any of the numerous WPA construction projects in Lamar, while the Lamar Daily News wrote numerous articles on the huge Willow Creek Park and flood control project, the tubercular clinic, the county welfare housing project, the new post office, the high school stadium, the addition to the Junior College, as well as other local projects.  In general, New Deal projects were very important to small towns and were fairly well reported by newspapers.

Local historical societies are also important places to visit.  Many have historical photos as well as local contacts for further information.  Some smaller newspapers are only available through local sources. County histories published in the latter part of the twentieth century also generally cover the Depression years. There were many people that aided with the survey in the four target counties for this project, and their assistance was invaluable.

Additional information

Appendix B: Non-Federal PWA Projects in Eastern Colorado
Appendix C: Civilian Conservation Corps Camps in Colorado

Contact Colorado Preservation and the OAHP

Staff at both Colorado Preservation, and the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, History Colorado, will be happy to give any assistance in your research of New Deal projects.

For more information

Phone: 303-893-4260

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