It’s 1935, the depths of the Great Depression.

Money is tight. You’ve lost your job and your dignity. You’re renting a room in a flophouse in downtown Minneapolis’ Gateway District for 15 cents a night.

Nearly 1 in 3 adults in Minnesota are unemployed.

But now you’re one of the lucky, hired as a laborer for the new Highway 100 project.

Dec. 8, 1935. Workers leaving Camp B on Highway 100, were first brought to site in open dump trucks. Photo: Hennepin County Library.

They’ve given you new work clothes, and you get to work one 40-hour week each month for 55 cents an hour.

Your $22 wages, and the wages of 3,500 other homeless men, are paid with federal relief funds.

Adjusted for inflation, $22 a week in 1935 is comparable to around $418 in 2020, or approximately $10.50 an hour.

Minnesota’s minimum wage for large employers is $10 as of fall 2020.

Highway 100’s WPA project put unemployed Minnesotans to work, employing
  • between 2,500-3,000 men in 1935 alone
  • almost 800 workers daily in 1935
  • approximately 1,500 men daily at the peak of construction in 1937
Working through brutal conditions

You and other hard-working men labor through sub-zero winters and stifling summers to build the Highway 100 Belt Line.

By designating that the digging for Lilac Way and its seven roadside parks be largely done by hand, the project was able to employ as many men as possible.

Paid by Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The WPA was the largest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. It employed millions of people—mostly unskilled men—to carry out public works projects.

In Minnesota, the largest project by far was Highway 100 and Lilac Way.

Workers also built schools, bridges, public utilities, the State Fair’s 4H building, and other improvements.

From the St. Louis Park Historical Society:

Tthe Gateway District of Minneapolis developed into one of the sorest of the sore spots. The City’s Skid Row, the district was 25 blocks of bars, flophouses, pawnshops, missions, social service agencies, warehouses, and old office buildings.

Hundreds of homeless men were housed and fed in the district, first in hotels, and later, as the load grew, in converted warehouses and factories. Hordes of men roamed streets of the section. Agitators, always sure of audiences there, made the Gateway the starting point of demonstrations. Outbursts of criticism against the standard of relief provided grew louder and more violent, until the public welfare board and the relief department hit on the plan of setting up an ERA project especially for homeless men.

Highway 100 and three smaller projects furnished work for 3,500 homeless men, each working six hours a day for six days [once or twice] per month (40 hours per month). They earned 55 cents an hour or $19.80 in cash in lieu of the $10.80 they had received in meal and lodging tickets. A picture dated July 9, 1935, shows the men boarding a long line of buses after a day of work. Previously they had been transported in open dump trucks.

Carl Warmington connected homeless Minneapolis men with Lilac Way

When a friend invited Carl to visit the Gateway District to see how help was being given to those in need, what Carl saw shocked and inspired him. As Director of the Homeless Men’s Bureau, he arranged employment for able-bodied men to work part time on Highway 100’s Lilac Way.

This provided the men with clothing and transportation to the site, paid wages, and lifted morale for those who worked on the first beltway around Minneapolis. Read Minneapolis Gateway and the Great Depression: A View from the Street

View the photos

Construction of Lilac Way and Highway 100
Road workers from Gateway District, 1937-39

Cliff Swenson, worked on original survey crew

“When I started working it was all World War 1 equipment…there were two crews that first winter, and one truck.

I was in the crew that they just dumped off, and you stayed there until noon or quitting time. There were no toilet facilities or nothin’!”

More resources

1999. GATEWAY. Documentary of destruction of Gateway District in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Frequented by the homeless and targeted by “urban renewal’, these were the men who helped build Lilac Way on the WPA Program. Length – 9:05

2016. WCCO – CBS MN. Author James Eli Shiffer explores Minneapolis’ gritty Gateway District in his new book “The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis,” Jason DeRusha and Kylie Bearse report. Length – 3:57