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 $406 in 2019, or $10 an hour.

Minnesota’s minimum wage for large employers is $9.86 as of Spring 2019.

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.

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