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.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) became President in 1933, 14 million Americans were unemployed. 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 and horses to prepare Glenwood Ave. approach on Hwy. 100 in Golden Valley. 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).

Roosevelt’s New Deal was an ambitious federal initiative that offered federal relief funding, labor, and technical expertise for the construction of both highways and parks.

The WPA hired unemployed workers for labor intensive projects. They became 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.  Lilac Way 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 nearly $45,000,000 today.

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

Lilac Way parks were built during the Great Depression by unemployed Minnesotans who sought work through such federally funded programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

They’re the legacy of a public effort to reduce poverty by providing work for the unemployed and invest in needed public facilities for future generations.

Homeless men from Minneapolis’ ‘Gateway District’ were often 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 Gateway 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

The Highway 100 Project was financed by

  • 83.75% direct federal relief funds
  • 15.25% Public Works Administration (PWA) funds
  • 1% state funds

According to “Before the Interstate: The Minnesota Highway Department from 1921 – 1956”, the Minnesota Department of Highways developed fifty-six National Recovery Work Relief Projects, of which Highway 100 was one of the largest.

1935: Gas shovels bite into edge of Superior Blvd. Photo: Henn. Cty. Lib.
1937. Highway 100 Belt Line construction. Photo: MN Historical Society

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