In the 1930’s the Great Depression gripped the nation and Bisbee, a one-industry town, was hit hard. A severe drop in copper prices led to lost jobs and a crippled economy. Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933 and promised a “New Deal” for the American people bringing hope to millions. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA, was created to bring jobs to the jobless and provide needed services and improvements across the land.
The WPA came to Bisbee almost immediately and jobs and projects started to appear. Funding came mostly from the federal government though state and local governments provided 10%-30% of costs. In Bisbee, the effect was immediate and obvious as a flurry of work began.
Nearly every part of the district benefited from the WPA. In upper Bisbee at the end of Locklin Avenue, a municipal swimming pool was built along with steps leading up from Tombstone Canyon near the pump house. Up some of the side canyons, check dams were constructed to provide flood control when run off from the summer rains rushed down the winding streets causing danger and damage.
There were street projects all over town. Funded with $40,000, sixty workers graded, widened and paved nearly all the unpaved roads. They used a new paving technique developed in Bisbee that attracted attention from road builders throughout the southwest. These paving projects can still be seen today in areas where modern asphalt ends revealing the original concrete that still exists. On some streets in old Bisbee, people still drive on the original WPA paving. Among the streets that saw these improvements are O.K. Street, Howell and Shearer Avenues, Quality Hill, High Road, Higgins Hill, Opera Drive, Clawson Avenue by the old high school, and the road between Bisbee and Naco.
In other areas, drainage ditches and culverts were built to channel storm run off safely away from houses and businesses. In Bisbee, on Subway Street just behind Café Roka, a culvert clearly bears the imprint, USA/WPA. In Warren where Black Knob View and Ruppe Avenue meet near Arizona Street, an unusual metal marker was installed on the canal rim.
People living on Bisbee’s steep hills also benefited. In the early days as houses and shacks were quickly constructed on mountainsides, the only access was by switchback trails later replaced by steep wooden steps. Thanks to the WPA, almost all these were replaced by solid concrete steps making climbing up and down much easier and safer. Several of these stairways are featured in Bisbee’s famed “1000 Stair Climb” each October.
Other municipal projects included construction of a concrete and steel grandstand at the Warren Ball Park replacing the original wooden structure. A fence was also installed around the entire park. Present day Turquoise Valley Golf Club, then called the Warren District Country Club, benefitted from WPA dollars and workers. A clubhouse, still in use today, was constructed, and over 5000 trees were planted around the golf course. At Lowell School, workers built an outdoor tennis court on the south playground complete with basketball backboards and hoops. Though the court and fence no longer exist, vestiges of the concrete can be seen on the west end.
WPA funding was not limited to construction or civic improvement projects only. Artists were commissioned across the nation for public art projects to give pride and distinction to cities and towns. In Bisbee, some of these art works still exist. The Copper Man statue, created in 1935 by artist Phillips Sanderson became an iconic symbol of the town’s mining heritage. The 2000 lb. copper plated statue stands on a nine-ton granite block and is a stunning reminder of and tribute to the workers who made Bisbee what it became. Sanderson completed the statue in six months and was paid $30 a month for his work. At the courthouse just up the hill, he also created six Bas relief panels for the walls inside the entrance and called the installation “A Cavlacade of Cochise County History”. Also in the courthouse a detailed relief map of Cochise County and a distinctive southwestern mural were created by another WPA artist, George Sellers. Today, these works of art born in a time of challenge are symbols of pride and points of interest for residents and visitors.
The WPA helped Bisbee, like many towns and cities across the country, survive during the fearful and unsure time of the Great Depression. It helped citizens by giving them jobs and an income. It helped the city with projects that improved, modernized and uplifted the rugged mining town. A newspaper of the era summarized the impact of the WPA:
“The WPA, in approving a program of work in the district, is providing not only needed community improvements, which the City and county themselves could not provide, but is the instrument of saving many workers in the district from want.”
Today the changes brought about by the WPA are part of our city fabric. We drive on roads first paved by those workers. We are protected from the ravages of summer rains by a system of dams, ditches and diversion canals they built. Our history and purpose is exemplified through works of art. On a summer evening at Warren Ball Park, we sit on bleachers constructed during that time and the golf club down the road in Naco is a graceful reminder that at a critical moment in the country’s history, Bisbee benefitted from opportunities created by the WPA.