Moving a mountain by hand

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser

It needed the approval of three governmental agencies and the head office of the railroad company to begin the project. But it was the Depression-era workers who moved the mountain with hand shovels in December 1933 to begin constructing the railroad underpass on Webster City’s Second Street.

City officials had tried for some time to persuade the state highway commission to build an underpass under the Northwestern Railroad tracks to eliminate the rail crossing on the heavily traveled federal Highway 20 and to finish paving into the business district. State funding was limited and their request was always put on hold.

Shortly after his election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his alphabet programs to ease the plight of unemployed workers. One of those programs was the Civil Works Administration which began in November 1933 and ended in March 1934. State and city officials were advised, before the formal implementation of the CWA program, to have their projects ready for submission, approval and funding.

At their June 19, 1933 meeting, the city council formally requested the state highway commission to continue paving Highway 20 and to construct the railroad underpass. The construction would need an okay from the state highway commission and the state and federal CWA offices. It also required the railroad company to finance and build the underpass.

On Aug. 7, 1933, the Freeman Journal and the Webster City Freeman announced “while there was no official announcement, an authoritative source had informed them the underpass and paving project was approved.”

Ten million dollars of CWA money was allocated to Iowa. After review and approval from city, state and federal officials, 283 projects in 62 counties received the go-ahead in late August 1933. Two local projects the railroad underpass with paving at $60,000 and paving on Superior Street at $25,000 gained approval. It was expected work would start in the fall of 1933. All projects had to be completed by Feb. 15, 1934.

Workers on the Webster City projects were to be selected first from those registered with the local unemployment office. Their pay of fifty cents an hour for a thirty-hour workweek would take them off the relief rolls and bring a “flood of gold” to the city according to the Freeman Journal in their Nov. 29, 1933 issue. An estimated 60 men were needed to start the digging in mid-December.

One-half worked the morning shift, one-half the afternoon shift in a six-day workweek. A weekly paycheck for 30 hours labor at 50 cents an hour amounted to $15, enough to provide basic purchases of food, heating and housing, with perhaps a bit left over for clothing.

Svenson Studio of Webster City documented the excavation. His photos show the workers digging the underpass with hand shovels, and pickaxes, using wheelbarrows to haul the dirt away as the project began. Later pictures show the dirt being thrown into small trucks as the workers removed the hill from Superior to the White Fox Road. Newspaper reports suggest the work began in mid-to late-December 1933.

The railroad brought in a massive machine to re-lay the track ties. Engineers came to make surveys for driving piles into the ground to support the track as the earth was removed.

Once the CWA workers had tunneled under the tracks, the state highway commission let the bids for paving the newly dug section on Highway 20. The Northwestern Railroad was responsible for building and paying for the underpass structure. All of this work would start in the Spring of 1934.

By mid-February 1934, the CWA workers had completed the digging. Their job was complete and they were transferred to other city CWA projects.

By the fall of 1934, Webster City gained, thanks to Depression era government programs, a safe and grand looking portal to its downtown business district as motorists came into the city by means of federal Highway 20.

And it’s all thanks to those sixty men, earning fifty cents an hour, who moved a mountain with picks and shovels