WPA Treasures

Longfellow House poster created by the WPA Maine Art Project, ca. 1935

April 8, 1935, was a great day for historical societies and museums everywhere. That was the day Congress passed FDR’s Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which included the Works Progress Administration (“Progress” was later changed to “Projects”), or WPA.

Regardless of how you feel about the New Deal, the WPA left generations to come a wealth of material that captured the people, places, events, and attitudes of the era. It also funded special projects and public works that otherwise may never have gotten off the ground.

Still from model airplane flying competition film at Portland Municipal Airport, ca. 1940

An expanded Portland airport, for example. Then known as the Portland Municipal Airport, it was but an airstrip until WPA funds built the first real terminal in 1940. Perhaps that’s why these model plane builders–scads of them–held their competition there that same year. (For a real treat, don’t miss the short film clip from which this still image is taken.)

Fifth Street Junior High School, Bangor, ca. 1940

Entire schools were built, like Fifth Street Junior High School in Bangor (now the James F. Doughty School), one of two new junior highs in the city in 1940 that the WPA paid for in full to the tune of $740,000. (Students from the Doughty School participated in last year’s Maine Community Heritage Project and scanned and cataloged this very postcard for Bangor’s MCHP website.) One wonders what the condition of the buildings the students were in beforehand were like. Without the WPA, who knows when those schools would have been built?

National Youth Administration, Quoddy Village Pageant, 1937

Whether the greatest legacy of the WPA is its physical imprint of buildings and bridges, or its memorable and unique arts- and humanities-based efforts, is up for debate. But few can argue that the resulting photographs, oral histories, newspaper clippings, broadsides, films, manuscripts, artifacts, and other ephemera are a phenomenal national treasure for us all.


Exxon-Valdez Anniversary Reminds Us Oil Spill History is Everywhere

Where were you on March 24, 1889? Maybe that date isn’t seared into your memory like the day JFK was shot or the horrors of 9/11, but for anyone in Prince William Sound, Alaska, it’s unforgettable. Today is the day 21 years ago that the Exxon Valdex ran aground due to pilot error and began spilling what eventually would be 240,000 barrels of oil into the environment. (Sadly, this has now been somewhat eclipsed in our minds by the equally horrendous April 2010 oil leak in the Gulf.)

Homer, an 11-year-old otter rescued after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. (Zuma/Newscom)

Think a big spill like that can’t happen in Maine? Well… think again. Mainers may remember a Portland harbor spill on September 27, 1996 of 179,634 gallons of a combination of heavy fuel oil and diesel. While 78% was recovered, approximately 38,618 gallons “were carried into the upper Fore River and Stroudwater Marsh area” and “lost to the environment” according to this Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management page on the Maine.gov website.

And there’s this from the Maine Memory Network vault, contributed by the Oakfield Historical Society: In 1975 the U.S. Navy contracted to charter a fleet of nine Sealift class tankers–including the “Sealift/China Sea” that you see docked in Searsport in the image below. The ship transported 200,000 barrels of jet fuel, diesel, and unleaded gasoline.

Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Facility, Searsport, ca. 1990

All well and good until some years later, in 1994, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported to Congress that a review of these Sealift tankers had “found understaffed and unqualified crews–some with felony records; deteriorating vessels plagued by everything from massive oil leaks to inoperable life boats; and poor oversight by the Military Sealift Command.” (08/31/94, GAO/OSI-94-27). Yeesh… sounds like an Exxon disaster waiting to happen.

Of course, the the Sealift/China Sea didn’t hang out in Maine for 20 years. And presumably because of that report, it was decommissioned in 1995… and sold to an unidentified foreign country. And that’s where our story ends. So one wonders: What kind of history has the Sealift/China Sea gone on to have in another part of the world? We hope a quiet, secure, and unmemorable one.