Depression winter, 1931. The last hope for a short downturn was draining away. From the corridors of the Hoover White House to the boardrooms of Wall Street, from crippled Midwestern farms to the shuttered mining camps of the West, the realization dawned that the nation faced not a passing lull in the economic cycle, but elemental disaster. Before the end of 1930 four million persons had become unemployed. Come 1933 the figure would more than triple.
By late spring the nation’s agony would be in full cry. The banking sector, the financial spine of the economy, was in tatters. Its collapse had begun to accelerate at a sickening rate in late 1930. Six hundred banks failed in November and December alone—as many as in the ten months before. The toll included the biggest failure of all, the Bank of United States; the fortunes of its 450,000 depositors, mostly Jewish small merchants, were vaporized while J. P. Morgan and the rest of gentile Wall Street coolly rebuffed entreaties by the Federal Reserve Bank for a rescue plan. Their rejection stank of anti-Semitism. It was surely ill-advised. “You are making the most colossal mistake in the banking history of New York,” the state banking commissioner warned them.
His outlook was too narrow. The failure of the Bank of United States rattled more than New York banking; it destroyed trust in the financial system from the lowliest penny depositors to the most eminent Wall Street grandees. The idea that the nation’s economic leadership was unable or unwilling to keep the bank from slipping beneath the waves dealt a “serious shock…to confidence not only in commercial banks but also in the Federal Reserve System,” the monetary historians Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz later observed. The loss of faith in the nation’s institutions and in its very future spread fast.
Of those drawn to the worksite during those forlorn months, only a few laborers possessed prearranged jobs or much ready money. They were the lucky ones, who could afford to put themselves up in rooming houses in Las Vegas, 28 miles from the river, where government bureaucrats also found their lodging. For the rest there were no options but to pitch camp alongside the others who in their desperation had answered the same faint siren call.
These settlements sprung up wherever there was flat ground. The largest camp occupied Hemenway Wash, a fan-shaped alluvial incline at a bend of the Colorado just where it entered Black Canyon. As the wash filled up with refugees, Walker Young placed it under the jurisdiction of Claude Williams, a government ranger in his late twenties. Young had earlier employed Williams as the boss of a 50-man squad evicting bootleggers from nearby canyons and caves, where they had set up stills in anticipation of a surge of custom from thirsty laborers. Now he hoped that the ranger’s authoritative yet polite manner would keep a burgeoning community of querulous job-seekers pacified–“he was a rather cocky individual,” Young recalled, but “well-dressed, neat, very courteous to everyone, an easy man to talk with.”
By appointing Williams, Young also hoped to appease his increasingly edgy superiors. Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead advocated simply running the squatters off, lest Hemenway Wash become an unhygienic hive of vagrancy and crime. Young had been fighting this narrow-minded policy since February, when he warned Mead that it would inflict needless pain on the ejected families, many of them headed by ex-servicemen and union members, and blacken the bureau’s image as a benevolent source of employment in a time of want. Having sent Williams to the camp one day to check on the residents’ condition, Young was able to reassure Mead that “they all seem to be a fairly good class of people.”
Certainly, at least, they could not be classed as undesirable….None of the campers there on that day had the appearance of being entirely destitute, and all seemed to be clean and comfortably dressed. Several of the families had children, and all of the children looked clean and healthy. The heads of the families now there are evidently in good faith looking for work…While those who are at present camping upon withdrawn land [that is, land the Government had closed to visitors and industry] are doing so without permission they are doing no particular harm and bothering no one.
Young reminded Mead that once work got under way, the construction contractors might well need to tap this handy supply of labor. But his main goal was to persuade his boss to consider “the human side, and also the general effect such policy might have with the public at large.” Mead briefly toyed with issuing squatting permits limited to seven days but soon relented, even ratifying Young’s request to install four latrines, two for women and two for men, at the site.
Yet Mead’s concerns were not unjustified. The first time Young sent Claude Williams to investigate, there were twenty-five families in residence, or fewer than 100 persons. Within a few weeks there were 1,500. A population that size required at least a modicum of policing.
Claude Williams presided over his “empire of squatters” from a big framed tent with a shaded veranda nestled against the cliffside, the words U.S. Marshal spelled out in whitewashed stones in the front yard. At the outset he attempted to impose a sort of order on the site, which he christened Williamsville, by arranging the campsites in rows to simulate the street grid of a suburban hamlet; his wife, Dorothy, even contributed a weekly column to the Las Vegas Review-Journal optimistically entitled “Williamsville Town Topics.” But he could not prevent the settlement from eventually acquiring the same bedraggled appearance as the “Hoovervilles” springing up all over the country to contain the Depression’s poor and dispossessed. Nor could he keep the residents from giving it a name much more suggestive of the conditions in which they subsisted. They called it Ragtown.
“That’s what it looked like,” recalled Erma Godbey. “It looked like anyplace that is just built out of pasteboard cartons or anything else. Everybody had come in just a car with no furniture or anything.”
The Godbeys were quintessential Ragtown squatters. Tom Godbey had been fired from a gold mine in Oatman, Arizona, for mouthing off about a cut in the $5.50 daily wage the workers received to slave away in a sweltering mine while scalding water dripped down their backs, raising welts and boils. His outburst ran afoul of a state law punishing “criminal syndicalism.” He had spoken his mind at noon and was out of a job before sunset.
There was no going back to Silverton, Colorado, their home town, where the mines had all closed. The only option was to move forward. With the Boulder Canyon project opening a mere hundred miles up the river, Erma enlisted her parents to drive them north from Oatman in their aging seven-passenger Dodge Brothers touring car: Erma, Tom, and their four children, the youngest only five months old.
Everything they owned was roped to the car’s fabric roof—a mattress, two cribs, two baby mattresses, their clothes and a bucketful of cooking utensils. The route led them over unpaved roads through a swirl of grit and dust in merciless heat. Not a leaf of greenery nor scarcely any sign of human habitation could be seen from horizon to horizon, until they reached Railroad Pass, a notch in the salmon-tinted crags overlooking Black Canyon. The Nevada legislature had legalized gambling in March and a casino was already rising in the pass, just beyond the boundary of the government reservation staked out around the damsite. On the far side of the pass was a broad, bare plain dotted with mesquite and dwarf cactus and scores of canvas tents. These were reserved for the working men, the Godbeys were told. No job? “Then you’ll have to go down to the river bottom.”
The landscape at Hemenway Wash looked like the last way station to the end of the world. On a large rock overlooking the rutted trail someone had painted the words “HELL HOLE.” Erma’s mother, casting a tearful look round at the tatters and rags that passed for housing, became consumed by a vision of her daughter sucked into the vortex of economic catastrophe. “Well, I’ll never see you again, I’ll never see you again,” she chanted in despair.
Erma, shaken, reminded her mother of the hardships she had prevailed over in her own time. Hadn’t she regaled her family with tales of driving cattle from Texas to Colorado on horseback when she was eleven years old? “I said, ‘Oh, Mom, we’re tough. Remember, we’re from pioneer stock, we’ll last,’” Erma recalled. “But she cried, and she left us.”
Signs of human resourcefulness in the face of abject destitution permeated Ragtown. No debris that could be reconfigured into a patch of shelter went to waste. Some people had made domiciles out of the cars that had expended their last breaths carrying them to the river. “Packing boxes were mesmerized into lumber, cardboard cartons made beautiful walls,” a witness recalled. “Tarred roofing paper was used as a luxury, flattened gasoline tins were a sign of 20th century extravagance, and burlap served a dozen purposes from doors and window curtains to walls and tablecloths.”
Erma Godbey lost no time accommodating herself to the imperatives of survival. The first was to repel the heat. From a distance, the gorge might have seemed like a cool haven in the desert bisected by the glistening silver ribbon of the Colorado; but the walls of Black Canyon concentrated the heat like the lining of a furnace and held it until well after dusk, so that in the summer the thermometer read 120 degrees from nine in the morning to nine at night. To make a tiny bit of shade, Erma sacrificed a treasured set of woolen bed blankets that had cost her $32 dollars a pair (eight days of Tom’s wages), rigging them to a clothesline with safety pins. The adults swaddled themselves in wet sheets at night so they could sleep and draped wet sheets over the baby’s crib to cool the oppressive air. Even so, the child would become dehydrated overnight and drink prodigious volumes of water in the morning—from a cup, to Erma’s amazement.
After a week of living in the open they acquired a proper tent. The seller was the widow of a mucker, whose lowly job had consisted of cleaning out the debris from the dynamite blasts driving tunnels into the canyon wall.
This man was so anxious to get in to work to earn his wages (Erma recalled), that he went in a little ahead of the other men, and the blast hadn’t finished going off. Just as he put his shovel down to muck out, a delayed blast went off and the handle of his shovel disemboweled him. His wife, the only thing she could do was to have the body sent back home to her relatives, what was left of it. Then she’d just have to move on. So we bought her tent….I think we paid something like six bucks. It was a very fine tent.
Owning a tent jumped the Godbeys up in Ragtown’s social scale, ranked below only the tiny elite whose tents were furnished with plank floors. Most other residents existed under makeshift lean-tos or under the stars.
Still, the range of class in Ragtown was narrow. Conditions at the riverbank were a shared experience. The children learned not to walk barefoot on the sand and to shake out their clothing in the morning to roust scorpions, which skittered across the tamped-down ground like mice. A dog barking at the shadows under a floorboard likely as not had run a Gila monster to ground.
Meanwhile the heat inflicted sunstroke and sunburn as deadly as the vermin-borne diseases that afflicted impoverished communities in other places and times. There was no electricity and no ice. Butter could not be kept firm, so it was sold in glass jars; all other provisioning was done as canned goods, for nothing else could be kept fresh for more than a few hours.
One day in June, as the thermometer hit 130 degrees, Claude Williams was summoned to the riverfront to rescue an undeserving soul from his outraged neighbors. He was one J. R. Smeal, who had punished his two young sons for a domestic infraction by staking them out naked on the scalding gravel. The neighbors had hauled Smeal from his automobile and beaten him to within an inch of his life, and they were fixing to finish the job with a lynching when Williams interrupted the grim party. He sent Smeal off in his car with orders never to return and handed the boys over to child welfare authorities in Las Vegas.
The incident exemplified the dislocated psychology of Ragtown’s residents, marooned under a copper-colored sun in a no-man’s-land where illness and death were all too familiar acquaintances. Erma Godbey felt herself losing her grip on reality. A combination of sunburn, windburn, campfire burn and, for all she knew, a disease she had picked up from the river had turned her face into a seared and desiccated mask. Terrified that she might infect the children, she had been self-medicating with a facial bath of pure Listerine, which was then marketed as a topical disinfectant.
Finally, she prevailed on her husband to drive her into Las Vegas to see a doctor. This involved first setting their car in the river for three days to swell its weather-beaten wooden spokes, lest the wheels shake themselves into matchsticks on the gullied road. They stopped at the first doctor’s shingle they encountered and presented themselves to an appalled physician.
“My God, woman, you’ve got the worst case of desert sunburn I’ve ever seen in my life,” he exclaimed, shuddering with dismay when she described her homegrown treatment. “What you’ve been doing is just cooking your face over and over again.” He made her swear off the Listerine, then sent her off with a prescription for a soothing ointment.
Back at Ragtown, things were going from bad to worse. Four women died on a single day, the 26th of July. They ranged in age from 60 to 16, as though the death angel of the wash was determined to show off his impartiality. One victim, a 28-year-old bride from New York, lived just three tents down from the Godbeys.
She was sick. [Her husband] had done the best he could. He left her with a thermos bottle with ice…She just got to feeling terribly bad, so she tied a note on her dog’s collar, and told him to go get the ranger…In the note she asked Mr. Williams to come and get her and take her to the river so she could get in the water to get cooled off. By the time Mr. Williams got to her she was just lying across a folding cot and she was dead.
Claude Williams asked Erma to straighten up the corpse in the name of modesty and had the husband retrieved from the worksite. The husband arrived about an hour later, so befogged with grief that he attempted to revive his wife with artificial respiration. Then, staring at the women hovering in attendance, he asked, “Anybody going to Alaska? Anybody want to buy a fur coat?”
At first Erma thought he had lost his mind in the sun. Then she realized that he was just trying to raise enough money to bury his poor wife. Back in her tent, Erma confronted her husband, who had found a job with a highway crew. “We’ve just absolutely got to get out of here,” she said. “I’ve got to get somewhere I can get the babies to a doctor, and also myself.” Three days later they pulled up stakes and moved to a campground outside of Vegas. Although the tents were pitched so close together that no family could keep its homely secrets from its neighbors, at least there was bubbling fresh water from an artesian well.