Springfield in 1939, according to the Federal Writers Project

Editor: This entry, originally published in 2014, has been revised and expanded.

Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide was part of the American Guide series, which profiled each of the then-existing 48 states during the 1930s. The American Guides were the best-known project of the Federal Writers Project, a subdivision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, which provided work relief to millions of people during the Great Depression.

According to Wikipedia, the FWP employed an estimated 10,000 people between 1935 and its official end in 1943 (the bulk of the FWP’s publications were completed by 1939).

The Illinois Guide was published in 1939 (and reprinted in 1983 with a new introduction by Neil Harris and Michael Conzen). Below is what it said about Springfield:

Partial map of Springfield in 1939, with “points of interest” identified (Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide)


Railroad Stations: Third St. between Washington and Jefferson, for Alton R.R., and Baltimore & Ohio R.R.; Madison St. between Fifth and Sixth Sts. for Illinois Central System. Fifteenth St. and North Grand Ave., for Chicago & Illinois Midland Ry.

Electric Interurban Station: 2015 Clear Lake Ave. for Illinois Terminal.

Bus Stations: Union Bus Station, 611 East Jefferson St., Black Hawk Lines, Greyhound Lines, Santa Fe Trailways, Western Coach Lines, Illinois Transit Lines and Central Illinois Bus Lines.

City Buses: 10c, 2 tokens 15c.

Taxis: Intra-city rates, 25c, 1-5 passengers.

Street Numbering: Starting with number 100, East and West from First St.; North and South from Washington St.

Accommodations: 9 hotels; numerous tourist camps on outskirts of city.

Information Service: Springfield Chamber of Commerce, 406 S. Fifth St.

Radio Stations: WCBS (1420 kc.) and WTAX (1210 kc.).

Motion Picture Houses: 11.

Golf: Municipal links at Bunn, Bergen, and Pasfield Parks.

Swimming: Soldiers Memorial Pool, Ninth St. and Converse Ave. Y.M.C.A., 317 South Seventh St.; Y.W.C.A., 425 South Fifth St.; Lake Springfield Beach, admission 10c, towel 10c, suit 10c.

Tennis: Municipal courts at Washington Park, Lincoln Park, Lanphier Park, and Lake Springfield.

Bridle Paths: Washington Park, West South Grand Ave., 5 miles of path.

Annual Events: Illinois State Fair State Fair Grounds, eight days, Sat. to Sat., during the last half of Aug.

SPRINGFIELD (71,864 POP., 598 ALT.), capital of Illinois, and the State’s fifth largest city, lies some 20 miles west of the geographic center of the State. From the softly rolling prairies that stretch for miles in all directions the dome of the Capitol can be seen, announcing Springfield long before the first scattered homes come into view. Large farms, shadowed here and there with a mine tipple, extend to the city’s door. For Springfield, capital of a farming and coal mining State, reflects its basic industries.

The city proper manifests both the well-ordered spaciousness typical of capital cities, and the disorder of smokestacks and railroad yards that attend factories and mines. Ninth Street, a north and south thoroughfare paralleling a railroad, divides Springfield roughly into capital and industrial areas. West of Ninth Street lie the business section, the great landscaped quadrangle of State buildings that center on the Capitol, and the wide shaded streets of fine houses that border and stem from the State group. East of Ninth Street are the bulk of Springfield’s industrial plants and railroad yards, and the homes of 3,324 Negroes.

No other city in the United States, with the possible exception of Washington, D.C., is such a tribute in itself to a national hero. More than three-quarters of a century ago Lincoln left here for Washington, never to return alive, and at the old Great Western station told a farewell party, “My friends, no one not in my situation can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of this people I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. …” The mark of Lincoln upon the city is now well-nigh ineradicable. Bronze placques (sic) mark the sites of many of his activities, his name graces one of the finest hotels, his tomb and his home are maintained by the State as public shrines, and notable contributions to American poetry – especially by the late Vachel Lindsay, long a resident, and Carl Sandburg – have dealt with Lincoln and Springfield. …

Editor: Following a capsule history of Springfield, The Guide essay adds:

Since the closing decades of the nineteenth century Springfield has closely paralleled the State in growth. In 1914 the capital was chosen for one of the several sociological surveys made by the Russell Sage Foundation; the detailed findings of this wok, published in 1918, proved of great aid to local social welfare organizations.

A comprehensive plan, making numerous suggestions for a long-range program of civic improvement and stressing Springfield’s function as State capital in its city layout, was drawn up by Myron Howard West and a staff of the American Park Builders in 1924. At present the plan has been fulfilled only partly, but the work is progressing. The major civic project in Springfield’s history, the creation of artificial Lake Springfield, was approved in 1930, a bond issue was voted, and the immense job was carried out with the aid of Federal funds.

Editor: The Guide concluded with descriptions of 22 “points of interest” in Springfield (shown on map above). They ranged  from the Centennial Building (today’s Howlett Building), which then housed the Illinois State Library and Illinois State Museum, through a series of Lincoln sites, to the Illinois State Fairgrounds. In the judgement of the Federal Writers Project, however, there seem to have been no points of interest east of 13th Street or south of Lawrence Avenue.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.



This entry was posted in Buildings, Communities, Depression, Historic Sites, Histories, Illinois capital, Lincoln, Abraham, Maps, Markers, Springfield, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Springfield in 1939, according to the Federal Writers Project

  1. Carolyn Johnson says:

    I am trying to find out what business occupied the building at 1110 S. 5th Street. I am working on a family history, and my family member cannot remember what business occupied that space, c.1950

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