The Depression hit Pittsburgh hard. As 1932 began, the steel industry in the city was operating at 12 percent of capacity and unemployment had reached 31 percent for white workers, 48 percent for black workers.

Father James Cox -- a former steelworker and the pastor at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh since 1923 -- had run a soup kitchen for two years and helped build a Shantytown to house the foreclosed and the evicted. Late in 1931, Cox decided a march on Washington was the next logical step, recalling an 1894 trek from Ohio by Jacob Coxey’s “Army” of the unemployed during another depression. (Ironically, as Pittsburghers assembled on Jan. 5, 1932, Coxey had just become the Republican mayor of Massillon, Ohio.)

Organizers expected 2,500 men would join the protest. Yet 25,000 arrived for the send-off alone. Perhaps half that number, all men and about 80 percent Catholic, piled into 978 cars and trucks for the drive southeast. Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot, a foe of President Herbert Hoover, greeted the crowd in Harrisburg. More demonstrators joined the drive as they went. By Jan. 7, a swollen line of 2,000 vehicles entered the District. About 12,000 protesters “camped in vacant lots owned by the government in southwest Washington," the New York Times reported at the time, and in the morning they began the march to the Capitol.

The police found the crowd so orderly that the increased patrols they had planned were canceled. Instead they set up “field kitchens” to feed the marchers, who consumed “500 pounds of coffee, 100 gallons of milk, 1,600 dozen doughnuts, 300 pounds of sugar, and 11,000 apples for breakfast," according to the Times. (See newsreel footage here.)

Hoover initially planned to ignore the demonstrators, and had Cox investigated as a possible radical (he was not). But on learning that about 30 percent of the marchers were military veterans, Hoover met with Cox and a few others for about 20 minutes.

The political impact of the protest was sizable -- not in creating new public works for the unemployed, but in forcing a Cabinet reshuffle. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, a Pittsburgher, thoroughly supported the march. When hundreds of Cox’s marchers missed their caravan’s departure home, Mellon paid $1,242 to cover their train fares.

When people began asking how thousands of unemployed men could afford to drive the all the way to Washington, word trickled out that Mellon had “quietly ordered" the service stations of his Gulf Oil Co. "to dispense gasoline without charge," as Kenneth J. Heineman notes in "A Catholic New Deal."

Once famed for his tough-minded Depression policies (“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate ... it will purge the rottenness out of the system.”), Mellon now rejected Hoover’s relative inactivity and his trust that market recoveries and charity would heal the damage. Within days of the march, Mellon and the president stopped speaking. Hoover secured Mellon’s resignation and arranged to ship him overseas as the ambassador to the U.K.

A very bad year for the president had commenced.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors Professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.