The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A Model of Cooperation, A Blessing for the West

LEFT PHOTO. Enrollees from camp BR-45-O, Vale, Oregon CCC construct a cattle guard, 1940. (Note the second enrollee waving from below.) Author’s collection via William “Otis” Hickman.
RIGHT PHOTO. A camp commander and work foreman talk in a CCC camp, located in Custer National Forest, Montana. Photo courtesy Custer National Forest.

by Michael I. Smith, CFM, Phoenix, Arizona

“The program that put city kids to work in the woods,” some will recall, or “the work camps run by the Army during the Great Depression,” others may remember. Most people have an inkling of what the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was, even if they are vague as to details and while both of the foregoing statements stand within the shade of the truth, they fall short of fully describing the CCC when all is said and done. This year marks the 81st anniversary of the creation of the CCC. As planners, public servants, citizens and Westerners, we would do well to remember what the CCC was, what it did, what it has meant to the western United States and in turn what the CCC experience in the West meant for the enrollees who worked there.

The CCC was part of a raft of reform and relief legislation in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days as U.S. President in 1933. In hindsight, the CCC was a natural outgrowth of Roosevelt’s work as governor of New York where he had put some 10,000 local unemployed to work planting trees and where he listed his profession as “tree grower” on the local voting rolls. Once in office, President Roosevelt moved quickly to implement a conservation-based relief program on a national scale. In his March 21, 1933 message to Congress on the “Relief of Unemployment,” Roosevelt stated his goal in so many words:

“I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite practical value, not only through the prevention of great financial loss but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”

Immediately following Roosevelt’s address, identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate, and on March 31, 1933 Roosevelt signed the measure into law. According to John A. Salmond writing in The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study: “The CCC began its existence on a broad, bipartisan base of support, something it never really lost.” Republican governors, who might otherwise eschew New Deal programs in their states, embraced the CCC, seeing it as an immediate remedy for the problem of unemployed youth and, ultimately, a long-term boon for forestry, agriculture and tourism.  And, while the CCC’s focus evolved over nearly a decade, the overall aim remained the salvaging of America’s unemployed youth while working to blunt the effects of years of waste and neglect in the nation’s parks and forests.

REMOTE WORK. In the left photo, enrollees from camp F-55-C, Beulah, Colorado, building picnic tables, 1937. From author’s collection.

REMOTE WORK. In the left photo, enrollees from camp F-55-C, Beulah, Colorado, building picnic tables, 1937. From author’s collection.

If Roosevelt’s aim was to save the forests and a generation of American youth – primarily urban youth -what better way to do that than to transport that urban youth to the forests and public lands that were so desperately in need of conservation? Into the very places where they would be least likely to compete with grown heads of households for employment in America’s urban centers? Recruited largely from local relief rolls, CCC enrollees were in-processed by the military which ultimately ran the camps, organized into companies of approximately 200 men, then placed in camps across the United States. The day-to-day work projects were supervised by foremen from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Soil Conservation Service, Division of Grazing (Bureau of Land Management) and the National Park Service, among other agencies at the local and federal level. Individual camps resembled small towns, often established near existing communities whose residents may or may not have been receptive to the presence of outsiders or young men on relief. Still other camps were built in areas that seem remote even by today’s standards, especially in the western United States.

An image from the Forest Service publication The CCC and Wildlife showing enrollees installing stream improvements in Montana. Remote, often anonymous work like this in the interior West was a common feature of the CCC. From author’s collection.

An image from the Forest Service publication The CCC and Wildlife showing enrollees installing stream improvements in Montana. Remote, often anonymous work like this in the interior West was a common feature of the CCC. From author’s collection.

Regardless of where they ended up, for their efforts, CCC enrollees received $30 a month; $25 of which was sent home as an allotment to their needy families. In addition to the five bucks they were permitted to keep in their pockets, enrollees were provided with clothing, meals and housing – typically in barracks-style buildings or tents. An enrollee could gain promotion through the program to earn more money, but always, the allotment was sent home or placed on deposit for those enrollees who might not have dependent family. For the sake of comparison, an enrollee’s $30 monthly pay in 1937 is roughly equivalent to $495 today.

While the impact of the CCC on the nation and the western United States is known in its administrative details, the work may ultimately be undefinable in its broad scope and long term impact. The national statistics are stunning. More than three million enrollees cycled through the program in just under ten years, planting more than three billion trees, building 6.6 million erosion control check dams and spending more than 6.4 million man-days fighting fires, in addition to a myriad of other duties, before the program was cut short by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

For all it accomplished, the work of the CCC is surprisingly muted; the structures that they built blend with the local landscapes and erosion control systems they installed have largely accomplished their purpose even as they are swallowed up by terrain, vegetation and advancing urbanization. There are few contemporary markers or plaques on CCC structures to tell a modern day visitor its history; however, recent efforts to document the work of the CCC have resulted in the placement of commemorative plaques, as well as CCC Worker Statues in 38 states.

TRACES OF HISTORY. The base of what once was the camp flagpole for camps SP-3-A and SP-4-A, South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona. Many of the enrollees who worked at South Mountain between 1933 and 1940 hailed from Texas and Oklahoma. Perhaps this star-shaped flag pole base was homage to the Texans’ beloved Lone Star State. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

TRACES OF HISTORY. The base of what once was the camp flagpole for camps SP-3-A and SP-4-A, South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona. Many of the enrollees who worked at South Mountain between 1933 and 1940 hailed from Texas and Oklahoma. Perhaps this star-shaped flag pole base was homage to the Texans’ beloved Lone Star State. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

What did the CCC mean to the western United States and in turn what did the western experience mean to the CCC?

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the museum building at Phoenix South Mountain Park in 1934. South Mountain Park is unusual in that it hosted two CCC camps simultaneously for certain periods during the 1930s. The establishment of a CCC camp in or near a community resulted in an average of $5,000 in additional money in a local economy each month because many supplies were purchased locally and enrollees often spent their $5 allowance “in town.” Photo by Michael I. Smith.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the museum building at Phoenix South Mountain Park in 1934. South Mountain Park is unusual in that it hosted two CCC camps simultaneously for certain periods during the 1930s. The establishment of a CCC camp in or near a community resulted in an average of $5,000 in additional money in a local economy each month because many supplies were purchased locally and enrollees often spent their $5 allowance “in town.” Photo by Michael I. Smith.

In California, in fiscal year 1942 alone, the CCC built nearly 8,000 miles of road and 550 bridges prompting the authors of the 1942 Annual Report of the CCC to conclude, “…the entire commonwealth of California benefited and will continue to benefit for many years from the enterprises that the CCC has completed for the protection and improvement of the public’s natural resources.” Over the lifespan of the program in California, the CCC built 306 lookout towers and houses, strung over 8,000 miles of telephone wire and dispersed more than $25 million in allotments to needy family members.

In Idaho, where an average of 51 CCC camps operated between 1933 and 1942, the CCC provided work for some 28,000 Idahoans along with nearly 60,000 individuals from other states. In fiscal year 1939, CCC enrollees working in Idaho constructed 31 vehicle bridges, 10 garages, 18 lookout towers and houses and built 68 camp stoves and fireplaces.

Colorado saw the construction of more than 500 impoundment and diversion dams and some 2,000 miles of truck trails. In 1937 alone, more than 5,000 men gained employment as camp supervisory staff and project foremen in Colorado, in addition to the work and allotments provided to the enrollees themselves.  In fiscal year 1942, the CCC was winding down operations and closing camps, but the Division of Grazing continued to use CCC enrollee labor to construct and maintain range improvement projects on the public domain in Colorado, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Eventually, the CCC transitioned to work projects deemed more in line with national defense needs, such as the construction of gunnery range facilities, improvement of access to local mines and the production of maps and photographs for defense agencies.

In Forest Service Region 2, which encompassed the states of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, the CCC was responsible for an estimated $6.2 million in timber conservation through things like fire reduction, insect control and timber stand improvements by 1937 alone. In Oregon and Washington, in addition to forest protection and improvement work, the CCC built hundreds of recreational improvements to provide better access and use by campers and picnickers at places like the Eagle Creek campground on Mount Hood and in the Olympic, Wenatchee, Deschutes and Mount Baker forests to name just some examples. A 1986 administrative history estimated that as many as 1,200 CCC structures built in the Oregon-Washington region remained intact, which is roughly one-third of the total built between 1933 and 1942.

 Between 1933 and 1942, CCC enrollees labored on infrastructure and aesthetic improvements that continue to provide benefit some 80 years later. In the West some of the work of the CCC is obvious, such as the rock wall along the south rim of Grand Canyon. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

 Between 1933 and 1942, CCC enrollees labored on infrastructure and aesthetic improvements that continue to provide benefit some 80 years later. In the West some of the work of the CCC is obvious, such as the rock wall along the south rim of Grand Canyon. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

The numerous western points of interest that benefited from the Civilian Conservation Corps reads like an eager tourist’s bucket list. Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Glacier National Park, Zion National Park and Yellowstone National Park are gems in a crown that includes projects both noteworthy and obscure. Works like the original museum building at Phoenix South Mountain Park and Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre stand out because of their lasting beauty and utility, and because thousands of visitors see them every year.

In the West some of the work of the CCC blends with the local terrain such as this flood control structure, (left photo) which continues to do its job in Farmington, Utah. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

In the West some of the work of the CCC blends with the local terrain such as this flood control structure, (left photo) which continues to do its job in Farmington, Utah. Photo by Michael I. Smith.

When it comes to the CCC, however, even being remote and prosaic has the potential to inspire. Outside little known towns like Arlington and Congress Junction, Arizona, the CCC installed erosion control structures and built fences that are seldom seen today because they remain so far off the beaten path. Visitors to Mesa Verde National Park marvel at dioramas built using CCC enrollee labor. In Farmington, Utah, commuters buzz right by a CCC-built flood control structure that might very well have remained unheralded to this day were it not for the effort of a local Eagle Scout, who worked to have a commemorative marker placed nearby.

Such were the accomplishments of the CCC that even in the dry, bureaucratic prose of the final annual report the authors were moved to conclude that the CCC’s “…spiritual and cultural contributions to the American way of life are incalculable.” Beyond the CCC accomplishments, the young men of the CCC also impacted West. Some enrollees wound up in camps in their home town or county, but thousands of CCC boys found themselves on trains bound for camps in the West. Almost always West, it seemed. Pool hall toughs from Philadelphia, hill country lads from east Texas and boys of every stripe from across the United States found themselves shipped to CCC camps “out West.” And as events would transpire, some of those Philly boys tried to ship horny toads home from camps in Arizona, and a company of Texas enrollees would find themselves trapped by fire on a mountain ridge not far from Yellowstone National Park.

A series of quotes taken from a simple 1934 American Forestry Association publication entitled Youth Rebuilds: Stories from the C.C.C. describes the impact that working in the West had on the CCC enrollees.

Enrollee Henry Vicinus in-processed through Camp Dix, New Jersey, and having been shipped west in a Pullman car to camp F-48 near Clarkia, Idaho, he wrote:

“There are many things to be gained by a change of surroundings…There is, too, something purgative and expansive about the West. One only need stand by a huge tamarack or white pine, look over the valley below him and gaze miles and miles away where the hazy mountains rise and fall like the waves of a giant ocean and face into the gold of sunset to feel it.”

Enrollee W.H. Farley reported:

“…I am in the CCC, transported far from my native home town [in east Texas]. Out in the Tonto National Forest, [Arizona], our camp stretches on a hillside…Under the stimulation of healthy outdoor work, cool and pure mountain air, wholesome food, the taste of cold spring water and the refreshing beauty of the unmarred forests covering the hills, we are gaining four ways: physically, mentally, morally and commercially…and I am resolved when I go back to Texas to my native home to support any organization or movement that will help to raise again the proud heads of southern pines above the barren slopes of those sandy hammocks.”

Finally from the same volume of personal narratives, comes the testimonial of William T. Miraglia, assigned to CCC Company 1228, Naches, Washington:

“In being sent out West, I outgrew the narrow idea that New York was the center of the universe. I learned that as far as the United States of America is concerned, there is but one people, whose sufferings, toils and happiness are strangely akin. The forests to me were always a source of happy but untrue dreams. I discovered their real values through contact with the soil and the products that grow in them. By knowing the forests I have learned to fully appreciate them.”

It could be that we’ve forgotten most of what there was to know about the Civilian Conservation Corps, and it might be said that most people wouldn’t recognize a CCC-built project if they saw it. The important thing to consider is that the CCC shaped the men of what has come to be called “the greatest generation” and the CCC shaped the environment in which we live. Perhaps just as importantly, our western United States clearly had an impact on making those men what they were to become in later years.


Six things you may not know about the CCC in the Western United States

Utilitarian in nature but aesthetically pleasing. The Bly, Oregon Ranger District includes a number of structures built by CCC enrollees including office buildings, garages and residential structures.  Photo by Michael I. Smith.

Utilitarian in nature but aesthetically pleasing. The Bly, Oregon Ranger District includes a number of structures built by CCC enrollees including office buildings, garages and residential structures.  Photo by Michael I. Smith.

  1. Two of the U.S. Marine Corps flag-raisers on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi were former CCC enrollees who’d worked in Arizona. Ira Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe, and he worked as an enrollee in what was referred to as the ICCC or the Indian CCC. Michael Strank was a CCC enrollee from Pennsylvania who was shipped West to work at a CCC camp at Petrified Forest in northeastern Arizona.
  2. Rowdy enrollees from the Mesa Verde CCC camp in southwestern Colorado reportedly dragged the town jail into the river in an effort to free one of their own who was incarcerated there.
  3. CCC enrollees built a fire break nearly 800 miles long in California. The Ponderosa Way Firebreak was reportedly the largest CCC project in the state of California.
  4. Nine CCC enrollees, along with four of their supervisors, were killed in the Blackwater Fire near Yellowstone National Park in August 1937. Though dozens of CCC enrollees and camp staff would perish in the effort to suppress wildfire between 1933 and 1942, the Blackwater fire stands as the single worst tragedy in the history of the CCC.
  5. Starved for recreational options, CCC enrollees carried a pool table from the south rim to their camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
  6. The CCC camp at Kettle Falls, Washington was reportedly referred to as “Little America” because enrollees working there came from all over the United States.

Snapshot of CCC impact in 1937

The Annual Reports included state-by-state totals for dozens of specific work projects including construction of erosion control dams and various types of bridges, installation of telephone line and man-days spent fighting forest fires.  The table below provides a snapshot of these particular project types for the western United States for fiscal year 1937.  Bear in mind that these totals represent a single fiscal year in a program that operated from 1933 to 1942.  Junior enrollees were paid $30 a month – roughly equivalent to $495 today - of which $25 was sent home to their family.


Michael I. Smith is a Certified Floodplain Manager and an Inspection Supervisor for the Flood Control District of Maricopa County, Arizona where he has worked since 1999. To access more of his research on the Civilian Conservation Corps go to: http://cccresources.blogspot.com.


Sources

  • Audretsch, R.W. (2011). Shaping the park and saving the boys: The Civilian Conservation Corps at Grand Canyon, 1933-1942. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing.
  • Brown, R.C., & Smith, D.A. (2006). New deal days: The CCC at Mesa Verde. Durango, CO: The Durango Herald Small Press.
  • Butler, O. (Ed.). (1934). Youth rebuilds: Stories from the CCC. Washington, D.C.: The American Forestry Association.
  • Davis, R. & Davis, H. (2011). Our mark on this land: A guide to the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s parks. Granville, OH: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company.
  • Federal Security Agency. (1942). Annual report of the director of the Civilian Conservation Corps fiscal year ended June 30, 1942. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Maher, Neil M. (2008). Nature’s new deal. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Merrill, P.H. (1981). Roosevelt’s forest army: A history of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Montpelier, VT: Perry H. Merrill.
  • Office of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps. (1939). Annual report of the director of the Civilian Conservation Corps fiscal year ended June 30, 1939. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Otis, A.T., Honey, W.D., Hogg, T.C. & Lakin, K.K. (1986) The Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps: 1933-1942. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Retrieved from: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/ccc/ccc/index.htm
  • Purvis, L.L. (1989). The ace in the hole: A brief history of company 818 of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Columbus, GA: Brentwood Christian Press.
  • Salmond, John A. (1967). The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A new deal case study. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Suggested Reading

While there are a number of excellent books that deal with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the following titles contain material that relates specifically to the work of the CCC in the West:

  • Audretsch, R.W. (2013). We still walk in their footprint:  The Civilian Conservation Corps in northern Arizona, 1933-1942.  Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Press.
  • Cornebise, A.E. (2004). The CCC Chronicles:  Camp newspapers of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company Publishers.
  • Hinton, W.K. & Green, E.A.  (2008). With picks, shovels & hope:  The CCC and its legacy on the Colorado plateau. Missoula, MT:  Mountain Press Publishing Company.
  • Kolvet, R.C. & Ford, V. (2006). The Civilian Conservation Corps in Nevada:  From boys to men. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
  • Melzer, R.  (2000). Coming of age in the Great Depression:  The Civilian Conservation Corps experience in New Mexico, 1933-1942. Las Cruces, NM: Yucca Tree Press.
  • Moore, R.J. (2006). The Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona’s rim country: Working in the woods. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

Published in the April/May 2014 Issue

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