Over the Fourth of July holiday week, millions of people visited one of the hundreds of state and national parks that dot our land. A number of parks have a certain statue — the one at the right is from Gooseberry Falls State Park in Minnesota — honoring the millions of Civilian Conservation Corps workers who made these parks the gems that they are (emphasis added).
Each day the men would go forth from their camp to the local project on which they were working, often with songs ringing from the beds of the trucks. From this relatively universal scene the experiences of the various CCC companies would diverge. Each camp was assigned to a Federal Department, such as Interior, War, Labor and Agriculture, and within that structure to an agency, one of 25 such as Forestry or Grazing, or to a State Agency such as Mosquito Control or State Parks. Their work would be based upon the desires of that department and their location. Many, most perhaps, were devoted to Soil Conservation (Camps with SC designation) or Forestry (F designations). These men gave rise to the nickname, Roosevelt’s Tree Army. Their work would vary from fire prevention, saving standing trees by clearing underbrush and cutting firebreaks, to re-forestation where new trees would be planted to hold soil from erosion. Other camps would be assigned to mosquito control (MC designation), draining wetlands to prevent insect borne disease. Other camps would build roads, cut trails, build or repair bridges and dams and so on. In each case the men would spend their day in back breaking physical labor, giving rise to another nickname for the CCCs, “Colossal College of Calluses”. This scene was repeated over and over again, each work day from 1933 through 1942 in camps across the country as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by 3,463,766 men, supervised by 263,755 personnel, of which 7,793 of these men would die in the Corps. Some 2.5 Billion trees were planted, 248,000 acres of swamp drained, 814,000 acres of grazing land replanted, 972 Million fish restocked, 154 Million square yards of banks protected from erosion as well as 40 Million acres of farmland, 125,000 miles of road and 13,100 of trails were built, 89,000 Miles of telephone line strung, 52,000 acres of campgrounds would be created, 800 state parks begun and nearly 4,000 Historic Buildings renovated. In all the projects directly employed or economically benefitted over 17 million people, created some two billion 1942 dollars of infrastructure and provided 7.135 Million days of Environmental Conservation Labor.
The Contributions of the CCCs and the men who formed it were and remain a National Treasure. Hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands were planted and preserved by their labor. The CCCs also served as disaster aid, fighting fires and stemming floods, many giving their lives in the process. Firebreaks, Trails, Buildings, Swamp Drainage, Roads, Dams, Bridges, and many other public facilities were surveyed and crafted for the benefit not just of the people of those times but for all posterity. Most of these structures and facilities remain, including the popular Skyline Drive in Virgina, the Pacific Crest Trail and the great Appalachian Trail to name a few. Virtually every National and State Park would be a shadow of it’s current self without the sacrifices of the CCC men who preserved them and made them accessible to the public, who in essence created them.
Maybe you’ve walked some of those trails they cut. Maybe you’ve enjoyed the shade of some of those tress they planted. Maybe you’ve climbed some of those old fire towers they built. Maybe you’ve fished in the lakes they created and stocked, or driven the roads the laid down. If you’ve been to a national or state park that dates back to the 1940s, you’ve been touched by their work.
The CCC gave its workers employment and dignity in a time of economic depression, and it gave the nation a legacy of trails, roads, campgrounds, buildings, and more, so that future generations might be able to enjoy the richness of this land. (See this Interior Department film for more.) We invested in people and parks two generations ago, and we’ve been reaping the benefits ever since.
In December 1935, FDR visited the CCC camp at Warm Springs, Georgia, and told the workers there
I have seen the work that this camp and the Chipley Camp has performed in the last couple of years. You are rendering a real service, not only to this community but to this part of the State and the whole State. It is permanent work, it is work that is going to be useful for a good many generations to come. That is why, one reason why, the people of this country as a whole believe in the Civilian Conservation Corps and, even when times get better as they are getting better, we are going to manage some way to dig up enough money in the Federal Treasury to keep the CCC going as a permanent institution.
Six years later, WWII shifted the nation’s priorities, and the CCC was folded into the military mobilization efforts following Pearl Harbor. But in this current time of economic depression — worse than any other downturn since the Great Depression — when our parks are in serious need of maintenance and improvements, maybe it’s time to invest in the future once again and bring the CCC back once more.
Photo of CCC statue h/t to Steve Moses. For more info on where these statues can be found, see the CCC Legacy website. Photo of fire tower under construction by the US Forest Service, collected by the Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections and Archives.