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National Park History: “The Spirit of the Civilian Conservation Corps”


Grand Canyon National Park was one of the many national parks that benefited from the sweat of the Civilian Conservation Corps. NPS photo.

The year was 1932, and America stood in the midst of the worst economic downturn in history. Unemployment stretched infinitely upwards, reaching 25 percent; homelessness was at two million. When Americans went to the polls, they overwhelmingly elevated Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency.

FDR immediately sought 'relief, recovery, and reform' to rebuild America's tattered economy. FDR was not interested in merely handing out money to people. Instead, he wanted to put them to work. And he did just that.

On March 31, 1933, FDR signed the law creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, and the first CCC recruits were signed up less than 34 days after FDR took office. Part of FDR's "New Deal" program, the CCC sought to employ men who would not have a job otherwise. The program paid recruits $30 per month, and they kept only $5 with them at their camp - the other $25 had to be sent home to their families. In today's money, that would be about $19,000 a year.

At its peak, the CCC had more than 500,000 men in its ranks, and politicians often believed that it was responsible for a reduction in crimes committed by young males. Enlistment was in six-month rotations, but most would reenlist as often as possible.

The United States Army administered the program, although at each camp there were local administrators supervising the work, usually Department of Interior or Agriculture employees, and the Labor Department enlisted the men.

The nation was divided into nine regions, and there were more than 2,600 camps in every state, as well as Alaska, Hawai'i, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The government set up CCC camps throughout the nation - on both state and federal lands, but generally in parks and other public areas.

Recruits had to be male, unmarried, between the ages of 19 and 26, and in good physical condition, although administrators did make exceptions for World War I and Spanish-American War veterans.

Members of "Roosevelt's Tree Army," as it was known, worked to restore America's landscapes to their 'former beauty.' CCC members built roads, trails, fire towers, campgrounds, bridges, picnic areas, and restrooms. They fought fires, planted trees, strung telephone lines, performed flood control work, aided in disaster relief efforts ranging from hurricanes to blizzards, and reclaimed damaged agricultural land.

More than three billion trees were planted by the CCC during the lifetime of the program, helping to slow erosion and stabilize the Dust Bowl.

The CCC had its fair share of problems, though. Most of the recruits lived in the East while the bulk of the work was generally out West. As a result, the Army harnessed its logistical ingenuity and thousands of recruits rode trains to work camps far from home.

At first, the government barred Native Americans, or First Peoples, from joining the CCC, but in 1933, they began to join camps on reservations. CCC Director Robert Fechner blocked the total integration of blacks and whites in the camps, advocating a policy based on the idea of “complete segregation of colored and white enrollees," based on the idea that "segregation is not discrimination."

African-Americans did join the CCC, but only in their own camps. When the CCC ceased operations, more than 300,000 men of minority descent had served their country in the CCC.

Life in the CCC was hard, but rewarding. A typical day would start with breakfast at 6:00 a.m., and the workers would head off to work by 7:45 a.m. While the camps were run by the Army, the projects were largely civilian in nature, with the Army providing logistical support.

Each camp had a number of "Local Experienced Men," or LEMs, who would act as supervisors and train the recruits in their work, while the Army supplied a camp commanding officer, chaplain, medical services, food, and other necessities. After work ended by 4:00 p.m., the recruits would go to schools operated by the Office of Education. There, they learned how to read, write. The result was that the CCC was directly responsible for teaching 40,000 illiterate people to read.

Recruits also had the option of apprenticing under an LEM to learn cooking, forestry, soil conservation, mechanics, or even history and civics.

There was also time for recreation in the camps, and recruits would often play baseball or other sports on large open areas in the camps. On weekends, the men could ride a bus into the nearest town for church, dancing, or shopping.

Life in the CCC was so good that very few individuals deserted, and there are few reported strikes or riots. With a steady paycheck, schooling, two free sets of clothes, and free food, the men were able to regain control of their lives.

About 70 percent of new recruits had never held a steady job and were malnourished, but thanks to the CCC they learned new skills and were often able to find employment after their tour of duty, since employers would actively seek CCC'ers, with the idea that a CCC graduate was honest and knew the meaning of a good day's work.

By 1941, unemployment in the United States was down to pre-Depression levels and enrollment in the CCC was slowing down to roughly 300,000 men per year. The CCC was no longer an independent agency, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the CCC's days drew to a close. Congress stopped funding the CCC in 1942, and most of the equipment was turned over to the War Department for use in World War II.

While the CCC is no longer around, we have all felt its impact. We have driven past its camps, its fire lookouts, its bridges. The sweat and toil of more than 3,000,000 young men is now embodied in CCC-built facilities stretching from Maine to California. The federal government spent more than $3 billion on the CCC, and its investment is still bearing fruit every time people visit parks such as Great Smoky, Yellowstone, Mount Rainer, or hike the Appalachian Trail.

Significant []CCC projects in national parks[/url] included fighting wildfires throughout the west and most notably at Isle Royale and Yellowstone, tree preservation work in Eastern parks, road-building in the Smokies, landscaping at Lassen Volcanic National Park, and even archaeological work at places such as Morristown National Historical Park.

Thanks to the CCC, America is home to a world-class park system, one the CCC left an indelible mark on.


My mother used to talk about how the CCC brought money back to her hometown during the depression. She grew up in Stuart, VA. The CCC was "up on the mountain" building what we now call the Blue Ridge Parkway. On weekends the men would walk down the mountain to spend the weekend in "town" - no meals were provided over the weekends, so the men literally had to walk out to find food. Townspeople would provide meals (and sometimes beds), and the men paid "real money" for the meals. "Real money" had disappeared from the town during the depression, so this was novel. The Smoky Mountains lie at the Southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway - another CCC project.

My mom (a child of the depression) and I sometimes have this conversation: "what this country needs is a good hardship to get us back on track."

People of that era lived a hard life, but they also lived pragmatic and practical lives. They worked hard because they knew work was hard to find, and they took pride in their work because it's all they had. They would later become "the greatest generation" because of the work ethic they gained during those hard years.

Nowadays, we're soft & lazy and demand everything from everybody and don't give a crap about anyone else. We have no concept of what adversity or challenge really is anymore, we just whine when we don't have a paved road to drive on or a cushy seat to sit in.

The CCC is an anachronism, to be sure, but it made a long-lasting, significant contribution to the NPS and the country and the people who were members.


My travels through the National Park System:

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