In 1933, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. Just hours after taking office, freshly sworn in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to serve two functions: relieve unemployment and implement progressive natural resource conservation.
Roosevelt's vision was that the program would revitalize the economy by putting three-quarters of a million unemployed, able-bodied, eager young men to work. They would focus on national, state and municipal lands, planting trees, building roads, monuments, and bridges, plus battling fires in America's national parks and forests. They would change the landscape and at the same time come to a better understanding of themselves.
With Picks, Shovels, and Hope, The CCC and Its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau, (Mountain Press Publishing), written by Dr. Wayne Hinton with Elizabeth A. Green, tells the story of the CCC's great impact on the public lands of just one area, the Colorado Plateau. There these young men encountered beguiling scenery unlike anything they had ever seen while they learned new work, social, and life skills. Although the CCC disbanded in 1942, the results of their diligent workmanship are still enjoyed. In fact, Colorado residents and visitors may not even be aware that many of the trails, bridges, and roads they cross, buildings they inhabit, and ski runs that they frequent are CCC creations.
As the authors explain:
Virtually every visitor to national parks and monuments, national forests, and other public lands on the Colorado Plateau benefits from a program instituted in 1933 to put young men to work. They became stewards of the land and builders of the facilities we enjoy to this day. Many of the roads we travel, the paths we walk, the visitor centers we explore, the campgrounds we stay in, and so much more, are the results of the most successful New Deal work program, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC was available to enrollees aged 17. Minimum enrollment was six months, with a maximum time of two years. Quotas for enrollment in the CCC were based on the population of each state. However, with the majority of the population in the East, and the spacious public lands in the West, most enrollees had to be shuttled far from their homes. In 1935, the CCC enrolled 505,000 people in 2,650 camps. That was enough to build a majority of the National Park System's infrastructure.
The CCC's most enduring contributions to Colorado include the Colorado National Monument, Red Rocks Amphitheater, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Nestled at the outer rim of the westernmost part of the state, the Colorado National Monument is an area of fanciful hoodoos, brightly striated cliff walls, towering temples of stone, rock pinnacles, picturesque buttes, and tall mesas. Sprawling along the cliff side of this high, lonesome country is the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which connects monument boundaries. Rim Rock Drive was the highest priority at Colorado National Monument and the primary focus for two permanent CCC camps.
It was grubby, dangerous work. One worker recalled walking and working in blasted Colorado stone in his Army issue shoes. "After a few days the stitching that held the soles on parted company with the shoe uppers, and we found ourselves with shoe strings and uppers in fair shape but no soles or heels. Socks were the next to go."
The CCC carved exotic sandstone into a breathtaking outdoor entertainment hall, Red Rock Amphitheater. Building the sandstone-arched, 9,450-seat theatre was laborious, taxing work. Although architectural plans for the colorful Rocky Mountain venue were completed in 1936, its construction stretched on for more than a decade. Thanks to the persevering efforts of the CCC and others, in June 1941, the park and amphitheatre finally celebrated their opening.
The CCC constructed many wondrous trails within the airy, imposing confines of Rocky Mountain National Park. East Inlet Trail was perhaps its most arduous because rocky and craggy patches made construction intimidating. Completed in 1940, the 6.9-mile trail, replete with sprawling seas of slickrock and bridge abutments constructed and strengthened by CCC muscles, is still most popular among 21st century hikers.
The CCC is still one of the most fondly remembered New Deal programs. During its tenure, it operated in every U.S. state and territory, with more than 4,000 camps established, and more than 3 million men ultimately participating. From the beginning, it was a temporary endeavor, but it lasted until 1942.
Many of the boys of the CCC considered it a godsend because through its mighty machinations they learned what they were capable of achieving as individuals. They conquered unimaginable challenges. One corps member may have spoken for them all when he reflected: "I hadn't been away from home at all and it really set me for life. The companionship and meeting other young men. It just taught me what was out in this old world and how to get along with people."
A version of this review first appeared in NewWest.net.