By the year 1933, the US and its people were firmly entangled in the Great Depression. Beginning with the stock market crash known as Black Tuesday on October 29th, 1929, the American economy began a steady slide that saw the failure of 9,000 banks and unemployment rates of 25% nationwide. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to so many families suffering from the effects of the Depression, enacted the New Deal, a series of federal programs designed to provide timely economic support to those suffering from the poverty created by the Depression. One of these programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Intended as a work relief program for those who could not obtain employment, the Civilian Conservation Corps was enacted by executive order on April 5th, 1933. President Roosevelt’s affinity for environmental protection along with his experience running a smaller scale program when he was governor of New York made the Civilian Conservation Corps a natural fit for his New Deal legislation. The program hired young men between the ages of 17-28 whose families were already on public assistance. These men, referred to as enrollees, were always unmarried, often unskilled, and tended to come from rural communities where work was exceptionally difficult to find.
The CCC’s mission was to provide meaningful conservation work on government lands. Some of this work included constructing or making improvements to
bridges and forest service buildings. Other lines of work involved cutting trails for hiking or skiing, erosion and flood control, and even fire suppression and prevention through the use of controlled burning. Enrollees were the muscle behind all of these projects. They were the force that dug ditches, moved logs, and quarried stone for much of what we now enjoy today in the outdoors. The work was necessary, and benefitted not only American families in need, but also the natural resources of the nation. By 1932, only 100 million acres of virgin forest remained across the US, out of an original 800 million, and six billion tons of topsoil were lost to erosion each year. The stats are impressive. During its reign of 9 years, the Civilian Conservation Corps can be attributed to the construction of over 700 new state parks throughout the nation, and planted 3.5 billion trees on public lands previously destroyed by fire, erosion, or the indiscriminate logging and farming practices of that were typical of the era. This earned them the distinction of being “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.”
When a man enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was a serious commitment. Enrollees agreed to serve for a minimum six month period, often far from home. And although there was no combat training involved, the structure of the CCC bore a striking resemblance to a military organization. Enrollees were organized into companies of around 200 men, led by regular or reserve military officers. They lived in camps with barracks, although during the early years surplus Army tents served as lodging. The basic needs of the working men were met by the camp, with food and medical care provided. When an enrollee entered service, he was transported to an actual military base for five days of basic training, where he would undergo physical conditioning and orientation, given uniforms which were often Army surplus and leftovers from World War 1. From there, he would be transferred to his service area to integrate into his permanent company.
The CCC camps themselves were spartan, often located within wilderness areas themselves and far removed from the nearest towns. But they did provide for all the necessities of life, and even for some recreational activities. Each camp had barracks, a mess hall, and medical clinic. Most had a recreation hall, and even classrooms where enrollees were taught basic academic skills. The mission of the Civilian Conservation Corps was not only to provide conservation work that benefitted the nation’s natural resources, but also to benefit the development of the young men that made up its force. They could also learn mechanic skills and other trades craft based on the type of work being done by the company, even though in order to quell resistance from the trades unions, they had been assured that enrollees would only provide unskilled labor for the conservation projects.
Working the typical 40 hour week, the men would depart the camp each morning to take on the current project. For some, it was cutting firebreaks. Others mitigated the risk of insect borne diseases by draining swamplands of standing water. Necessary work, but not what we tend to think about when we remember the CCC. More often, we think about the trails that were cut that we now hike, the ranger station that was built at the trailhead, or the road that winds gracefully amidst the mountain tops, such as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway that links together Virginia and North Carolina.
Groundwork for Today’s Outdoors
But aside from the direct contributions to the outside spaces that we enjoy, the Civilian Conservation Corps can be credited with influencing indirectly the modern day ski industry. Many of today’s backcountry ski trails, especially in the New England states, were cut by CCC companies. Of course, back then they didn’t call it backcountry skiing. It was just skiing. Modern lift serviced resorts had not come into existence yet.
Use of the CCC to develop ski trails in New England can largely be attributed to Perry Merrill, the Vermont State Forester during the time of the Great Depression. An avid skier himself, Mr. Merrill had spent time in Switzerland where skiing was religion. He envisioned that he could import this culture to his home state and make Vermont the home of a new outdoor recreation industry, with downhill skiing at its center. Vermont was originally allocated four camps, but due to heavy lobbying of the CCC director, received 30 camps by 1937. During it’s nine year operational lifetime, 40,868 individuals would work to conserve and beautify the Vermont green space. Only 25% were native Vermonters.
In June of 1933, a company of the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in Waterbury, Vermont, and Mr. Merrill assigned them the project of cutting the first ski trail from the top of Mount Mansfield to the base of the mountain in the town of Stowe. This became known as the Bruce trail, which is still a functioning backcountry ski trail today. Other trails would follow. Eventually, following World War 2 and long after the last shovel of dirt was thrown by the CCC, lift served ski resorts would be developed where the original CCC trails had been built. The Bruce trail gave rise to Stowe Ski Resort, one of New England’s premier ski mountains. (Vermont native David Goodman talk about this subject on Intrepid Northeast Radio. Click HERE to listen.)
But Vermont was not the only state to piggyback on the work of the CCC. Just a bit east, in the state of New Hampshire, the same revolution in skiing was happening. In 1933 at Cannon Mountain, crews were called to assist in the completion of the Richard Taft trail, leading from the summit and winding a full two miles to the trailhead. Skiers that were previously limited to the gentle slopes on farms and pasture lands were now able to experience true downhill skiing. In fact, the upper section of the Taft trail remains part of the Cannon Mountain Resort trail system. Backcountry skiers can ride the lift system to the summit and ski the trail as part of the resort, then break off into the backcountry portion for the remaining 1.5 miles, now known as the Tuckerbrook Trail. They just need to ensure that they drop a car at the trailhead, which is several miles from the base lodge.
All said and done, the CCC established dozens of ski trails throughout New England, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the modern day ski industry was born of the Great Depression and from the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
But most of the men who cut these now famous ski trails would never ski them themselves. After all, they were exclusively poor. Enrollees earned $30 per month (equivalent to $544 per month, or $3.40/hr in today’s money), and were required to send $25 of that back home to their families. That money was life support for the struggling families dispersed throughout the country. It was earned through hard labor, and not without a fair degree of danger. The men had little experience in construction and excavation and often found themselves in environments totally unfamiliar to them. During the nine years of operations, approximately 7,600 accident reports were filed, and in the first year alone there were 69 work related accidental deaths.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was never meant to be a permanent agency. Congress had always viewed and funded the organization as a temporary work relief program, despite its popularity and the obvious benefits it had to the nation’s natural resources. In 1939, when war broke out in Europe with the German invasion of Poland, the Roosevelt administration was forced to shift its priorities. Funding for the CCC was shifted into the effort to assist the Allied forces in Europe. This move also created jobs within the American economy and reduced applications. For the next two years, the US inched closer and closer to war, with more and more resources being devoted to keeping the British forces alive in the European Theatre. With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the US entered World War 2 and the need for federal jobs programs ceased to exist. The Civilian Conservation Corps was never officially abolished, but funding and operational activity stopped by July of 1942.
Over the decades, there have been attempts to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps in some form or another, but none have succeeded in making it through the congressional gauntlet. Perhaps the lack of an economically crushing unemployment rate would preclude widespread interest in such a program. Or maybe its that as a nation, tying public assistance to some form of national service is something we are unwilling to ask of our citizens in today’s day and age. In any case, the CCC today exists only as a model for several other non profit organizations providing conservation work.
Today, we may think of trail maintenance and conservation work as a job for college kids and retirees with some extra time to kill. But during the Depression, it was serious business. In a single year, more than $120 million (2.1 billion in todays dollars) was funneled to families of enrollees. Younger brothers and sisters were fed and rents were able to be paid. There was no greater honor for these men than to wield a shovel or swing an axe for the Civilian Conservation Corps. We have come to know them as the greatest generation, and they certainly were that. But before they fought in the war that defined them, they made sure to leave their lasting marks on some our nation’s greatest treasures.