The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a New Deal program aimed at reducing unemployment among young men by giving them steady work improving the nation’s landscape, public lands, and infrastructure. When it was implemented in 1933, the CCC was the largest-ever public works program. Today, the legacy of the corps lives on in the many embankments, campgrounds, irrigation ditches, and other infrastructure projects on public lands across Colorado.
Birth of the CCC
Although remembered nostalgically by its enrollees, the Civilian Conservation Corps was born out of national desperation. As dry winds and dust storms blew across the western High Plains in the early 1930s, leaving devastated farmers in their wake, newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a great challenge. The entire country was afflicted by the Great Depression, with jobless men everywhere struggling to support themselves and their families. Hundreds of thousands of young men from economically stricken households were unable to find work. Roosevelt hastened to formulate diverse plans for relief. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1933, he told the American people: “Our greatest task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.” He announced the creation of a jobs program for youth to conserve the nation’s depleted natural resources.
By the early 1930s, the results of decades of unchecked exploitation of the country’s environment were apparent. Widespread timber harvesting and excessive cultivation had eroded slopes and stripped precious topsoil. Valuable natural resources had been destroyed faster than they could be replenished. As the CCC’s first director, Robert Fechner, later stated, “Prior to the inauguration of the Civilian Conservation Corps, conservation of resources was allied with the weather, in that there was plenty of talk about both and not much done about either.”
Within a month after Roosevelt outlined his jobs-creation proposal, Congress acted upon his recommendations and passed a law creating the CCC, originally called the “Emergency Conservation Works.” In April 1933, Roosevelt appointed Fechner as CCC director and established an advisory council of representatives from the departments of labor, war, interior, and agriculture. The council would oversee the program and provide a forum for discussing policy issues. The Labor Department was assigned responsibility for recruiting youths and the War Department (army) was in charge of enrollee administration, transportation, housing, food, clothing, supplies, medical care, education, discipline, physical conditioning, and recreational activities. The departments of interior and agriculture selected the location of work camps and supervised the actual labor.
At the president’s urging, the CCC enrolled 25,000 young men by April 6, 1933. The initial camp, appropriately called Roosevelt, was established on April 17 at George Washington National Forest near Luray, Virginia. Less than three months later, about 300,000 men from across the country were settled in some 1,500 camps. CCC enrollment was initially limited to single, male US citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Enrollees were assigned to camps for an initial six-month period with the option to reenlist for up to two years. The height of CCC enrollment was reached in the summer of 1935 with over half a million men scattered across two 2,600 camps. Each of these camps typically housed about 200 men. Most of the recruits were assigned to the Department of Agriculture, where they were primarily engaged in protecting and enhancing forests under the direction of the US Forest Service.
CCC Projects in Colorado
As it did elsewhere in the United States, the CCC had a profound impact on Colorado’s depressed economy and assisted greatly in the conservation of the state’s natural resources. It is estimated that the CCC contributed over $56 million to Colorado’s economy. Over the program’s lifespan, approximately 32,000 young men—most of them Colorado natives or longtime residents—found employment at camps throughout the state.
Colorado’s first twenty-nine CCC camps were established in the summer of 1933. Two years later, at the height of the program, that number was forty-seven. In all, 172 camps spread across the mountains and plains. Men performed all types of badly needed conservation work. About half of the camps were assigned to two bureaus in the Department of Agriculture: the Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service. With Colorado’s vast forests, the CCC provided an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish many badly needed improvements. Among other tasks, enrollees built roads, trails, and campgrounds; planted millions of seedlings; thinned overcrowded timber stands; removed dead or beetle-killed wood; and performed vital fire suppression services. On Colorado’s eastern plains, camps administered by the Soil Conservation Service completed soil and water erosion control projects resulting from overgrazing and prolonged drought.
Next to the Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service was the greatest beneficiary of the CCC in Colorado. Enrollees achieved an impressive record of accomplishments in national parks and monuments as well as at state and municipal recreation facilities. During the course of the CCC’s programs, up to six camps were assigned to Rocky Mountain National Park alone. Other camps were located at Mesa Verde National Park, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument.
Probably the best-known achievement of the CCC in Colorado was the construction of the Red Rocks Amphitheater near Morrison. That work was completed between 1936 and 1941 by CCC enrollees housed at Camp SP-13-C on Bear Creek just west of downtown Morrison. The camp still survives today and is one of the few intact examples of a CCC camp in the United States.
Camps under the auspices of the Grazing Service (now the Bureau of Land Management), were primarily located on the Western Slope. Their work focused on the rehabilitation and improvement of publicly owned rangelands. The first of numerous Grazing Service camps was established at Elk Springs west of Craig in the summer of 1935.
The Bureau of Reclamation also received CCC assistance in Colorado. Between 1935 and 1942, seven camps were assigned to the Uncompahgre, Grand Valley, Pine River, and Mancos irrigation projects. Although small in number, the Reclamation CCC camps were important to the rehabilitation and new construction of hundreds of irrigation and water-control structures in the state. The Bureau of Reclamation camp half a mile north of Montrose was established in the summer of 1935. Construction started at the end of June and was completed by August 1. Just a few days earlier, First Lieutenant August Carlson and 189 young men arrived from Ardmore, Oklahoma, to occupy the camp.
The Montrose camp was similar in appearance to other CCC camps in the United States, reflecting the meticulous standardization of the US military. Detailed instructions were provided for construction, from initial ground-clearing to finish work. Typical camp layouts were also developed by the army and, not surprisingly, they resembled temporary military installations. The Montrose camp had wood buildings that came in panels for easy assembly. Accommodations were simple, and comforts were minimal—enrollees slept in bunk beds, forty to a barrack room. As at any military base, cleanliness and order were paramount—the youths washed and swept the floors and kept their beds tidy. One enrollee recalled that an army sergeant patrolled his barracks carrying a pool cue. He swatted at enrollees’ bedding and if any dust flew up, they would be written up and assigned an “undesirable” task such as mucking out the grease pit.
Though it was Spartan, life at the CCC camp was a vast improvement for most of the impoverished youth. At home, most enrollees did not have access to running water, electricity, and heat, all of which were provided at the CCC camps. Enrollees also received an allowance of thirty dollars per month, with the stipulation that at least twenty-two dollars of that sum be sent home to dependents. Enrollees were well fed and provided clothing, which was mostly surplus equipment from World War I.
The CCC was incredibly effective and prolific, and President Roosevelt urged its continuance as a means of accomplishing critical defense work. But Congress sealed the fate of the program on June 30, 1942, when it voted to liquidate the CCC and allocated $8 million to help cover closing costs. The remaining 60,000 enrollees were released and all work programs discontinued. Some camps were transferred to the army or navy for military use, while others were used to house conscientious objectors, war prisoners, or Japanese evacuees during World War II. Where no future uses could be contemplated, camp structures were demolished. On August 17, 1942, Montrose Camp BR-23 was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers for the duration of the war. Thereafter, the camp buildings were leased to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users’ Association.
Adapted from Christine Pfaff, “‘Happy Days’ of the Depression: the Civilian Conservation Corps in Colorado,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 21, no. 2.