CCC poster, 1941

Labor that Built the Parks

CCC poster, 1941
Civilian Conservation Corps poster, ca. 1941 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

When Depression settled over the once-robust American economy in the 1930s, young men found work building American park infrastructure and engaging in a variety of conservation projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The program developed from an idea that had been around for a while, and it became one of the first relief programs instituted shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933; the CCC persisted with public works projects for nearly a decade into the war years that finally carried the nation out of its economic woes. During that decade, thousands of workers built trails, roadways, bridges, buildings, and numerous other improvements that continue to serve park visitors today.

Roosevelt envisioned the CCC not only as a relief program for unemployed workers, but also as a means to “make improvements in National and State domains which have been largely forgotten in the past few years of industrial development.” More importantly, at least in the president’s estimation, were the moral and spiritual benefits that the nation would enjoy. “The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans,” he proclaimed, “who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work. We can take a vast army of these unemployed out into healthful surroundings. We can eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability.” In short, the CCC program would deliver better parks, improved facilities, and healthier, more noble citizens.

Petit Jean water tower
Civilian Conservation Corps water tower structure, Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2011)

Three million American men worked in the CCC camps. We can’t say for certain that they all experienced greater spiritual and moral stability because of their time with the CCC, but their legacy remains on the land throughout the nation.  They planted three billion trees and improved over 800 American parks, including many state parks. In the first year of the program, 70 CCC work camps operated in national park areas. In addition the National Park Service assisted in establishing state park systems across the country, with CCC laborers constructing many of the facilities that would serve as the foundation of the new parks. Recreational visits to America’s parks may have lagged during the years of economic downturn, and fell even more during the war years, but the CCC workers stayed busy readying the parklands for a postwar surge of park visitors. Our enviable network of state and national parks today owes much to the labors of the CCC men whose handiwork still adorns recreational destinations across the country.

The PBS program American Experience has useful resources available from its episode on the CCC. In addition, a history of the CCC’s contribution to the national parks can be found in a free ebook from the National Park Service: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service, 1933-1942: An Administrative History, by John C. Paige, and you can view available online a 1939 newsreel about the CCC and “A Nation-Wide System of Parks” from the U.S. National Archives. ♨

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