Shenandoah: Not Without the CCC

Skyland CCC Camp
Civilian Conservation Corps Camp N.P.-1 located at Skyland in Shenandoah National Park.

NPS Archives

Shenandoah: Not Without the CCC

by Reed Engle, Cultural Resource Specialist, 1994-20081

During the President's brief stop at Camp Nira [S.N.P. CCC Camp #3], he was treated to a brief pageant entitled "The burial of old man depression and fear and the return of happy days."... two C.C.C. members, one with a banner "C.C.C." and the other with the symbol "NIRA" [National Industrial Recovery Act], marched toward a covered object labeled "fear." As the torchbearers set fire to "fear"... The covering destroyed, [and] "Old Man Depression" was revealed in effigy. This too was fired and the President happily commented, "that's right, burn him up."...The bugler played "Happy Days Are Here Again" as the President...applauded.2

This article appeared just five months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression, and three months after the first two Civilian Conservation Corps camps located in the national parks were established at Skyland (N.P.-1) and Big Meadows (N.P.-2). Although Shenandoah National Park's official establishment was over two years in the future, Washington saw the future park's proximity and virginity as the ideal setting for the demonstration of Roosevelt's depression cures.

The President took a whirlwind tour through the Shenandoah Valley and along the developing Skyline Drive to bolster public confidence in his public works programs. Followed by "three newsreel photographers and a corps of newspaper cameramen,"3 Roosevelt ensured that the uplifting image of Shenandoah's CCC camps was flashed around the world. Shenandoah National Park, long before it was born, was officially baptized by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Between May 11, 1933 and March 31, 1942, ten CCC camps were established within, or on leased land adjacent to, Shenandoah. At any one time, more than 1,000 boys and young men lived in these camps supervised by the Army and worked on projects directed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads.

Until the park was established officially on December 26, 1935, the bulk of CCC activity took place on the narrow 100 foot right-of-way of the Skyline Drive, in the few areas of purchased or donated land transferred to the federal government by the Commonwealth of Virginia, or on leased lands. Thus the earliest park development was concentrated at the existing 6,400 acre 19th century resort Skyland, at the lands adjacent to Herbert Hoover's Rapidan River fishing camp, and at Big Meadows, where the Commonwealth had purchased most of the existing land. The earliest CCC projects were concerned with the building of trails, fire roads and towers, log comfort stations, construction projects associated with the Skyline Drive, and picnic grounds within this narrow corridor.

By the close of 1934, and after the settlement of a Supreme Court suit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia's blanket condemnation of lands to create the park, the Commonwealth took title to the 176,429 acres that would be accepted by the federal government once Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was satisfied that the park would be cleared of residents. However, from this time on, by letter of authority from Virginia, the National Park Service initiated CCC projects throughout the future park area. These projects fall into the broad categories of facilities development, roads and trails construction, and landscape architecture and engineering.

To accomplish these objectives, by 1935 the CCC had in place a sawmill that produced the materials to construct park buildings (most often from chestnut cut from trees killed over a decade earlier by the blight), a shingle mill to produce the characteristic hand-made concrete tiles simulating wood shingles used on many of Shenandoah's buildings, a blacksmith shop turning out hinges, latches, sign brackets, and tools, and a sign shop producing the hand-routed chestnut signboards emulating the standards established for the western parks. The CCC established plant nurseries in the camps at Front Royal and Big Meadows to grow seeds collected from trees within the park and to "heel-in" plants purchased from commercial nurseries or obtained from other parks – materials to be used to revegetate areas disturbed by construction.

Supervised by Harvey Benson, landscape architect for the Skyline Drive and subsequently for Shenandoah National Park, the CCC boys returned to correct initial design failings of the 100-foot right-of-way of the Skyline Drive. They flattened cut and fill slopes, adjusted horizontal and vertical curves, constructed overlooks (which was not possible in the earlier design), and built guardrails, guard walls, and stone gutters. They then landscaped all disturbed areas with trees, shrubs, and herbaceous materials – some from park nurseries, some from commercial sources, and many transplanted from other developed areas.

Recent research suggests that no area within immediate view of the Skyline Drive is natural. The CCC sought to improve the Skyline Drive corridor by removing dead chestnuts, thinning the understory and removing deadwood for fire control, removing the vectors for pine bark blister rust, attempting to eliminate Ailanthus altissima (a largely futile eight year campaign) and trying to reestablish what they termed “relic” or "vestigial" plants (in some cases today's rare, threatened, and endangered species). These efforts all were part of Benson's careful creation of natural vistas and varied topographic features along the length of the Drive and within the developing visitor use areas.

The impact of CCC projects within Shenandoah on the then extant natural and cultural resources may be gauged in review of the projects undertaken by a single camp during the autumn and winter of 1934-1935:

Reduction of fire hazards Pinnacle Mtn. 300 acres...roadside cleanup Skyline Drive 3 miles, campground clearing [of trees and shrubs] Sexton [Pinnacles] 40 acres , horse trail Pinnacle[s] to Marys Rock 3 miles, Trailside cleanup same 3 miles; landscaping, fine grading Skyline drive 200 cubic yards., sodding 2 acres, moving and plant trees Skyline drive 1,000 trees and shrubs; telephone line Thornton Gap to Stony Man 7 miles, other campground facilities and park area signs, boundary, etc....4

After the official establishment of the park in 1935, CCC activities were expanded to include the entire expanded acreage. Except on the few dozen properties where residents were given life estates, the charge of the CCC boys was to remove all evidence of human occupation in spite of official policy that some of these homes were to be preserved and restored for interpretation. They dismantled houses and outbuildings to be used as salvage materials for resettlement community structures or to be burned. They removed fences, obliterated gardens and orchards, and replanted, seeded, or sodded the land afterwards. Many known occupation sites in Shenandoah are invisible today due to the CCC's mandate to return the land to what park managers viewed as a more natural state.

Serious examinations of the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps within Shenandoah National Park challenge us to reevaluate our traditional definition and understanding of natural processes and natural parks.

Shenandoah National Park

Last updated: September 25, 2018