Big Bend
Administrative History
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"Doing Pioneer Work": The Civilian Conservation Corps and Facility Planning, 1936-1941

As promoters of Big Bend National Park solicited funds for land acquisition, so too did National Park Service planners devote an extraordinary amount of time and money to the design and construction of the new park's infrastructure. After the "first impressions" of 1935, when Congress authorized creation of Texas's inaugural NPS site, park officials from across the nation ventured into the Big Bend country to oversee the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to study the plant and animal life of the region, to examine Big Bend's geology and hydrology, and to prepare the site for visitation. Building upon knowledge acquired earlier in the decade, the park service proceeded through the auspices of the CCC to prepare for Big Bend's facility construction, resource management, interpretive programs, and concessions development. Only in the matter of the international peace park did the NPS lose momentum. Even though land acquisition did not occur, the investment by the NPS in park planning in the absence of any guarantees of park creation gave hope to advocates of Big Bend that they would have a national park someday.

One feature of NPS planning in the late 1930s that aided Big Bend was the professionalization of park planning and design. Linda Flint McClelland, author of Building the National Parks: Historic Landscape Design and Construction (1998), noted that "the programs of the 1930s put into operation and proved the value of the master planning process spearheaded by the Landscape Division, later renamed the Branch of Plans and Design." The Great Depression had left many architects and planners without work, and the NPS utilized their talents as the system expanded with New Deal agencies like the CCC, WPA, PWA, ECW, and the state parks. Big Bend further benefited from its location within the ECW's Region Three, which McClelland called "perhaps the most successful of the regions from the viewpoint of consistent, imaginative, and successful application of national park principles and practices." This McClelland attributed to the leadership of Herbert Maier, who "brought experience, wealth of sources, and an amazing ability to express clearly the qualities of naturalistic architecture and landscape design." Maier's inspectors, like the Harvard-trained George Nason, "ensured the high workmanship and consistent adherence to principles of naturalistic and rustic design," features that confronted the CCC at its camp in the Chisos Mountains. Maier became an authority within the park service for his training methods, and for McClelland his "greatest contribution to park design was his mastery of rock work, assimilating both the landscape gardener's emphasis on naturalism and the architect's vision of the construction potential of this material." Big Bend and other future park sites in Maier's southwestern region allowed he and his small staff to experiment with "conventions of landscape architecture such as winding walks, native plantings, flagstone terraces, and open foyers." Thus the CCC camp in the Chisos Mountains provided Maier and other NPS planners with a laboratory for innovation, not to mention the challenge of extremes of distance, isolation, and environment. [1]

"Camp No. SP-33-T" in the CCC program faced these conditions, and also the challenges of all New Deal relief agencies: the experimental nature of economic stimulation, the political influence of local and state leaders, and the turnover in crew members dictated by the limits of employment. For these reasons, camp superintendent Robert D. Morgan wrote in January 1936 to Maier of his concerns about the operations of the Chisos outfit. With some fourteen months' experience in charge of the camp, Morgan wondered whether "the organization as a whole, I mean the one I know in Texas, had really grasp[ed] the idea regarding our work, in a way that would enable us to get the very best out of the work being done in the Parks of Texas." In Morgan's estimation, "the vast majority of the men engaged in the Park work in Texas were just the same as myself," in that "the work was vastly different than any we had done, especially we who had been engaged in Engineering work." Reading Maier's manual entitled "Park Structures and Facilities," Morgan mused: "I would have to change a lot of ideas I had about structures, location and plans for buildings and roads." In addition, the Chisos superintendent would "have to learn to listen to a different group of men than I had been accustomed to being in contact with." This level of performance required Morgan to "read different type[s] of books and magazines, and take a greater interest in nature, and particularly to be willing to take suggestions different than ordinarily given regarding a similar building or structure in a different location or under usual conditions." [2]

Morgan's critique arose from his sense that "the entire organization had not yet realized just what it was all about." He had visited other CCC camps in Texas, and concluded that "members of the organization [who] were working on a project were not sold on the project, nor enthusiastic about the project." A good many men, Morgan informed Maier, "told me that they could see no reason for the project and that it would never be of any service to any one and it was merely a meal ticket until something else came along." Morgan discovered that "another outstanding point was the tension and ill feeling existing between some men and the inspecting personnel." Personal animosities also arose within CCC crews, as "a lot of the men I talked [to] seemed to want to critici[z]e the other [man's] job and the work that was being done." He believed that "it is the ability to conceive just what is right and best in each of the different locations that should . . . develop us all into Park men." Yet more disturbing to Morgan was the revelation that "the lack of enthusiasm was not confined to the men actually on the project, but existed in men in higher authority." These observations led Morgan to admit: "I was determined to sell this project to all the personnel." The Chisos camp needed to see itself as "part of a chain that was to tie us to an organization that was providing not only a job but an opportunity to advance and to have a part in the development of a project that will mean a lot to Texas and the nation." For his part, said Morgan, "I would discuss with my men the various things that came up in the work, urge them to read the books and magazines that came into the office regarding paper work and to impress upon them to take the suggestions given by our inspectors in a constructive way." For Morgan this meant that the crew "would live the job." Then reflecting the appreciation for Herbert Maier defined in McClelland's book one-half century later, Morgan concluded: "I think we owe it to you as our Regional Officer, to our Inspector and to our National Office to render a service that will reflect credit upon the National Park Service and help to stimulate the admiration of the public for the work being done." [3]

Other observers of CCC work shared Morgan's assessment of the significance of Big Bend to the CCC and NPS. George Nason wrote to Maier in February 1936 to endorse funding for another 90-day period at Big Bend, calling the site "probably a park that should rank as A No. 1 in awarding applications." The "necessity of doing pioneer work on this area," said the senior regional inspector, meant that "a great portion of cost is for road projects plus a pipe line to carry water." Nason recognized that operations at Big Bend created "excessive overhead" charges, as the distance from population centers made the cost of oil and gas quite high. He noted that "the grades are steep and . . . automobiles must many times run in low [gear]." Roads into the Big Bend area were "poor and pioneer," which "adds considerably to the maintenance cost." Then he claimed that "because of the very high number of uneducated Mexicans in the camp, it will be necessary to hire a clerk, which runs up the supervision cost." The Chisos camp budget of $22,000 included $16,000 for overhead charges. Yet Nason asked Maier to authorize the new expenditures, "justified by the fact that this is more important than our normal Texas State Park Camps." [4]

To address the concerns of Nason, Morgan, and other students of the Big Bend situation, Maier agreed in March to the suggestion made the year before by William Carnes of the NPS's San Francisco office to "furnish a man to contact the ECW inspector periodically in the Big Bend." Carnes's office had undergone substantial reductions in force, and Maier knew that no one would be forthcoming from the Bay Area. The pace of road construction into the CCC camp had sparked the interest of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce "to have some form of overnight accommodations provided for the visiting public." The chamber planned to publicize the project in order to promote the land-acquisition program. This necessitated "some form of limited accommodations" in the Chisos Basin, and to that end Maier asked that Charles Richey be assigned to review construction planning at the camp. Fortuitously, the San Francisco office that spring had construction work underway only at three sites: Platt National Park in Oklahoma, Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. As these were part of Richey's workload, and because "practically all parks and monuments in his territory now have a well formulated master plan," Carnes conceded that "some adjustment will need to be made to include more work for this summer in his territory." Richey himself had expressed an interest in working at Big Bend, and by relocating from San Francisco the inspector could visit more frequently the NPS sites at Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands National Monument, and the planned park unit in El Paso (the future Chamizal National Memorial). [5]

With management and oversight in hand, the NPS could devote its attention to the many tasks of design and construction at the Chisos camp. The onset of spring weather accelerated road construction, with the NPS pleased to learn from Everett Townsend of the state highway department's plans for the Big Bend area. As "senior foreman" at the Chisos camp, Townsend worked closely with the Brewster County commission to grant jurisdiction over access routes to the future national park. The route involved, Townsend told Maier, branched off from "State Highway No. 3, at Marathon, follows the present Boquillas road southward to the junction of the Big Bend Road, thence via the Big Bend Road to Burnham's Ranch; thence to Terlingua and from there to the mouth of the Santa Helena Canyon." With the shift of jurisdiction to the state, said Townsend, "it seems an appropriate time to urge the opening of a road from some where on the Terlingua[-]Alpine road through the Christmas Mountains to a connection with the other roads at or near the Burnham Ranch." To expedite this plan, said the camp's senior foreman, "I believe a word from you to the Chamber of Commerce, with an offer of advice through your road engineers as to the most practical and beneficial route, would create a lot of encouragement for this undertaking." [6]

Townsend's suggestion reminded Maier of the tenuous nature of park planning in Big Bend. Bernard Manbey, associate engineer with the NPS office in San Francisco, had surveyed a similar route in August 1935, hence Townsend's knowledge of the merits of the Terlingua-Alpine connection. Frank Kittredge, chief engineer for the San Francisco branch, reminded Maier that "from an engineering standpoint such a road is entirely feasible." This route would shorten considerably the distance between Alpine and park headquarters (then contemplated for the Chisos Basin. Kittredge predicted that "in view of the fact that the great majority of tourists visiting the Big Bend National Park would already have traveled great distances before they reach Alpine, any way of shortening the road from Alpine to the park would seem to be well worth while." An additional advantage would be that "all the necessary culverts and bridges could be put in the initial stage and the road laid out with proper grades, thus considerably cutting down the cost of subsequent maintenance." Kittredge attributed "the high cost of maintaining roads such as the existing ones and their frequent impassable condition" to "the lack of the very necessary above-mentioned structures and the consequent frequent washing away of stretches of road, as well as the formation of dangerous holes." The San Francisco engineer further noted that "since there is no public domain in the State of Texas, all approach roads would have to be built by the State, or else jointly by the State and County." It made sense, then, for NPS and Texas highway officials to collaborate from the start on road construction. [7]

Even as the NPS studied highway access to the Chisos camp, the U.S. Army (supervisor of camp operations) had plans to link the remote area to the outside world by means of an upgraded airstrip at the ranch of Elmo and Ada Johnson. At first Herbert Maier assumed that the site would be used "only for emergency purposes," but surmised that "if this location were fortunately on land now owned by the State, a good beginning could be made toward an eventual major landing field for this future national park." The Works Progress Administration expressed an interest in collaborating with the CCC and NPS on the Johnson airfield, and Maier learned from Robert Morgan that the latter had detailed Paul Pressler, an NPS architectural foreman, to work with Johnson at the site. "Of course we cannot let the work in the Chisos Mountains suffer," Maier warned Morgan, "but you should assist Johnson to as great an extent as you reasonably can." The ECW director's rationale was that "that part of the territory is in the proposed final area and anything done should be as well executed as possible under the existing conditions." Army officials then outlined their specific route of travel, with flights departing from Dryden to Sanderson, then heading southwest across the Santiago and Chisos Mountains, to land near the Rio Grande at Johnson's Ranch. The Army Air Corps thus would have service within sixteen miles of the Chisos camp. This plan appealed to all parties, and the WPA undertook the initial grading of the strip in April of 1936. Yet when Johnson attempted to secure a position with the agency to earn additional income, the NPS could not accommodate him. Instead, Maier offered Johnson employment as a "skilled workman" at the salary of $150.00 per month, assisting Erik Reed on his archaeological survey. Even this became problematic as the CCC's budget faced new reductions in June. By then Maier had nothing at all for Johnson; a situation that he regretted, as he told Reed: "Mr. Johnson has always cooperated with us one hundred percent." The best that Maier could do was to order the two CCC technicians assigned to the Johnson Ranch airstrip to rent accommodations from Johnson, rather than in the CCC camp in the mountains, so that Johnson could earn some revenue from the federal presence on his land. [8]

The desire of local ranchers to earn income from the NPS extended to Ira Hector, whose horse concession was the only one available to the CCC camp or to visitors. By May of 1936, superintendent Morgan reported problems with Hector's arrangement. The state parks board, lacking the funds to purchase Hector's lands, had granted grazing leases to him on "all State Owned land in and adjoining the basin." In exchange, Morgan told Colonel R.O. Whiteaker, chief engineer of the Texas parks board, "Hector agreed to pay into the Park Board $140.00 per year." In addition, the rancher "was given the horse concession in the [state] park," and was to "give to the Park Board twenty five percent of all monies collected." The state board intended that "this percentage along with the lease money was to be given to the heirs of the estate to pay them for their shares of the land." Hector complained to Morgan that "no payment has been made to the heirs although he has turned in a considerable sum of money." Thus the rancher "has refused to let any government man have any horses and this forces us to go on the outside and secure horses from other sources." Morgan also contended that "[Hector] is anxious to leave here as he claims to be having a lot of trouble with the boys in the camp." According to the rancher, the CCC crew members "are catching his horses and riding them, and in their travels out into the mountains that they run his cattle, steal his bells off his horses and so on." [9]

Hector's demands placed the CCC and its superintendent in an awkward position. Morgan informed Whiteaker that Hector had "wanted me to get the boys all confined to camp as he felt that they were trespassing on him since he had this land leased." The superintendent had no recourse, as "the Army has charge of the boys in camp." In addition, "the National Park Service has always raised sand about the [Hector] cattle being in here," as "they are doing a great damage to the trees and plant life and we would be far better off with them out of here." Morgan had learned from Hector that he would leave the Chisos basin "if some arrangement can be made to pay this land out." Hector would "take a payment of $100.00 per month and leave," said the camp superintendent. Morgan doubted "if the [parks] Board can pay this section out at this time," and had inquired of Everett Townsend to see if the Brewster County chamber of commerce would do so. In the interim, Morgan canvassed the other ranches in the Big Bend area to determine which could supply horses on a daily basis. Erik Reed and his archaeological surveyors were in need of mounts, but traveled great distances and did not spend more than one day in any given location. Morgan noted to the Austin office of the NPS that Waddy Burnham "has the only horses available to be used in [the] immediate area of the camp, and he has to bring them seven miles to start from here." At that, Burnham could not supply horses for any of the survey work underway in the Dead Horse and Rosillos Mountains, nor in the vicinity of Boquillas, Castolon, Johnson's Ranch, and San Vicente. Finally, the CCC camp faced a quarantine zone south of the basin, "and ranchers can not take horses into or out of this zone." Morgan asked permission to rent horses from a network of ranchers in the Big Bend country, and to authorize automobile travel as far as possible before switching to mounts. [10]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003