The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:
A New Deal Case Study

NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 7
The Success of the Experiment

A popular nickname for the CCC was "Roosevelt's Tree Army," and its activities were often regarded as being primarily concerned with the planting of trees. [1] Tree planting was always an important aspect of the work; in fact, as W. E. Leuchtenburg has pointed out, "of all the forest planting . . . in the history of the nation, more than half was done by the C.C.C." [2] Yet this was but one of the host of tasks performed by the enrollees. To emphasize it unduly is to get a completely false impression of the variety and usefulness of CCC work. Roughly 75 per cent of all CCC camps worked on projects administered by the Department of Agriculture, and of these, more than half were employed in national, state, or private forests, under the direction of the United States Forest Service. [3] Their work can be divided into two broad categories: forest protection and forest improvement.

The most spectacular protective function was undoubtedly the fighting or prevention of forest fires. By 1942 the CCC had spent nearly 6.5 million days fighting fires, a period equivalent to the constant efforts of more than 16,000 men, working for a whole year on the basis of an eight-hour day. Forty-seven enrollees lost their lives in the various blazes. During this time, the acreage lost by fire in the United States reached its lowest point ever, though a record number of fires were reported. [4]

In fighting fires, CCC enrollees used techniques developed over long years of experience. Some served as members of permanent forest fire patrols, covering forest routes by truck, on foot, by canoe, or as members of airplane crews. For most, however, fire-fighting was something outside the work project, and the CCC's unique contribution was its ability to become a readily available, easily mobilized reservoir of assistance. When fire broke out, enrollees were willing and able to use grub hoe, ax, saw, pump, and bulldozer, as well as sheer numbers, against the blaze. In 1934, for example, 1,400 men were dispatched to a fire near Los Angeles with such speed that a potential holocaust was controlled before doing much damage to the timber stand or the nearby urban area. [5] Tangible accomplishments of the Corps in the field of fire prevention were the construction of roads, trails, telephone lines, and lookout towers which facilitated communication between fire-fighting units and enabled men, supplies, and equipment to be transported faster. In 1936, a typical year, enrollees laid 44,750 miles of telephone lines and cleared 11,402 miles of truck trails. They maintained 62,920 miles of trail and built 611 lookout towers. [6] CCC workers covered thousands of acres of forest land, removing dead trees and other inflammable material, and constructing fire breaks by clearing woodland strips, including the Ponderosa Way in California, which was six hundred miles long. This giant firebreak separated the brush-covered foothills, where fires often start, from the valuable timber higher up on the slopes of the north-south chain of forested mountains. It was one of the CCC's most important achievements in the field of timber protection. Other important contributions to fire prevention included the construction of water storage basins and ponds in New England, and the manning of motorized well-digging units in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin forest areas. These insured a ready supply of water for fire-fighting tanks and pumps. [7]

Less dramatic perhaps than the fight against fire but equally necessary was the protection of the forests against disease and insects. By 1933 every major white pine region in the country had been severely affected by blister rust, an alien tree disease whose depredations threatened to eradicate white pine completely from the nation's forests. With the aid of CCC labor, foresters were able to throw heavier control forces against the scourge, usually by the painstaking method of scouring the woods and pulling out by hand currants, gooseberry bushes, and other plants, the "alternate hosts" by which the disease spread from tree to tree. By 1942 its march had been almost completely checked in some areas of the country and brought under a measure of control elsewhere. [8] Insects, too, were silently sapping the life of thousands of healthy trees. The most serious of these was the bark beetle, which laid eggs in tree bark. The larvae then tunneled deep into the wood, cutting off the sap supply and eventually killing the tree. This pest destroyed more than five billion feet of standing timber annually. CCC enrollees, instructed by Forest Service technicians, engaged successfully in a campaign against the pest, mainly by cutting down infected trees; by 1938, forestry losses due to its ravages were on the decline. [9] Other control projects were directed against the gypsy moth—checked by maintaining a barrier zone to prevent the spread of the pest and by destroying egg clusters—the grasshopper, various species of weevil, and Dutch elm disease. [10]

Forest protection was but a section of the work carried out by enrollees working with the Forestry Service. The Corps also devoted much of its time to forest improvement. Workers constructed roads and trails which opened up large areas to greater timber utilization. Structural additions in the forms of warehouses, garages, overnight cabins, shelters, toolhouses, and storage boxes contributed to greater efficiency in forest management. [11] Hundreds of new camping grounds, made more beautiful by building small dams to convert streams into lakes, were developed in public forests. CCC dams ranged in size from small stone, earth, or brush "gully stoppers," used to combat soil erosion, to large earth and concrete edifices involving months of labor; most dams were of the small variety. Stream improvements, too, entailing the building of deflectors, dams, and riffles, aided fishing conditions, while the construction of winter sports facilities, especially ski jumps and runs, met an increasing public demand. [12]

The most important aspect of the CCC's forestry improvement work, however, was simply reforestation. By June, 1936, nearly 570 million young trees had been planted on national forest lands alone. In addition, overcrowded timber stands were thinned and experimental forest plots assiduously tended—valuable assets in the constant search for new techniques. Perhaps it was for its work in reforestation that the Corps was best known. Certainly its record in this field was a fine one. [13]

Other tasks performed under Forestry Service auspices included the improvement of the grazing land situation on national forests in Western states. The Corps re-grassed thousands of acres, dug new water holes and improved existing ones, built storage dams for stock water, killed uncounted millions of prairie dogs, pocket gophers, and jackrabbits, and constructed fences and bridges. [14] Intensive rodent control schemes were also put into operation. [15] Despite occasional complaints that CCC labor was "ruining the forests," [16] there is ample evidence to indicate that most foresters thoroughly approved of its use. This approbation was reflected in both the public statements and private correspondence of state and regional forest officials, most of whom were ardent proponents of a permanent Corps, with even greater emphasis laid on conservation. In the words of one of their number, "the proven worth of the camps clearly suggests that they continue. . . . By unifying the conservation feature of the CCC on an equal basis with the unemployment relief and rehabilitation features, the whole concept of the Corps will be materially clarified and strengthened." [17]

Next to the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service was the Department of Agriculture agency with the most camps under its direction. By 1938 the service had developed more than five hundred project areas in forty-four states, employing about 60,000 youths annually. [18] Their work fell into three categories: the demonstration of practical methods of soil conservation to farmers, actual work upon private land in co-operation with landowners, and the development and improvement of erosion control techniques through research. [19] Most of this work was done in Southern and Western states, where ignorance, improper land use, and climate had wrought havoc with the soil. Techniques included the checking and healing of gullied areas, fence construction, and contour tree planting. By 1938, CCC enrollees had planted more than 200 million trees on soil conservation projects alone. One of the most effective methods of preventing water erosion on steeper slopes was the construction of broad-based terraces. These emptied excess water into designed outlets where it did no harm, while their broad bases and gentle slopes offered little problem to the farmer implanting, working, and reaping his crops. Engineering and surveying were important aspects of terrace construction. Enrollees with special aptitudes were given instruction in these fields, then placed in charge of a terracing project under the general supervision of the camp engineer. This experience often pointed the way to future employment. [20]

One of the more publicized activities of the Corps was its role in the conservation of wildlife, under the direction of the Bureau of Biological Survey in the Department of Agriculture. The coming of the European settlers to the American continent had begun a process of wildlife destruction which continued thereafter virtually unhampered by legal or moral restraint. In 1934 the President's Committee on Wildlife Restoration, appointed in January of that year, revealed a gloomy story of depredation and waste. At the committee's insistence on action, a wildlife restoration program was devised and the CCC was widely used in its implementation. [21] Enrollees developed submarginal land as wildlife refuges, built fish-rearing ponds and animal shelters, developed springs, and planted food for animals and birds. Nesting areas were constructed or improved, streams, dams and rivers were stocked with fish, and sick or injured creatures were collected, treated, and released om federal refuges. [22] One of the wildlife camps occasioned national interest. This was the "Arkansas floating camp," whose enrollees lived om a fleet of houseboats while developing waterfowl refuges in streams, swamps, and bayous. They were given "shore leave" on weekends. [23] Wildlife also benefited incidentally from most other Department of Agriculture activities, particularly from forest fire prevention and dam building. By 1938 the most serious aspects of wildlife wastage had been ameliorated, and expenditures on wildlife administration had increased by 450 per cent since 1933. The Forest Service claimed that the largest share of the credit for improved conditions was due to the CCC. [24]

Other camps under the general auspices of the Department of Agriculture included those working on drainage problems. They were directed by the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering, their main function being to assist public drainage organizations in performing neglected maintenance work and in making improvements. The Department of Agriculture also supervised the work of about thirty CCC camps employed on various projects directed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Most TVA camps were engaged in reforestation, and by June 1942, they had planted 44 million trees. They also performed important work in erosion control, as well as suppressing 114 forest fires within TVA boundaries. [25]

The majority of the CCC camps controlled by the Department of the Interior were employed by the National Parks Service on tasks directly related to the improvement and protection of national parks. In so doing, they performed many functions similar to forestry camps. National Parks Service camps built bridges, installed telephone lines, constructed stoves, fireplaces, and picnic tables, and made dams, lakes, and swimming pools. They opened up many park areas to the public through the construction of roads and trails. Land was purchased and turned into new parks entirely by CCC labor. The largest of these, Big Bend National Park in Texas, was more than six hundred acres. [26]

National Parks Service companies worked extensively, too, on the preservation and restoration of historical sites and monuments. CCC labor, for example, restored Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania, where George Washington in 1754 engaged a force under General Coulon de Villiers to start the French and Indian War. The painstaking re-creation of La Purisma Mission in California drew wide acclaim from historians and archeologists. The carving of Mount Theater, at Mount Tamalpois State Park, California, from the solid rock of the mountainside was a lasting tribute to the constructive ability, engineering skill, and creativity of the Corps' labor. [27]

The CCC co-operated with the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior, on irrigation projects, particularly the building of dams and canals. [28] Several camps were also attached to the Division of Grazing. Again, most of them worked on water development tasks—the drilling of wells, the piping of springs—in drought areas. Grazing camps were also engaged in rodent and insect control, and by 1937 more than 2,590,000 acres had been treated. It was estimated that CCC work advanced range rehabilitation work by ten to twenty years. [29]

One of the most interesting aspects of work done with CCC labor by the Department of the Interior concerned the fighting of subterranean coal fires in Gillette, Wyoming. Seventeen camps were established in the Gillette area at specific fire points, working under the auspices of the General Land Office. Until their advent, no attempt had been made to extinguish the seventeen fires, but the CCC had successfully put out seven of them by 1937 and had the remainder well under control. The method of attack was either to dig out all burning material, then cover the exposed coal bed with several feet of sand and shale, or to smother larger fires by sealing. [30]

Two of the largest, most important, and most publicized of all CCC projects were carried out under the guidance of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army. These were the flood control schemes on the Winooski River, Vermont, and the Walkill River, New York. The Winooski project, the largest construction project in the country using CCC labor, aimed at reducing flood damage to areas along the Winooski River, a tributary of Lake Champlain. It involved the construction of three major dams. Two of these, Wrightsville and East Barre, were completed in 1935. Wrightsville, 1,200 feet long and seventy feet high, controlled the flow from seventy-one square miles of watershed; East Barre, which was slightly smaller, controlled the flow from thirty-eight square miles of watershed. The third dam, the Waterbury dam, completed later, was bigger than Wrightsville and East Barre combined, controlling the run-off from 109 square miles of watershed. Flood control of the Winooski River, whose waters had killed 120 persons in 1927, was one of the most enduring of all CCC achievements. [31]

The Walkill River project, which employed about 2,500 enrollees annually, involved channeling rather than dam construction, though about four miles of levees were also built. Enrollees excavated a channel 4.5 miles long and twenty feet deep, with a seventy-foot bottom width. The channel drew off flood waters, preventing the destruction of crops in the highly fertile farming sections along the Walkill River of upstate New York. This particular job was finished in 1937. [32]

The vast range of CCC work was not performed without considerable expense. One of the charges most often leveled against the Corps was that its cost was excessive for a relief agency. [33] If the agency's function was considered purely one of relief—distributing aid to the unemployed, but receiving little in return—then such charges can be partially substantiated. The annual cost per enrollee was $1,004, which compared unfavorably with that of the Works Progress Administration of $770 to $800, and the National Youth Administration of $400 to $700. [34]

However, to consider the Corps solely as a relief agency is to neglect the whole question of the benefits accruing to the United States as a result of its work. In other words, what was the financial return on every dollar expended on CCC activity? To estimate the value to the country of the Corps' work is impossible. McEntee considered in 1941 that the immediate physical value alone of the work done so far was at the very least $664 per enrollee, and this figure could not take into account its future value. [35] There was no way of calculating how much money had been saved because of fire prevention, or by how much the grazing program and erosion control schemes had increased land value and produced better crops and stock, or what the billions of trees planted would be worth in thirty years. Such achievements could not be measured in economic terms; suffice it to say that if this were possible, if the monetary value of all the present and future benefits of CCC work could be added together, then divided by the total number of enrollees, the per capita value thus obtained would far outweigh the per capita cost of $1,004. In terms of value obtained, the CCC surely showed a handsome profit.

Moreover, even this latter figure would not have considered one of the vital aspects of the CCC work. The role of the CCC as a conservor of human beings can in no way be measured economically, yet its importance in this field was seminal. The efficiency of the CCC as a rehabilitation agency can be studied in two ways: though looking at charts, facts, and figures, or by reviewing the testimonies of the enrollees and their families. The figures are impressive. The men gained from eight to fourteen pounds in weight and about one-half inch in height as a result of good food, regular hours, and hard work. The disease rate was low, in most cases lower than the national average for men of the enrollee's age group. The same was true for the mortality rate. [36] The educational program provided measurably useful instruction for many, and job opportunities for some. The Corps success could often be represented by diagrams, such as graphs indicating weight gains, or similar sets of figures. [37]

No charts could indicate the effect of the CCC experience on the whole outlook of most enrollees. Figures cannot tell of hope regained or horizons broadened, yet such changes were a reality in the camps of the CCC. The words of the enrollees best tell the story. Life in the camp was a completely new experience for the enrollees, often their first taste of country living. For many of them the journey to camp was their first venture outside the home environment, and most found it salutary. A lad from Milroy, Pennsylvania, wrote: "I live in a little town which is smokey all the time and their is no fresh air, whatsoever like there is on the mountains, good fresh air and good eats, better than what over half the fellows are getting at home." [38] A former college student described rather strikingly the effect of camp life on him personally. "The mornings of sunlight," he wrote, "the evening dusk, and shaded sun when the stars are so close to the earth one could almost reach out and touch them, these are glorious days that shall never be forgotten. Each night I face the setting sun that floods the peaks of the distant mountains with crimson grandeur, and with me is the song of the hills, and the strength to face tomorrow's dawn." [39]

Three youths from New York City, who were sent to camp in Iowa, said "they saw a nation's vast resources" while making the journey across the country. [40] The Louisiana state director of relief reported that "boys who had never been away from the small rural community in which they grew up, came home on leave improved in knowledge with an interest in national problems." [41] Enrollee James W. Danner spoke articulately of the broadening effects of CCC life when he asserted that "as an Americanizing influence, the CCC is perhaps without equal." It blended people of different home and racial environments, "getting immigrants' sons away from the old world settlements in our big cities." [42] Few enrollees could have returned from camp without having gained in understanding of their country and its people.

For some enrollees, CCC training opened up whole new vistas for future employment. One youth, whose series of articles for his camp newspaper came to the attention of the Metro Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture studio, was given a position as a scenario writer there. [43] Another found a good job with a billing firm, purely because of the training in typing which he had received in camp. Others received scholarships to colleges and universities. [44] Not all enrollees succeeded in obtaining jobs upon their discharge, but their chances increased as employers became increasingly aware of the beneficial effects of camp life on the youths. [45]

Many enrollees found the chance to do something for their families the most satisfactory aspect of camp life. Enrollee John Ross, of Norwood, Colorado, told of receiving a letter from his mother, who was "proud of me for what I am able to do for her with the money that I am sending home. Her health has been poor for some time and I am helping to pay the necessary bills. This is in itself a great satisfaction to me." [46] Another boy, one of a family of seventeen with an unemployed father, spoke of the great assistance his monthly check had been to his family and to his own self-respect. The feeling of doing something for his people had inspired him to continue his interrupted education while in camp, and he had recently graduated from high school. [47]

In almost all the letters relating the specific benefits of CCC life, there was one common denominator, something at once intangible and very real. For most enrollees, enlistment in the CCC had been the final act, the culmination of a long period of despair and helplessness. It proved also to be a turning point. The Corps rekindled hope for the future and faith in America and its way of life. Some expressed this experience articulately. Enrollee Karl Kidd said: "the greatest fact which the CCC has given me, as well as thousands of other young men, is the building of a strong and more enduring faith. Not one which is so frequently synonymous with ignorance or credulity, but a faith that restores belief in one's physical, mental and spiritual self, in his associates, and in the future." [48] Joseph E. Bush spoke of his "renewed ambitions and hope." [49] Am enrollee who had lived in a transient camp before joining the Corps identified "a new born fighting spirit within me," and emphatically declared that his CCC experience had made him a far better American. [50] Others, less introspective perhaps, were equally sincere. To enrollee Ray Johnson the CCC was the work of the Almighty. "God created this universe," he declared; "he gave us spring, with its beauty of flowers, and birds and trees. Now he has given us the CCC and this man Roosevelt. For that, I praise God." [51]

Of course, these written testimonies of faith renewed, hope rekindled, and horizons broadened have a somewhat limited value when one is estimating the effect of the CCC experience on the outlook of the enrollees. After all, it was not the typical youth who put his half-formed thoughts to paper, and any opinion on the question must inevitably be largely impressionistic. Certainly, for many enrollees the CCC probably meant three square meals a day, a bed at night, and little else. Nevertheless, and unless the collective testimony of parents, relief directors, camp officers, and the enrollees themselves is to be completely discarded, the camp experience brought benefits which were profoundly more than physical. In January, 1937, when the President accepted an award from the Foresters of America Association "for the greatest individual contribution to conservation in the United States in 1936" because of his "sponsorship" of the CCC, he would have been justified in pointing with pride to the Corps' achievement in the conservation of youth as well as of natural resources. [52]

Not everyone who enrolled during the first four years of the CCC's existence benefited from the experience, however, nor were all enrollees satisfied with the conditions. Small-scale mutinies erupted, most of them due to conditions peculiar to the particular camp involved. Enrollees in camp at Battiest, Oklahoma, for example, once revolted because of the poor quality of the food there. [53] In New York, at the South Mountain reservation, some enrollees would not accept an 11 P.M. curfew, refusing to work until it had been lifted. [54] This type of rebellion involved only a minority of the company and was quelled without trouble, usually by the dismissal of the ringleaders. During the first four years, there was only one mutiny of significant proportions, when members of a camp at Maine refused en bloc to accept a transfer to Maryland, assaulting their officers when they attempted to enforce the ruling. This, too, was ended by dismissing the ring-leaders. [55] A few such flurries were doubtless inevitable, and mutiny was never a serious problem in the early years of the Corps. Most enrollees were probably too cognizant of the relief the CCC offered them and were not willing to give it up easily.

Of greater concern was the desertion rate. By February, 1937, 11.6 per cent of all enrollees leaving the Corps were discharged for desertion, and the rate was increasing sharply. Almost all who deserted did so in their first few days in camp because of homesickness, and much was probably unavoidable. Nevertheless, the desertion problem was one which Corps officials had made little attempt to investigate, even after four years of experience, apart from trying to place as many enrollees as possible in camps some distance from their homes. [56] It is probable that a well-planned orientation scheme would have prevented at least some homesick enrollees from leaving camp, but the swift transition from the familiar home atmosphere to the rugged rural environment and the modified Army discipline still would have been too much for many to take. The problem was more wisely approached in the last few years of the Corps' existence when rapidly rising desertion rates had assumed serious proportions. [57]

Many enrollees, having had their self-respect somewhat restored by their camp experience, left the Corps as possessors of new hope and skills, only to have their optimism destroyed by continued failure to find employment. Often they reverted to their earlier patterns of bleak existence, lacking in morale, confidence, and hope. [58] From 1933 through 1937 the unemployment situation probably made this inevitable. There were simply not enough jobs for all former enrollees, and the fact that the CCC experience did help so many of them to secure employment is a signal argument in its favor. Nevertheless, the CCC organization was tardy in developing any sort of co-ordinated employment agency. Virtually nothing had been done by 1937, and returning enrollees still had to seek out jobs themselves. Individual camp advisers and local relief directors occasionally interested themselves in the problem of placing the returning enrollee, and employers with a vacancy frequently approached camp commanders looking for a suitable man. But it was not until the last four years of the Corps' existence that a serious attempt was made to develop any national job-finding agency, and by this time rising white re-employment rates had made its need less urgent. [59]


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap7.htm — 03-Jan-2008

Copyright © 1967, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher. Any reuse of this information requires permission from the publisher. See for information.