Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Six:
Colonel John White and Preservation in Sequoia National Park


The CCC: Almost Too Much of a Good Thing

Long before that final battle, White faced a potentially grave challenge to his principles and to his control of park development. in the early years of his superintendency, he had complained endlessly about the dismal lack of funds and manpower available to accomplish the park's many necessary improvements. Later, although he continued to press for more money and employees, his tone and subject had shifted to controlling development in the park. Ironically, beginning in 1933, White's earliest priorities were satisfied to such a remarkable extent that his later preservation ones could have been seriously jeopardized. The crash of the stock market in 1929 and resulting Depression had created a desperate situation for the American economy and people. A full one-quarter of the work force was idle while another 30 percent struggled to eke out a living with part-time jobs. Through the remainder of the Republican term in the White House, the nation wallowed in misery and unemployment. However, with his sweeping victory and that of his Democratic party, Franklin Roosevelt ramrodded a massive collection of federal aid and social programs through Congress, changing forever American society and government. One of the bills in this spate of legislation created the Emergency Conservation Work program, popularly called and later officially renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC would employ young men in quasi-military camps to carry out primarily manual labor projects on federal lands, including national parks. Suddenly, as Colonel White wrestled with controlling the concessioner, limiting and redirecting development, and allocating meager funds toward maintenance and protection, several thousand men per year and the money to pay and support them arrived in the parks. Over the next nine years the CCC would accomplish more labor-intensive and landscaping work than the military and Park Service administrations had in the previous forty-three years. Colonel White's intimidating task became moderation of this unwieldy development machine to preserve the park from construction on a scale and at a pace completely out of proportion and out of Park Service control. [2] Fortunately, the Colonel's power and skill prevented excesses and turned the CCC into the most valuable development tool in the park's history.

The CCC operation was an ambitious project, the like of which has never been matched in U.S. history. During its years of operation, 1933 to 1941, more than two million young men performed work in nearly 900 camps located in ninety-four national parks and monuments and 881 state, county, and municipal areas. Starting from scratch with no model or experience to draw upon, its directors and personnel forged a program still ranked among the most successful in federal government history. Some credit for the success in the national parks went to CCC director Robert Fechner, to the coordinator of the CCC program in national parks and future Park Service director Conrad Wirth, and to Roosevelt himself. More of the reason for success lay in the organization and allocation of responsibility. Administration of the camps themselves and the day-to-day activities of the men fell to the army, as befitted the military form and approach to camp operation and projects. Selection and supervision of projects, hiring of specialists, allocation of crews to specific duties, and compilation of progress reports were carried out by park superintendents. Finally, the Washington office of the Park Service approved projects and exercised quality control through a system of regional directors and skilled specialists who became the framework for later reorganization of the Park Service into regions and specialized branches. [3]

map of CCC Camps
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

At times there was friction between the camp commanders and park superintendents, largely owing to the attempts of one to interfere with the duties of the other. Sequoia had up to five camps operating at a time, and each army officer in charge naturally tended to extend his authority to the projects of his men. On the other side, Colonel White sought ways to further dominate the day-to-day camp operation as well as the choice of projects upon which the enrollees worked. In his reports on CCC progress, as well as his annual superintendent's reports and general correspondence, White complained about being deprived of direct control over the thousands of young men living and working in his park. He thought that the only way to assure that park values were preserved from youthful exuberance and ill-placed recreation desires was for the superintendent to control those activities. White found particularly obnoxious some of the movies shown at CCC camps as well as the boxing matches and vaudeville shows. He agitated for greater emphasis on educational, "park appropriate" activities. Still, as an old military man, White accepted and understood the way camps were run, and he limited most of his protestations to what he deemed offensive activities. [4]

Over the years eleven different CCC camps operated in Sequoia National Park, while Grant Grove and later Kings Canyon were sites of three others. In most years five base camps were occupied at once, their crews alternating between high-altitude summer work and foothills winter work. Among the most important summer camps were Potwisha, at the present-day campground; Atwell Mill along the Mineral King Road; Marble Fork on the Crystal Cave Road; Yucca Creek on the North Fork of the Kaweah; and Buckeye, near Ash Mountain. Each of these camps as well as other less popular sites became temporary homes for up to 200 men. A standard camp consisted of a rough U-shaped formation of wooden buildings including barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, officers' quarters, a lavatory and bathhouse, an educational building, and various storage, maintenance, and special function structures such as a dispensary, blacksmith's shop, generator house, and pump house. [5]

The men themselves were generally eighteen to twenty-five years of age, in good health, unemployed, unmarried and United States citizens. They were paid thirty dollars a month of which half went directly to dependents and another seven dollars into a savings account to be turned over to the enrollee upon his discharge. Six months was the normal enrollment period and at the end of each period, capable enrollees were encouraged to reenlist. The men wore military-style uniforms, attended a "boot camp" of sorts for two weeks prior to assignment, and were expected to finish their volunteer assignments. Desertion remained a small but nagging problem throughout the CCC program. In addition to their meager salaries, the enrollees received full room and board as well as access to education and recreation. It was an attractive option both for young out-of-work men and their desperate and hungry families.

CCC Camp One
The opening of Civilian Conservation Corps Camp One at Potwisha in May 1933 marked the beginning of a rapid era of facility development. (National Park Service photo)

The work conducted by the CCC men in the national parks primarily consisted of road construction, trail maintenance, construction and razing of buildings and campsites, fire fighting, insect and fungus control, replanting and landscaping. Those so trained conducted specialized activities such as surveying, resource planning, and even participation in natural history programs for visitors. Each day began at 6:00 A.M. with reveille followed by calisthenics, breakfast, and a general policing of the camp. Work began at 8:00 A.M. and generally concluded between 4:00 and 5:00 P.M. with a one-hour lunch. The maximum work week was forty hours. On evenings and weekends enrollees engaged in sports or games with equipment procured by local park officials. It was a well-ordered life disrupted only by inclement weather or forest fire. [6]

The experiences of two CCC men at Sequoia National Park exemplify the work done in the park under that program. A West Virginia native, Filmore Criss, joined the CCC at age sixteen and, after working near Phoenix, Arizona for a short time, came with his company to Ash Mountain in 1936 to work on the Mineral King Road. Later he and some of his coworkers were assigned to clear part of the High Sierra Trail which had been damaged by severe storms the previous winter. During their time in the high country, the men stayed near Bearpaw Meadow in a temporary camp of four-man tents dating from the Spanish-American War. Despite substandard accommodations, Criss much preferred trail work to the hot and dusty labor on the Mineral King Road. He participated in several fire-fighting assignments some of which were as far away as the Coast Range. [7]

In contrast to the typical duties of Filmore Criss, Roy DeVoe of Welden, California enjoyed several unusual and more intellectually demanding tasks. Transferred from Lassen National Park early in the CCC days, DeVoe was one of only a few young men with any surveying experience. Although his expertise was limited, he secured a position as surveyor for CCC projects in Sequoia and studied nights to keep up with his job. Among his accomplishments were surveying a road to Muir Grove and the layout of Dorst Campground. When not surveying, DeVoe participated in several other noteworthy jobs. When a sequoia fell across the Moro Rock Road, it was he and his crew who suggested cutting a tunnel in the huge log. With torches and adzes they chopped out Colonel Tunnel Log much as Indians had made their log canoes. Colonel White was pleased with their suggestion and encouraged them to think about other such improvements. DeVoe also assisted with filming a movie at Beetle Rock. Living at Lodgepole or Wolverton during most of his assignment, DeVoe guided visitors on Sundays, chiefly at Moro Rock. He even claimed to have discovered an unclassified and unnamed fly at Red Fir which a University of California biologist purchased from him. For Roy DeVoe the CCC was an opportunity to participate in many activities that would have been denied him as an unemployed and undereducated youth in the Depression. [8]

The results of the CCC work in Sequoia National Park form a legacy that still shines today. From 1933 to 1941 the Park Service added ninety buildings and renovated another sixteen with CCC labor. At the same time, enrollees razed dozens of old and dilapidated structures. In those nine years park road mileage doubled from 75 to 138 miles. No new major trails were added, but the CCC assumed annual maintenance of the 625 miles of backcountry paths and oiled several miles within Giant Forest. Enrollees installed 2.7 miles of underground electric cable, built more than fifty comfort stations, designed 200 new campsites and helped install new water systems, five sewage plants and several electric generators. Under the direction of Colonel White's landscape architects, CCC men put in several miles of fence, four dozen benches and eight corrals. They graded and landscaped 243 acres in visitor areas and cleared and cleaned hundreds more acres; they planted 50,000 shrubs and trees and 41 acres of lawn, supplied all the firewood for the park, and constructed countless retaining walls, stone-lined gutters, and parapets along the roads. In addition to these tangible results of their labor, CCC workers fought dozens of fires; cleared tons of brush in presuppression programs; collected refuse from trails, campgrounds, and roadsides; and acted as surveyors, guides, and safety officers. [9]

One final project of note that CCC men completed was construction of visitor infrastructure at Crystal Cave. The cave was first discovered in 1918 by A.C. Medley and C.M. Webster, two NPS employees who happened upon it while they were fishing. Initial exploration showed that the new cave's beauty far surpassed that of two other oft-visited caverns in the park, Clough and Paradise caves. In addition, the two well-known caves had been severely damaged by vandals and trophy seekers. With this destruction in mind and with no funds for proper development, the Park Service decided to close Crystal Cave. More than twenty years passed before the Park Service devoted money and men to Crystal Cave. Finally during the seasons of 1939 through 1941, CCC men paved more than one thousand feet of the cave, installed electric lights and built a road connection to Generals Highway, a parking lot, and a steep trail to the cave entrance. Within weeks of its opening in 1940, the cave became one of the most popular visitor attractions in the park. [10]

Through the first six years of this era of construction and development, Colonel White maintained iron control of the progress and projects in his park. Picking and choosing tasks, coordinating plans, and allocating work crews, White continued his rule of Sequoia's development and prevented the abuse that too much labor and too much money threatened to bring. By late 1938 FDR and his Washington administration had scaled back the CCC, and soon Sequoia and other parks found the work force inadequate to meet their demands, inflated by six years of rich supply. When Colonel White accepted, without much enthusiasm, the first of two and one-half years of jobs away from his beloved park, much of the danger of exorbitant and irresponsible construction had passed. His successor, Eivind Scoyen, continued White's use of the CCC for conservation projects and careful, limited development. Thus, when the Colonel returned to oversee the last half-year of CCC activity, the program had tremendously improved visitor access and helped maintain his increasingly staunch policy of resource preservation. In the history of Sequoia National Park, the CCC ranks as one of the most important factors in promotion of Park Service goals and values. Carefully controlled and operating within the rigid philosophical confines of Colonel White's preservation-oriented policies, the CCC gave a huge boost to infrastructural improvement while avoiding the pitfalls of sudden, uncontrolled development. Visitors today who file through Crystal Cave, lean on the parapet at Amphitheater Point, camp at Lodgepole Campground, drive through Tunnel Log, run their hands along the Moro Rock handrail, hike the trails and drive the roads of Sequoia, and enjoy a thousand other little benefits can thank the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps for their labor.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap6a.htm — 12-Jul-2004