WEST GLACIER – Eighty years ago, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration launched the largest peacetime mobilization of men in United States history when it created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put millions to work, revitalized the state and national park systems and completed extensive projects inside Glacier National Park.
“We’re talking about the depths of the Great Depression. These men signed up because they wanted a job. And this is what they have bequeathed to us 80 years later,” Ren Davis, co-author of the book, “Our Mark on this Land: A guide to the legacy of the CCC in America’s parks,” an historical account of the public works project, said at a recent presentation in West Glacier.
More than 700 local, state and national parks were enhanced by CCC workers, and the book, co-written and researched by Helen Davis, Ren’s wife, also serves as a guidebook to those parks that best represent the breadth of work by the Corps, such as wildfire suppression, structures, campgrounds, trails, lakes, dams and landscape features.
The Davises, who live in Atlanta, Ga., decided to take a train tour of the national parks they longed to visit as a sort of “bucket list.” The couple caught the train in Atlanta and began making their way to Seattle, taking detours at national parks along the way and delivering presentations about the organization that helped build much of their infrastructure.
“We have always wanted to take a train trip across the country and this was a perfect opportunity,” Helen Davis said.
A component of the New Deal, the CCC was meant to kick start the economy by providing unskilled manual labor jobs related to conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands at a time when unemployment hovered around 25 percent.
The legislation that created the CCC was signed March 31, 1933, and by July approximately 250,000 men had been deployed to more than 1,300 camps across the country, mostly in rural locations.
Workers on the verge of destitution arrived from the boroughs of New York City and other metro areas, converging on Glacier National Park for the first time in May 1933.
“They came off the train and saw a place like Glacier National Park. They were bewildered,” Ren Davis said.
In nine years there were 29 CCC companies working from 13 camps in Glacier.
A CCC choir performed at the dedication ceremony of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in July 1933, and permanent camps were established at St. Mary and Apgar, while other workers lived in the Belton Chalet. Seasonal camps in the high country were responsible for the development of trails, while others built picnic areas and campgrounds, as well as the west entrance station, and staff and utility buildings.
A team of CCC workers strung the first telephone lines linking ranger patrol stations to park headquarters.
Many of the men arrived uneducated and in states of malnourishment, and the Davises said the typical CCC enrollee gained 20 pounds during their six-month stint in the service. Approximately 100,000 workers learned to read or write while serving.
“It’s so exciting to hear about the skills they acquired in the Corps,” Helen Davis said.
A CCC camp would typically add about $5,000 to a local economy, and some communities were sorry to see the workers go. Although some served more than one term in the CCC, the workers were encouraged to move on after six months.
“The idea was for them to work, get healthy, get strong, learn skills and move into the private economy,” Ren Davis said, adding that many went on to serve in World War II.
“These guys were ready to go,” he said. “The CCC was democratizing. They learned teamwork and discipline.”
The impetus of the manpower led to the creation of state and national parks, but also helped turn around a depressed economy and shape a generation of men.
“For many of these men, the six months they spent in the CCC was a watershed milestone in their lives,” he said. “It gave them a purpose in desperate times.”
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