The Great Depression hit the United States in 1929, following a devastating stock market crash. At the time, no one knew how long the economic hard times would go on.
In 1933, still in the throes of economic malaise, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a government work program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, commonly known as the CCC. In it, men were hired on various projects throughout the U.S., including building the infrastructure at many Tennessee state parks, including Pickett, Reelfoot, Frozen Head, Norris Dam, Big Ridge, Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park and Cumberland Mountain. And more than 400 CCC boys were involved in getting the Smoky Mountains National Park going.
Upon entering Pickett State Park near Jamestown, the hand-built rock ranger station proudly stands out. It now houses a small CCC museum. Cumberland Mountain State Park, near Crossville, features the largest CCC masonry dam built in the United States. It still holds back Byrd Lake and a road runs atop it.
Closer to our neck of the woods, CCC camps, working for the newly established Cherokee National Forest, were near Unicoi and Hampton. Have you ever seen the elaborate stonework at the pool at Rock Creek Campground? That was the CCC. Backbone Rock Campground, at the Tennessee-Virginia state line north of Shady Valley, was a CCC project, including the trail that goes atop Backbone Rock. Round Knob Picnic Area, in the Greene County portion of the national forest, still stands proud after eight decades. The signature rock and wood design used by the CCC lends a rustic look just right for national forest recreation areas.
To qualify for the Civilian Conservation Corps, recruits had to be between the ages of 17 and 25, be out of school and unemployed. Eligible enrollees were often shipped far from home to prevent desertion. They earned $30 per month through their efforts, of which $25 went back home. They built hiking trails, scenic roads, cabins, dams, fish hatcheries, improved wildlife habitat, planted trees, and more, at more than 800 parks in the United States. They also practiced fire management, making fire roads and also erecting more than 3,400 fire watchtowers.
The CCC was organized into camps, generally of 100-300 men, using a military structure with an emphasis on discipline. Each camp had its specialists, from cooks to officers. More than 2,600 camps containing a half-million men were spread across all 48 states. Camp life was routine. The men generally rose around 6 a.m., ate a filling breakfast, then worked until 4:30 in the afternoon, with a lunch break in the middle. Back at camp, the men could do as they pleased, often writing letters home. These descriptive letters to loved ones helped build a historical record of life in the CCC camps.
Whether the CCC helped or hurt the nation’s economy remains under debate. I personally think that kind of government spending eventually retards the economy. But I do admit enjoying the structures and trails that are a legacy of the CCC.
The CCC program continued until 1942, when potential enrollees instead entered the military to fight World War II. The CCC was never abolished, only defunded to extinction.
Most of the CCC boys have passed away, but their legacy lives on, in the stone work at Rock Creek Campground and in the parks we still enjoy today.
Johnny Molloy has written several outdoors guidebooks. Visit www.johnnymolloy.com.