Sunday, December 23, 2007

C.C.C. Side Camps

Life in a Civilian Conservation Corps side camp could be rustic to say the least. In this post we'll take a brief look at how the side camps were set up.

While most CCC camps were situated close to the main project site where the enrollees worked, there were also many, many work sites in remote places that needed the attention of CCC workers. It simply wasn’t practical to transport enrollees over miles and miles of remote roads to these work sites, and then return to camp at the end of the workday. To resolve this dilemma, smaller camps known as “spike camps,” “side camps,” or “fly camps” were established. But no matter what they were called, those small non-permanent camps established well away from larger CCC camps, were responsible for an astonishing amount of useful work that otherwise would not have been possible.

Side camps were initially an area of dispute. The technical services wanted the side camps placed under their control, an arrangement that both the Army and director Fechner opposed. Since the operation of the main camps was under their control, the Army reasoned that it should also be in charge of the side camps, with the technical services taking charge of the enrollees during normal work hours.

In July1933, President Roosevelt approved the establishment of side camps and he placed them under the control of the technical agencies with the requirement that not more than 10 percent of the company strength be assigned to them. One reason for Roosevelt’s decision may have been that, to place an army officer in each side camp would have stretched the military organization too thin, leading to a decline in management and leadership throughout the program. Despite their being exempt from direct Army control, there were guidelines on the layout of the side camps. For example, a Forest Service plan for a 25-man camp provided for five canvas tents, each 16 by 16 feet to house the enrollees. Three tents measuring 9 by 9 feet provided shelter for supervisory staff. The mess unit operated out of a tent measuring 19 by 21 feet and additional shelters were provided for the kitchen, the cook, the infirmary and office, as well as latrine and shower facilities. Even in these smaller camps, the provision was always made for a flagpole, usually placed in a central location in the camp area.

Forest Service plans also provided guidelines for a mobile 25-man camp, which consisted of 12 two-man shelter tents, three staff tents, one cook tent and a tent to serve as a combination mess and kitchen. Despite the lack of Army involvement, life in a mobile camp may have been quite similar to life in an infantry platoon. Each man was to be supplied with an infantry pack, canteen and mess kit. In the mobile configuration, the need for a kitchen unit could be eliminated if each enrollee carried five days of rations with him and the crew returned to base camp on weekends to re-provision.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Night Before Christmas (with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

Twas the night before Christmas when all through the camp
The captain went strolling with a kerosene lamp.
The tools were all hung in the tool shop with care,
In hopes that Kris Kringle soon would be there.
With the enrollees nestled all snug in their bunks,
The Captain went prowling for raccoons and skunks.
The foremen in wool socks, the LEMs in their shorts,
Were snoring away in a chorus of snorts.

When out by the flagpole there arose such a noise
The captain was worried it might wake his boys.
Away to the mess hall he flew like a flash,
Thinking some dog robber was sampling the hash.
The moonlight on a forest covered in snow
Gave luster of midday to the camp below
When, what to the captain’s tired eyes should appear,
But a shiny stake bed truck rolling up in high gear!

With a little old driver, whose bells gave a jingle,
The captain knew right away it must be Kris Kringle
Smoother than silk that little REO ran
And Old Kris gave a chuckle and waved his gloved hand.
The captain couldn’t be sure, but gazing from afar,
Old Kris Kringle looked a bit like FDR.
Kris pulled the truck up to the mess hall in a slide
Then bounded up the stairs and went inside.

The captain rushed up to peek though the door
Naturally inquisitive, wanting to see more.
Kris didn’t make a sound but kept his eye on the ball,
As he expertly spruced up the camp mess hall.
Red garlands and green streamers he tacked up with care,
Knowing that hungry peavies soon would be there.

A huge holiday feast he prepared in a flash,
Turkey and dressing with no sign of hash!
And over it all Kris spoke a whispered prayer
For the families back home whose boys wouldn’t be there.
“Keep them safe and happy,” Kris whispered with a sigh
And with a gloved hand, wiped a tear from his eye.
Then, having completed an honest night’s work,
Kris turned toward the mess hall door with a jerk.

Then back to the little work truck he dashed
And lifting the clutch, the gas pedal he mashed.
To see that truck speed through camp was a sight,
But the captain knew it would be a busy night.
Kris Kringle had to hustle and be on his way
To visit all the CCC camps before light of day.
But the captain heard Kris exclaim with a flash of headlights,
“Merry Christmas CCC Boys and to all a good night!”

Holidays In The C.C.C.

Typically, any enrollee who had earned the privilege and who wanted to would be allowed to go home for the holidays if time permitted and distances were not too great. However, between 1933 and 1942 any Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee or camp supervisor who could not get leave found himself away from home during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. To ease the pain of separation from family and loved-ones, most C.C.C. camps prepared special dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas and held Christmas parties, often “adopting” local children and inviting residents to visit the camps.

A CCC mess hall decorated for a holiday meal.

Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees performed no work on Thanksgiving and Christmas, beyond the duties required to keep the camp running and a special holiday meal would be prepared. Often special menus would be printed describing the day’s meal, occasionally noting that cigars or cigarettes would be available following the meal. Additionally, a Company roster would sometimes be printed in the menu, to become a souvenir of an enrollee’s time in the C.C.C.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The CCC at South Rim, Grand Canyon

The first contingent of Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees arrived at Grand Canyon National Park on May 29, 1933 and for the full lifespan of the CCC, Grand Canyon was home to CCC workers until the program was disbanded in 1942. Civilian Conservation Corps companies 818, 819, 847 and 2833 worked at Grand Canyon in addition to rotating to Phoenix and Tucson to perform work there during the winter months.

Grand Canyon National Park existed prior to the creation of the CCC, however with the abundant manpower made available through the CCC, Grand Canyon gained many infrastructure improvements that it might not otherwise have received. Inevitably, at a park so vast, the casual observer overlooks most of the CCC built improvements, while other improvements require a strenuous hike in order to be viewed and enjoyed. Thankfully, the National Park Service has created a short walking tour that highlights a number of CCC built projects in the area of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. What follows is taken largely from the text of the walking tour, with additional information added for clarification or for human interest. The color photos were all taken in November 2007.

The walking tour of CCC sites in Grand Canyon Village begins with the Community Building, just northeast of Parking Lot E. The Community Building was funded with Public Works Administration funds and built with CCC and park labor between 1934 and 1935. The building, which replaced a structure that burned down in 1933, has served as a public library, hosted plays and meetings and served as a theatre for showing movies.

The next stop on the walking tour is a culvert, located near the intersection of Village Loop and Center Road. The Park Service reports that the exact date of construction of this culvert is unknown but it is believed to be a CCC built structure. Close inspection of the culvert – actually two culverts and stone headwalls – shows that the pipes may have been extended in the process of widening Village Loop at some later date. Evidence of the stone ditch lining is still visible downstream of the culvert outlets. The Park Service literature indicates that this culvert has required little maintenance over its life span; a tribute to the beneficial work of the boys in the CCC.

If you proceed along Village Loop a few hundred feet and keep looking to the left, you will see a wooden bridge that leads across a drainage system toward the railroad tracks. The CCC built two wooden bridges across the wash in this area, according to the Park Service walking tour literature. The bridge that remains was completed in 1937. Close inspection will reveal that steel I-beams have been put in place under each side of the bridge; indeed, the timbers were replaced recently when the bridge became unsafe in the 1980s. The current bridge is a careful reproduction, built with the aid of historic photographs.

If you cross Village Loop and proceed in an easterly direction you’ll walk past the former park hospital, which is now home to the Grand Canyon Association. Continue walking and you’ll arrive at the intersection of Village Loop and Navajo Street where you’ll see a rock wall that serves as an entryway to the residential area further up Navajo Street. These rock pillars and walls were constructed in 1934 as a visual barrier between the public area of the park and the residential area on Navajo Street. While documentary proof is lacking, it is believed that the CCC built this rock wall. The Park Service tour brochure notes that the recessed cement between the stones was a common CCC technique and the extensive growth of lichens on the stone gives a clue to the age of the rock wall.

From the intersection of Village Loop and Navajo Street, the route of the walking tour proceeds across the railroad tracks, past the train station and up the steps leading to the historic El Tovar hotel. At this point the visitor is on the flat crest of ground immediately adjacent to the south rim of the canyon and if they proceed to the east along the rim to a point between Hopi House and Verkamps Curios they will see a bench carved out of a huge log. The CCC constructed log benches in conjunction with their work refurbishing the rock wall along the rim. It is believe that this massive bench was created in 1934 or 1935, though no documentation exists to provide proof. It seems ironic that, while the CCC boys seldom left visible markings to identify their work, countless Grand Canyon visitors have seen fit to carve their names into this historic log bench, seemingly in an effort to make their own short visit somehow more meaningful.

Proceed from the log bench in a westerly direction (to your left as you face the canyon) less than 100 feet to the rock wall opposite Hopi House. The walking tour notes indicate that in 1934 and 1935 the CCC completely rebuilt the rock wall along the South Rim from Verkamps Curios to Lookout Studio, replacing a poorly constructed and dilapidated dry wall and a section of wooden fence. The CCC standardized the dimension to 27 inches high and 18 inches wide, with guardrails added in some places. It is worth pointing out that in some places the workers would have been in quite a precarious position as they worked on the wall, but to their credit, no major accidents or injuries were reported as a result of CCC work at Grand Canyon’s South Rim. (Indeed, the only CCC fatalities reported at Grand Canyon were the result of off-duty mishaps that involved a fall from the south rim and a drowning in the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon.)

Proceeding along the rim to the west you’ll come to a flagpole at what is called North Rim View. From here you’ll see – barely – the North Rim’s Grand Canyon Lodge. Company 818 worked on the North Rim in the summers, building structures, fences, fighting forest fires and building roads. During the winter months the men were moved to the bottom of the canyon to areas like Phantom Ranch. Phantom Ranch’s Bright Angel Campground was built by the CCC, as were a number of trails including Ribbon Falls Trail and the nine-mile Clear Creek Trail. CCC enrollees also constructed the Colorado River Trail from 1933 to 1936 and while it is only two miles long, it is reportedly the most difficult and hazardous trail ever constructed in the canyon.

Continue walking westerly to a point in front of Kachina Lodge and you will find a plaque that has been affixed to the top of the stone wall. This plaque commemorates the transcanyon telephone line installed by the CCC. Prior to construction of this transcanyon line, communication between the North and South Rims was unreliable. In order to remedy the situation in 1934, a group of CCC enrollees started from each side of the canyon, working their way towards each other, all the while stringing telephone line on metal poles, down steep cliffs and though narrow gullies, often in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees! When the transcanyon telephone line was completed in 1935 it stretched from the North Rim along North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Camp and Phantom Ranch, then across the Colorado River to a spur line on the south Kaibab Trail at a point known as “The Tipoff.” The main line continued along Bright Angel Trail connecting Phantom Ranch to Indian Garden, and then to the South Rim developed area via the rest houses along the trail. The line was used so much that another circuit was added in 1938-1939. The Park Service guide reports that the line included 592 metal poles and, because cell phones do not work with in the canyon, parts of the original telephone line are still in use today. If you look carefully down the slope beyond the plaque on the stone wall, you will see two or more of the metal poles for the telephone line.

Continue walking west past the Thunderbird Lodge, Bright Angel Lodge and Lookout Studio to historic Kolb Studio. In 1936 the CCC built the stairs that lead up the slope toward the mule corral. The stairs were originally of all stone construction without handrails, however the stone treads have been replaced with concrete steps and for safety reasons, a hand rail in now in place. Proceed up these steps and walk to your right, a few hundred feet to the stone and pipe mule corral and the trailhead of Bright Angel Trail.

The Park Service walking tour points out that the Bright Angel Trail was used by American Indians long before the first pioneers arrived in the 1880s. The trail was transferred to the National Park Service in 1928, some five years before the creation of the CCC. The CCC undertook major reconstruction of the trail, completing the work in 1939. Originally the trail was only two to three feet wide in places. Using pick, shovel, drill and dynamite, the boys of the CCC reconstructed and rerouted the trail to its current width of four to six feet. Additionally, the CCC built rustic stone and timber shelters long the trail.

When we consider the remote, rugged beauty of Grand Canyon today, we should also think back to a time when the area was even more remote, some 75 years ago when roads weren’t paved and helicopters hadn’t been invented. The 1930s were a time when any injury in the canyon could mean death and work was undertaken with hand tools and sheer muscle power. Today it’s an easy walk along the rim trail, with a number of opportunities to buy food and drink, and ample places to stop and rest. For the boys of the CCC, their foremen and supervisors, it wasn’t that way. We have them to thank for the fact that we can view the vastness of Grand Canyon in safety and near luxury.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Blog Action Day Editorial

October 15th has been proclaimed Blog Action Day, with the selected focus being the environment. Nothing could be more pertinent to the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps than the environment and environmental issues. I defy anyone to point to another era in our nation’s history when the better part of a generation was given the opportunity to live and work in nature to improve America’s forests, parks and fields. Between 1933 and 1942 the enrollees of the CCC planted between 2 and 3 billion trees, developed some 800 state parks, built over 13,000 miles of foot trails and developed 52,000 acres of public campgrounds nationwide.

The story of the CCC is so closely intertwined with the environment, one could argue that environmentalism is at least the second biggest reason anyone actually remembers the CCC of 75 years ago. (The number one reason that most folks probably cite for remembering the CCC is that they have a family member who was in the program. This is not to say these same people will actually know anything about the CCC and how it was organized, but they remember the program because of a relative.) A few revisionist historians occasionally remember the CCC as well, but only for the purpose of trying to paint it as part of a larger theoretical failure of the New Deal. Whether or not the New Deal was a failure, I cannot say. However, I can say, without fear of meaningful contradiction, that the CCC was the most successful of the New Deal's many programs.

Parks and even forests that did not exist in 1933 sprang from nothing during the era of the CCC. Then, after four years of national focus on a World War and ridding the world of fascist aggression, Americans were able to return to more pleasant pursuits and there, waiting for them, were the myriad forestry and recreational improvements that the CCC boys had created. Few stopped to remember that a lot of those CCC boys went off to fight that war and didn’t come home to enjoy the fruits of their pre-war labor. Some folks are starting to remember now.

What we think of as “environmentalism” today was probably more akin to “conservationism” in the 1930s. Men (mostly) entered parks and forestry professions because they were good with their hands, knew field craft and could probably whip most comers down at the local tavern on Saturday night. They were called “rangers” or foremen, or supervisors or Local Experienced Men – LEMs for short. Today, their rough edges seem foreign to some of us, but many of their ideals prevail. Who doesn’t marvel at the quiet of a forest? Who isn’t touched by the beauty of sunlight through the treetops? Who isn’t impressed by the careful fit of granite stones placed 70 years ago?

Under the careful tutelage of these conservationists, the boys of the CCC lived and learned, worked and played. They learned to get along, and sometimes they learned the consequences of not getting along. In the process, these boys became conservationists themselves. In some cases the boys saw parts of their country that they otherwise might never have seen, and, on the cusp of traveling overseas to fight and die for that country, they probably gained a new appreciation for their United States.

It isn’t a stretch to say that the Civilian Conservation Corp raised a first generation of conservationists/environmentalists. It also isn’t a stretch to say that most Americans have forgotten that fact.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

National CCC Reunion a Huge Success!

Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls State Park played host to the 2007 national reunion of the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni (NACCCA) on September 27th, 28th and 29th. Approximately 110 registrants attended the event and the headcount at the closing banquet seemed to be higher still. Park Naturalist Brett Smitley estimated that of the total in attendance, 70 were former CCC enrollees. Smitley was the primary organizer of the event and his hard work paid off in the form of a satisfying gathering for these former “soil soldiers” and “tree troopers” whose numbers grow thinner with every passing day. (Estimates state that about 1,000 World War II veterans die every day. To place this figure in context, consider the fact that many CCC enrollees were 17 to 20 years of age in 1933 – nine years before the U.S. entered the war.)

Cumberland Falls hosts an annual reunion for local CCC veterans, but this national reunion is the last major gathering before next year’s 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps, a huge work relief program that put some 3 million young men to work in America’s forests, fields and parks between 1933 and 1942. NACCCA holds a national reunion every fall. Dallas played host in 2006, Rapid City hosted the reunion in 2005 and Phoenix was the host city in 2004.

During the reunion, visitors enjoyed fascinating presentations by Forest Service personnel who described archeological work done at the sites of a number of former CCC camps in Kentucky. Bill Jamerson presented his documentary film on CCC life in Michigan and entertained those gathered with his humorous folks songs describing life as it was in the CCC camps. An authentic bluegrass band, Ballard Ford, provided the entertainment for the big banquet the final night of the reunion.

The reunion setting could not have been more fitting. The CCC constructed numerous improvements in the Cumberland Falls area, including Dupont Lodge and hiking trails that visitors continue to enjoy today. On the CCC Memorial Trail, a careful hiker will find one of the concrete dynamite storage boxes the CCC enrollees placed in the side of a rock outcropping and rest on a well-placed stone bench near the end of the hike.

With former enrollees now in their 80s and 90s, the opportunity for mass gatherings of former CCC boys is quickly fading. Hopefully in the future these events will begin to attract a larger number of historians and students of forest, conservation and recreation history as well as the descendants – sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters - of CCC enrollees, who will gather yearly, not so much as a form of reunion but as a means of honoring the work of the largest peacetime mobilization this nation has ever seen.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Red" Erwin: CCC Enrollee, Medal of Honor Recipient

This is the story of Henry “Red” Erwin who served in the CCC in Alabama and went on to earn the Medal of Honor in the Pacific Theater. We’ll probably never know for certain how Red’s CCC experience impacted his later life or if it was even partly responsible for his singular act of heroism, but we all know that the CCC played a meaningful part in millions of men’s lives, and while they didn’t all go on to earn the Medal of Honor, they did work together to form the backbone of what is now known as “The Greatest Generation.”

Hard times made a man out of Henry Eugene Erwin at an early age. Born in Docena, Alabama in 1921, his father died when Henry was just 10 years old. As the oldest of several children, he took a job. Gene, as his family called him, dropped out of high school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps where he was put in charge of crews planting kudzu in northern Alabama.

After the CCC, Gene worked in a steel mill before joining the Army in January 1943. Worried the war would pass him by, he passed up a chance to attend Yale. Gene trained on B-17s, then transferred to B-29s where he served as a radio operator. In early 1945 he was shipped to Guam for assignment to the 52nd Bomb Squadron and joined the crew of a B-29 named “City of Los Angeles,” where he promptly picked up the nickname “Red” because of his red hair.

On Erwin’s 18th mission, the squadron was assigned to bomb the Japanese chemical plant at Koriyama, north of Tokyo; the City of Los Angeles was tasked to be the lead bomber. At the rendezvous point, it was Erwin’s job to jettison phosphorous smoke bombs though a tube in the fuselage of the B-29 as the signal for the other planes to form up.

For reason’s unknown, a smoke bomb malfunctioned and exploded in the tube then shot back into the plane striking Erwin in the face. Thick white smoke immediately filled the front of the plane and 1,300 degree phosphorous began to burn Erwin, blinding him, burning off his hair, most of his right ear, part of his nose and large patches of skin.

In addition to Erwin’s wounds, the plane and crew were in mortal danger. Flaming phosphorous was burning through the metal bulkhead. It was now just a question of whether the blinded flight crew would crash into the ocean before the fire reached the bomb bay causing the entire plane to explode in midair.

With tremendous presence of mind, Erwin snatched up the flaming canister and began to work his way forward, pausing painfully to unhook the latch on the navigator’s table, holding the burning bomb between his bare arm and his ribcage to do so. In the process, the white hot “phosphorous burned through his flesh to the bone” according to an Air Force report.

Meanwhile, the pilot and co-pilot were completely blinded by smoke as Erwin inched closer and closer to their position. Once past the navigator’s table, Erwin worked his way forward and threw the phosphorous bomb out the co-pilot’s window.

As the smoke cleared Erwin’s crewmates began to realize what had happened and what Erwin had done. When they saw him, they were horrified. “Are you alright?” one asked. “I’m fine,” Irwin replied. Another crewman had turned a fire extinguisher on Erwin and put out the fire, but the phosphorous continued to burn on and under the skin.

The pilot jettisoned the bomb load and turned for Iwo Jima for an emergency landing as the crew worked to comfort and stabilize Irwin who they knew was dying before their eyes. Irwin never lost consciousness and, as the designated first aid man on the crew, warned them not to administer too much morphine. He even asked, “Is everybody else all right?”

Major General Curtis LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber Command ordered that the award paperwork for the Medal of Honor be expedited so that the presentation could be made while Irwin was still alive; approval reportedly coming from Washington in record time. There was no Medal of Honor available in the theater, and according to one report, one of Erwin’s squadron mates “appropriated” a Medal of Honor from a display case in Pearl Harbor.

Red Erwin was awarded the Medal of Honor by General LeMay on April 19, 1945 on the Island of Guam. Thirty days after his harrowing mission on the City of Los Angeles, Erwin arrived in Sacramento to continue his miraculous recovery. “I got down to 87 pounds, skin and bones…I didn’t give up.” Erwin told a reporter years later.
Discharged in 1947, Red Erwin underwent 41 surgeries to restore his eye site and the use of one arm. He worked for the Veterans Administration for 37 years, retired with 43.5 years of federal service and received an “outstanding” performance rating every single year. He and his wife raised a son and 3 daughters. Henry Eugene Erwin passed away on January 16, 2002.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Death on the Fire Line: The Blackwater Fire of 1937

Aerial view of the Blackwater Fire, USFS Photo

(Note: There is no new scholarship here. This account of the Blackwater tragedy has been compiled from a number of sources, not the least of which are Timothy Cochran’s 1987 biography of Ranger Clayton and the detailed study of the fire done by Ranger Karl Brauneis, recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service. I’m especially indebted to Karl Brauneis who corresponded with me at length, providing background and his very useful professional insight into the event. A list of sources appears at the end of this post.)

What came to be called the Blackwater fire started with a lighting strike in the Shoshone National Forest some time on Wednesday, August 18, 1937. The resulting fire smoldered and crept through the ground fuels for two days before it was reported by the owners of a local hunting camp. At nearly the same time, a spotter plane, observing another fire in a nearby basin, detected the smoke in the Blackwater Creek drainage and, upon landing, reported the approximately two acre fire to the Wapiti Ranger Station.

Fittingly, the first group of seven CCC enrollees arrived at the fire on their own initiative. Returning from a work detail, the men spotted the fire as it began to crown into the treetops. Unable to make contact with the local district ranger, Charles Fifield who was already working the fire, the CCC foreman set his men working to scrape a fire line at the base of the fire. Typically, local residents could be counted on to respond to a fire hazard, but with July and August the busy tourist months in the region, few felt inclined to leave their paying work at the hunting and tourist camps to fight a fire for meager wages. Additionally, the local cooperators may very well have felt, with some justification, that the local CCC camps could be counted on to adequately handle what otherwise would have been a community responsibility.

Shortly after 3:30 P.M. on August 20th, the Wapiti CCC camp was alerted and, according to one account, men from this camp were moving toward the fire within twenty minutes of receiving the alarm. Initially, the smoke was rising vertically from the area of Blackwater Creek, however as the rangers and CCC enrollees neared the fire the smoke and flame grew in intensity. Nightfall found Ranger Fifield, along with some seventy firefighters working to construct fire line around the blaze that had grown to 200 acres by 8:00 P.M. that night. Though winds were light, the canyons served to pump air to the blaze in a familiar scenario, and the forest crowned out in several places, pushing spot fires ahead of the main fire.

After meeting with rangers on the fire line at around 8:00 P.M., Shoshone Forest Supervisor John Sieker left to obtain additional men with the hope of having 150 men on the fire line by daylight. Among those requested were fifty men from the Tensleep CCC camp in the Big Horn National Forest. During the night two crews of roughly thirty men each were detailed to construct fire line around the flank of the fire in two directions extending out from Blackwater Creek. Daylight found 120 men working the fire, which had blown in a northeasterly direction, overtopping Trail Ridge to burn in green timber on the other side. The prevailing winds made this the area of concern, the “hot spot” as one ranger recalled.

The first fifty reinforcements, CCC enrollees from camp BR-7-W at Deaver, arrived at approximately 1:30 P.M. and, because they were relatively inexperienced, they were detailed to the quieter west sector to continue line construction and to offer partial relief for a crew that included CCC personnel from Yellowstone National Park. At approximately the same time, fifty-one CCC enrollees and Forest Service personnel from the CCC camp at Tensleep arrived and headed to a new sector to extend fire line northeasterly from Trail Ridge.

The Tensleep crew was comprised of CCC enrollees from Company 1811, which had been reassigned to Wyoming from Texas just three short months earlier. In Texas, the men of Company 1811 worked to create Bastrop State Park, establishing bridle paths, guest cottages and lakes for fishing. As was the case with many CCC companies, once the work in Bastrop State Park was finished, Company 1811 pulled up stakes and transferred to another camp for new work assignments. Usually reassignment involved moving to another camp in the same state, but entire companies were occasionally moved en masse from state to state. Consequently, in the summer of 1937 the men of Company 1811 found themselves far from their homes in Texas, living and working in a camp at 8,600 feet above sea level, in the shadow of snow capped Cloud Peak. Most would travel the same route back home when their time with the CCC was finished, but some would depart earlier, their bodies shipped home to grieving families.

The men from the Tensleep camp should have arrived at the Blackwater fire much earlier than the Deaver crew, however Supervisor Sieker’s request to have them on the fire by 8 A.M. did not pan out. First, there was an inexplicable three-hour phone delay in relaying the message to the Tensleep camp. To make matters worse, Sieker’s estimated travel time proved to be optimistic. The Tensleep crew, led by Junior Forester Paul Tyrrell and Foreman James Saban, left the Tensleep CCC camp early on the morning of August 21, 1937, and, after traveling more than 180 miles over rough roads in the dark, arrived at the Blackwater Creek supply camp around 11:30 that same morning. The crew was given a quick meal, outfitted with tools and lunches and marched toward the fire line with the foremen taking up positions at the front and rear of the column. A project superintendent from the Wapiti camp reported the men “were in good spirits and many joking remarks were passed back and forth” as the crew passed through the upper fire camp. At the upper fire camp the Tensleep crew was met by Forest Rangers Al Clayton and Urban Post. Clayton had been called up by Supervisor Sieker to take charge of the troublesome east fire line. Knowing the rough climb ahead, Ranger Post ordered the foremen to make certain the men only filled their backpack pumps half full before proceeding to the fire line with Ranger Post and Junior Forester Tyrrell leading and Ranger Clayton and foreman James Saban taking up the rear.

Post recalled that he and the crew passed through a group of Park Service and Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) workers before arriving at their place along the fire line. As the crew began to string out along the edge of the fire, they crossed a draw with a small trickle of water and Post detailed one man to remain and build a dam to impound water for the backpack pumps. Having been placed in charge of safety for the eastern fire sector, Clayton remained in the area of the stream, all the while monitoring the overall situation. With Clayton near the draw was Foreman Saban, Forest Technician Rex Hale from the Wapiti CCC camp and CCC enrollees David Thompson, John Gerdes, Will Griffith, Mack Mayabb, George Rodgers and Roy Bevins from the Tensleep camp. “Everyone was in good spirits,” Post reported afterward. “The day clear and quiet, the fire barely smoking – it appeared to be an easy task to get a line through the basin to timberline before sundown.” Post’s optimism was misplaced.

By about 3:15 P.M. Post, with the balance of the Tensleep crew had reached the end of the Bureau of Public Roads fire line and were strung out to continue the fire line. Post recalled afterward that the work ahead of them appeared to be quite simple: Extend the fire line to connect with a natural firebreak created by a rocky ridge to the northeast. As Post’s men set to work, the BPR crew was below their own fire line working to put out two small spot fires that had jumped the line.

At about the time Post’s men were setting about the task of fire line construction, Ranger Clayton, still near the spot where the Tensleep crew had begun its fire line under the supervision of Foreman Saban and Technician Hale, spotted the telltale sign of new smoke below the fire line. Recognizing the potential hazard of fire below the fire line crew, Clayton wrote a quick note and gave it to enrollee Thompson for delivery to Post:
Post, We are on the ridge in back of you and I am going down to the spot in the hole. It looks like it can carry on over the ridge east and north of you. If you can send any men, please do so, since there are only eight of us. Clayton.

Other crews and technical service personnel saw the same spot fire as well and preparations were being made to attack it from a number of directions when events spiraled out of control. At approximately 3:30 P.M. erratic winds blew the fire into the forest crown both above and below the fire line. What had been the simple task of establishing a fire line now became a hurried search for an escape route and a matter of life and death. Post quickly ran to the northwest, climbing a rocky outcropping to scout the fire’s progress. From his vantage, Post saw a spot fire growing to the north and northeast of his crew. Post decided to put some or all of his men on the new spot fire. Then, a sudden wind shift pushed the blaze back to the southwest and Post’s proactive response became a reactive response, and he ordered his crew to abandon the fire line and proceed in a northeasterly direction to the ridgeline.

In the midst of this confusion Thompson arrived with Clayton’s note. With 40 men in tow, including elements from the BPR crew, Post deemed it foolhardy to go back down into the fire. With shifting winds peaking at 45 miles per hour, and crown fires erupting overhead, Post made the only reasonable choice: take his men and run. Post would later write:
Tops of the trees swung in the strong wind which was coming up through the basin, spot fires developed between the large spot fire and the main fire, and the wind had reached our line almost at once, and the large fire was a furnace immediately….Some of us wait for Tyrrell and the last ones out. The smoke is thick, the air is hot; we hurry up the ridge. Heavy tools are left behind. We take lady shovels, Pulaski’s and canteens – we may need them for our own protection.

The fleeing crews reached an opening, or what Post referred to as a “small park” but the escape route was blocked by fire, which was also burning around to the south of the open refuge. As the men considered their few remaining options, the wind shifted again, causing the forest crown to ignite lower down the ridge and perilously close to the men and their open refuge.
All down on the ground! (Post recalled.) But some do not have time to respond. Red spots appear on faces, and skin is stripped from all exposed surfaces. The heat is terrific, and it seems unbearable, but we have no safer place. If this is the end, we must take it here.

In the heat, smoke, ash and panic, some of the men became unmanageable. Some refused to lay on the ground, preferring to take their chances with a dash through the blaze, while others sat up to say prayers. Junior Forester Tyrrell pinned three men to the ground, holding them still and shielding them from the heat.

As the smoke cleared, Post began to shift the men around the open park, avoiding each successive wave of heat and fire. The worst of the fire was over by 5:00 P.M. but the smoke remained so thick that Post and his men stayed in place for nearly three more hours before rising from their refuge to begin the painful walk out of the burn. Of the forty or so men trapped with Ranger Post, seven would die either on the spot or later from the burns they suffered. Among the dead, five CCC enrollees (4 of whom had attempted to run through the flames), one Bureau of Public Roads crewman and Junior Forester Paul Tyrrell who had struggled so valiantly with the panic-stricken men to shield and restrain them.

Precisely what happened to Ranger Al Clayton and the seven men left behind near the stream crossing is unclear because, of this group, there were no survivors. No doubt Clayton would have been mustering the men for an attack on the spot fire he detected below the fire line. A theory advanced by one of the fire investigators speculated that Clayton may have scouted ahead to check the spot fire, possibly taking some of the men with him, leaving the rest to wait for reinforcements from Post’s crew. In traveling down the gulch toward the spot fire, Clayton would not have had the unobstructed vantage enjoyed by Post and his crew and thus, would not have seen the blow up developing. Once the danger became apparent, Clayton and possibly his crew would have hurriedly turned back up gulch toward the streambed to seek refuge in its potentially cooler, wetter surroundings. Reportedly, the condition and location of Clayton’s body indicates he may have been late in getting back to the stream crossing, having returned from scouting the fire. If Clayton wasn’t leading his men back toward the stream bed, with its promise of cooler fresh air, he was in the act of collecting the men when the blow up overtook the entire group.

The bodies of Clayton and six of the men in his detachment were found lying within 30 feet of each other. Another enrollee, Roy Bevens was found badly burned within 60 feet of the others. As he was being evacuated, Bevens exclaimed, “God, how lucky I am to be alive.” He would later die of his injuries in a hospital in Cody, Wyoming.

In the immediate aftermath of the blow up and its tragic consequences, fire suppression work all but ceased as crews fanned out into the burn to search for victims. Ranger Clayton and the men in the gulch were discovered in the process of extricating Post’s group from the burn. With help from rescue parties, the scarred and fatigued survivors carried the dead and dying of Post’s group down to the lower fire camps where they were tended to before being transported to hospitals in Cody.

As fire fighting work resumed, the body of Ranger Al Clayton and the six men who died with him were removed in the late morning and early afternoon of August 22, 1937. A local newspaper reporter wrote of the scene:

Seven pack-horses, each with angular forms wrapped in canvas and lashed to the saddles, filed slowly out of the wooded ravine and stopped at the cars. Over a hundred wide-eyed, ashen-gray youngsters, just ready to go to the fire line, pushed forward, drawn by a chilling magnetism to see what their former comrades looked like.

New CCC crews continued to arrive until at one point more than 500 men were fighting the blaze. By noon on Tuesday, August 24th the fire was listed as officially under control and on the following day the Forest Service supervisors began to release CCC crews to return to their camps and their regular duties. Finally, on August 31st, ten days after the fatal blow up and almost two weeks after lightening started a seemingly inconsequential blaze, the last of the fire fighting crews were disbanded, having constructed more than eleven miles of fire line in the process of extinguishing the Blackwater Fire.

In the immediate aftermath of the Blackwater Fire, David P. Godwin of the Forest Service Division of Fire Control based in Washington, DC conducted the government investigation of the event. In his report, Godwin found little fault with the foremen and supervisor’s handling of the fire. Godwin’s attention focused on the travel times of the units reacting to the fire and specifically on the critical delay experienced by the crew from the Tensleep camp. Godwin speculated that, had they arrived as scheduled, the Tensleep crew would not have been deployed where they were when the fire blew up and thus may very well have survived unharmed.

Today, Godwin is remembered as the man who, just two years after the Blackwater fire, authorized the expenditure of funds to carry out parachute jumping experiments linked to fire suppression. To say that Godwin, the man who investigated the Blackwater fire, had a hand in the creation of what came to be known as the smokejumper program is not an overstatement. One has to wonder what role the Blackwater tragedy had in sharpening Godwin’s resolve to put crews on the fire line in rapid fashion, thus leading to his support for airborne suppression tactics.

*** *** ***

On August 21, 1939, beneath a cloudless Wyoming sky, more than 500 local residents and dignitaries gathered for the dedication of three monuments to the men who died fighting the Blackwater fire two years earlier. The first ceremony took place near the junction of Blackwater Creek and the Shoshone River, where a stone monument some 71 feet long bears the names of those killed in the nearby forest. During the dedication ceremony Burt Sullivan of the Bureau of Public roads was awarded the American Forestry Association fire medal for heroic service during the fire. Five months earlier, Ranger Urban Post received a similar medal for his actions in leading his men to safety. Prior to the Blackwater Fire, no medal for forest firefighting heroism existed.

Following the dedication ceremony at the large monument, a group of officials traveled on horseback to dedicate a smaller monument in the newly renamed Clayton Gulch. The smaller monument, like it’s larger companion some nine miles away, was constructed by CCC enrollees. A third monument at “Post Point” marks the spot where Ranger Post and his men sought refuge.

The role of fighting forest fires would remain the purview of the CCC until the U.S. entry into World War II spelled the end of the conservation work program. One chronicler of the CCC reported that forty-seven CCC enrollees lost their lives fighting forest fires between 1933 and 1942. In that period, the CCC devoted nearly 6.5 million days to fire suppression, or the equivalent of 16,000 men laboring for an entire year on an eight-hour day. The soldiers of Roosevelt’s Forest Army were quickly absorbed into the very real branches of the military, but in the final days, as congress debated whether or not to keep the program, one of the principal arguments for keeping the CCC in place was its use as a fire suppression force that would be especially useful during wartime.

The Blackwater fire was by no means the first or the last mass tragedy in the annals of forest fire history; indeed other fire events have taken a greater toll in lives lost. What sets the Blackwater fire apart is the fact that, for 70 years, the tragedy has remained in the shadows of history, overpowered by more recent events like Mann Gulch and Storm King. Of the dead of Mann Gulch, the elder MacLean wrote, “They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.” MacLean might just as well have been writing about the dead of Blackwater Creek, who, save for their foreman and leaders, have been largely lost to history.

Killed in the Blackwater Fire:
Alfred G. Clayton, Ranger
James T. Saban, Technical Foreman
Rex A. Hale, Jr. Assistant to the Technician
Paul E. Tyrrell, Jr. Forester
Billy Lea, Bureau of Public Roads Crewman
Clyde Allen
Roy Bevins
Ambrogio Garcia
John B Gerdes
Will C. Griffith
Mack T. Mayabb
George Rodgers
Ernest Seelke
Rubin Sherry William Whitlock

Source List

“12 Die, 48 Injured As Forest Burns.” New York Times 23 August 1937: 8.

1937 Annual. Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 1811. No pub. No date.

Brian Ballou. “Blackwater Fire.” Wildland Firefighter February 2000.

Karl Brauneis. “1937 Blackwater Fire Investigation.” Static Line. Vol. 3 – Edition 4, July 1997.

Timothy S. Cochrane. “A Folk Biography of an United States Forest Service Ranger, Westerner, and Artist: A.G. Clayton.” PhD Dissertation Indiana University, 1987.

David P. Godwin. “The Handling of the Blackwater Fire.” Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.

John MacLean. Fire on the Mountain. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.

Norman MacLean. Young Men and Fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Stephen J. Pyne. “Flame and Fortune.” The New Republic 8 August 1994: 19-20.

Jack Richard. “Fire Line Hell.” Sports ‘Afield August 1941: 29+.

John A. Salmond. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967).

United States. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Bulletin Memorial Number Blackwater Fire. Vol. 20, No. 10: October 1937.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Who Will Remember the Dead of Blackwater?

CCC Fire Fighting Crew Photo Courtesy of NACCCA

They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.
---- Norman McLean, Young Men and Fire

(Note: August 2007 marks the 70th anniversary of the single deadliest day for Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees on the fire lines during the Great Depression: the Blackwater Fire in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. This editorial explores the possible reasons why the event has not received the popular and scholarly attention that other similar events have received. A detailed account of the Blackwater Fire will be posted in the near future.)

In the somewhat limited canon of forest fire history, two seminal events are taken out and dusted off every summer when the western United States is under threat of a major forest fire blowup: the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 and the Storm King Mountain Fire of 1994. To the unenlightened, Mann Gulch and Storm King roll off the tongue like the names of long-dead jazz musicians but to historians and students of fire science they are written and spoken of with reverence. As fire history, Mann Gulch and Storm King have held their own not simply because each fire event claimed the lives of men and women who were sent to fight them. Mann Gulch and Storm King offered valuable lessons for any fire professionals willing to pay attention. Add the fact that each fire has been the subject of a book length treatment, and the rest is history as they say.

Mann Gulch and Storm King have arisen from their own smoke and ash into bright sunlight thanks to the masterful work of Norman and John MacLean, a father and son duo who transformed the events into battlefield engagements, fought by heroic professionals, and the battle’s aftermath into crackling good storytelling and a search for answers. In Young Men and Fire, the elder MacLean, in the roll of storyteller, led his readers up the steep slope of Mann Gulch with a group of fleeing smokejumpers, past their foreman’s improbable escape fire, to a gap in the rocks beyond which three would pass, but only two would survive. Their foreman lay down in the smoking remains of his escape fire and survived, as did two of the quickest smokejumpers. The rest burned where they fell, their wristwatches and personal effects blown upslope by the force of the fire’s hurricane winds.

In Fire on the Mountain, Norman MacLean’s journalist son John led us down a Colorado fire line in the midst of the 1994 Storm King fire, and then in a rush, back up the slope in the face of a torrential blow up, then ultimately, out into a different kind of blow up as one public agency pointed the finger at another. Again, professional firefighters, this time smokejumpers and hot shot crewmembers died in a losing uphill race against a blowup, but at Storm King there was a new, cruel twist: among the dead were women firefighters.

There has been no such redeeming reportage for the 1937 Blackwater fire, an equally costly and no less tragic event that killed 10 Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees and four of their technical service supervisors just eleven years before the Mann Gulch disaster. Why? Consider the overarching national emergency of the Great Depression and there is little wonder why the dead of Blackwater Creek do not seem to speak as loudly as their brothers and sisters in arms who have perished on the fire line since. Additionally, we might do well to remember that in 1937 Americans didn’t grieve so openly and, like it or not, men weren’t required to cry.

There may be one really good reason the dead of Blackwater Creek have not received the scholarly and popular acclaim accorded those who died at Mann Gulch and Storm King. Despite Norman MacLean’s argument to the contrary, historians really are little more than storytellers. Consequently, history favors the glamorous. History favors the swashbuckler who swings down from on high to fight dangerous foes using cunning and bravery. Storytellers prefer to recount tales of brave young men and women who enter a particular profession because they are brave and because they seek to be tested. The story of the Blackwater fire has no swashbucklers and no such tales of youngsters striving to stare down the ultimate test. With the exception of the forestry personnel, the dead of Blackwater were not professional firefighters. The boys who marched into Blackwater Creek on August 21, 1937 were enrollees in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a workfare relief program designed to keep young men off the streets and out of trouble, while teaching them a trade if possible. There is little glory in being out of work. History remembers the well trained and elite smokejumper, not the barely post-pubescent CCC enrollee who earned thirty bucks a month with orders to send twenty-five of it home to needy family members.

Nevertheless there was an air of esprit about the CCC boys who battled fire in a Wyoming forest so far from their homes in Texas. Mustered like soldiers, garrisoned like fighting troops, their personal time overseen by the watchful eye of army officers, they lacked only the mantle of elite professionalism carried by so many of their successors. Although their degree of training varied from camp to camp, CCC enrollees could be relied upon to be sober and hard working, especially when supervised by knowledgeable government personnel. For all their potential weaknesses, including the fact that many were barely out of their teens, the argument could still be made that not before, nor since the CCC, has the United States had a larger, more easily deployed fire suppression force on active standby. Further, one could argue that the fire suppression work of the CCC has existed in the shadow of the smokejumpers and hotshot crews who came after.

It is estimated that between 1933 and 1942, some 3 million young men passed through the ranks of the Civilian Conservation Corps, many on their way to a bigger, more deadly blowup in an overseas world war that would come to make their CCC service pale in comparison. No hard figures have been kept, but it is estimated that in 9 years some 57 CCC enrollees died fighting forest fires: ten at Blackwater in Wyoming, seven near Emporia, Pennsylvania, five near Orovada, Nevada and dozens of others anonymously, individually in forests across the nation, often far from their own homes and families. In his heart-wrenching book about the Mann Gulch fire, Norman McLean wrote that the dead smokejumpers of Mann Gulch were young and needed someone to remember them. We would do well to remember the equally young, if somewhat less glamorous enrollees of the Civilian Conservation Corps who fought fire and died in the forest in a time before anyone seemed to take notice of such things.
(© Michael I. Smith, 2007)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Life in Riley Creek Camp F-3-W (Wisconsin)

Civilian Conservation Corps camps were really like small towns, with just about everything an enrollee would need to live and work and thrive – well almost everything. In the early phases of the program, camps were of permanent construction, sometimes built using enrollee labor and sometimes built by local construction crews. Once the CCC work was done in an area, the camps were often turned over to the local community or simply abandoned with portable equipment and material being salvaged for use elsewhere. Eventually the expense of this practice began to come home to Robert Fechner, the director of the CCC and in 1936 it was decreed that all future CCC camps would be made up of portable structures, built from a pre-cut standard design. This decision was hailed by local officials. (It is also worth pointing out that some architecture historians claim that portable buildings really didn’t come into being until after the U.S. entry into World War II, but the fact of the matter is that the CCC was doing it long before 1941.) With the switch to portable buildings, the camp plan was also standardized, in that it called for each camp to have four barracks buildings, one mess hall, one classroom building, one latrine building, bath houses, and twelve additional structures to house camp officers and for other camp operational functions.

While the building types remained constant after 1936, the configuration of CCC camps varied from region to region and from location to location, due to differences in topography, geography and the availability of a potable water source. Some camps were arranged around a central, open area where company formations were held and other camps were arranged in neat rows, often tightly grouped to make the best use of available space on a small, open piece of flat ground.
So then, let’s have a look at Company 642 and their community at CCC Camp Riley Creek, F-3-(WIS) in Fifield, Wisconsin to see if we can get a feel for how the enrollees lived and played in their small “town.” These images come from a series of photos taken at the camp in October 1940.

This is Company 642, the all-male inhabitants of Camp F-3-W, a forestry camp under the command of Julius Schmeichel, who, along with a second-in-command, a physician, an educational advisor and a chaplain, was in charge of the enrollees during their time in the camp. Let's take a closer look at the residents of F-3-W.

A closer look at camp commander Schmeichel and his staff. For some reason, the foremen from the technical service are not pictured with the group, but they would have been men from the U.S. Forest Service or possibly a state department of forestry. For the purposes of our analogy, these men represent the mayor and town council of our little town.

Company 642 included 10 leaders and 16 assistant leaders. This young man has been promoted to a leader position as evidenced by the three stripes on his sleeves. Additionally, he carries some other rating, which is unclear, but may be a first aid insignia.

Not all the enrollees sport the CCC shoulder patch, which could indicate that this was a private purchase item. This smiling fellow does have the CCC shoulder patch on his left shoulder.

This young man has a variant of the CCC patch: a shield with the letters “CCC” over an image of a surveying transit and a pine tree.

This guy elected to display his CCC patch in a rather unorthodox way: sewn to the front of his uniform trousers.

Company 642 had a few tough customers….

...and a few who seemed to always be having a good time.

Company 642 also had a few fellows who looked to be barely out of high school.

Of course, Camp F-3-W was like many, many CC camps in that it had at least one pet or mascot. In this case it’s man’s best friend, but some camps claimed bear, deer and raccoons as pets.

This is part of Camp F-3-W, where Company 642 lived, learned and played. In keeping with regulations, the camp is neat and tidy. Typically the enrollees were assigned work around the camp area on Saturday’s in order to keep up with housekeeping. Rock-lined paths separate the buildings and in the distance is a camp sign, possibly a bulletin board to let enrollees and visitors know what’s going on in camp.

This is a view of the motor pool for camp F-3-W. As with the rest of the camp, the area is neat and clean, the trucks parked carefully, as if for inspection. At least one of the trucks is rigged to carry passengers as evidenced by the bench seats in the bed. This truck may have been used to carry enrollees to the job site and into town on the weekends.

Here is a view of the camp mess hall and the interior of one of the barracks. In the mess hall you can see the kitchen area off to the right. The camp commander and his staff may have taken their meals at the single table at the back corner of the building. Interestingly enough, camp commanders and technical service foremen did not eat in the mess hall for free, but were charged for meals eaten in the camps.
The barracks is Spartan – the CCC was not a summer pleasure camp. Noteworthy in this picture are the raincoats and laundry bags hung neatly by each bunk. Also of note is the nametag affixed to each bunk and the three heating stoves. Often the stoves were barely sufficient to keep the barracks warm and usually an enrollee was assigned the job of making sure the stoves kept burning all night.

This view shows the camp canteen and library. Small items like candy, combs, pipes and smoking tobacco were offered for sale in the camp canteen, which was run by an enrollee. The funds usually went toward the purchase of items to improve camp life.
In most camps, the reading room was usually a place for quiet study, letter writing and occasionally evening classes in forestry, leather crafts, mathematics or reading. The camp F-3-W library appears to have a good selection of magazines and you’ll note a sign that reads “Do It Now,” hanging from the ceiling.

Thus ends our virtual tour of Camp Riley Creek F-3-W in Fifield, Wisconsin. In pondering these young men as they looked in October 1940, it’s important to consider that many of them probably went into the military not too very long after these photos were taken. It’s sad to think that some of these bright, eager faces may not have returned from the World War they went off to fight. Likely, they would prefer that we remember them for their service in helping stamp out totalitarianism and we certainly do remember and honor their service, but we’d do well to also remember a more peaceful time that no doubt shaped their perceptions of democracy and fairness, ultimately leading to that most significant of sacrifices. We should also remember those who survived and went on to have useful, vital, productive lives. Certainly our thanks go out to all of them, the residents of this tidy little town near Fifield, Wisconsin.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Folly of Revisionist History

I’ve pointed out in the past that I am not an economist. I’m not even an historian, really. I’ve made almost a single-minded study of one aspect of the New Deal and have largely divorced it from the other programs and policies of that era. Having said that, I have never and will never argue that the New Deal was a success because of the Civilian Conservation Corps; I only know that the CCC was a success in its own right and it can’t be used in any meaningful argument aimed at debunking the success of the New Deal.

The recently released book The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, is touted as an honest reappraisal of Roosevelt’s New Deal and, while I have not yet read it, I’ll go out on a limb here and state that if Ms. Shlaes attempts to use the Civilian Conservation Corps as an example of how the New Deal failed, she’d better not rely on the likes of other “historians” who’ve argued likewise. For example, she’d be smart avoid relying on Jim Powell for information on the CCC. (Shlaes website:

Jim Powell’s flaccid attempt to tar the CCC in his book FDR’s Folly is a good example of revisionist history run amok. As indicated in its subtitle, Powell’s book outlines, “How Roosevelt and his New Deal prolonged the Great Depression.” FDR’s Folly contains only 3 references to the CCC and for all that, Jim Powell would have been better off ignoring the CCC altogether.

Powell’s first reference to the CCC is a somewhat benign statement linking Roosevelt’s policies as governor of New York to his later creation of the CCC. Pretty simple. However, Powell’s other two references to the CCC step carefully across a line to imply something more. Powell notes that the CCC “was one of FDR’s first proposals for relief, offered March 9, 1933.” Then, as if casting about for something negative to say, Powell goes on to state that because labor organizations disliked the $1 a day wage being proposed, “the CCC wasn’t signed into law until March 31.” Okay, so it took 22 days to get the CCC proposal from vision to reality. By today’s standards, when new legislation passes through the House and the Senate at a glacial pace, the legislation creating the CCC was a model of speed and efficiency! Is Jim Powell aware that Roosevelt’s first 100 days are the standard by which all other administrations have been judged? Perhaps Mr. Powell thinks it should be the “First 50 Days.”

Mr. Powell then goes on to vaguely outline how the CCC was run, “very much like the army,” with enrollees reporting to “army training camps” before being assigned to companies under “…corresponding army commands.” “The men wore army uniforms, were driven around in army trucks, slept in military-style open barracks and were commanded by regular and reserve military officers as well as civilian CCC officers.”

Clearly Jim Powell is troubled by the military involvement in the CCC. Had he bothered to do some real research into the CCC, Mr. Powell would have learned that in 1933 the average American was easily as reticent about the military’s involvement in the CCC as he seems to be – if not more so. Had Mr. Powell bothered to check, he would have learned that CCC director Robert Fechner attempted to move forward with as little military involvement as possible in 1933, but when it became obvious that he couldn’t meet the enrollment goals set forth by the president, the War Department was called upon to ratchet up their participation to better speed the process of feeding, equipping and transporting the first 250,000 new enrollees. As it turned out, the military effort in connection with the mobilization of the CCC was excellent preparation for our later involvement in a world conflict.

As for army uniforms and army trucks, the uniforms were World War I surplus and in fairly short order the transportation was largely handled by the technical agencies like the U. S. Forest Service, National Park Service and the Soil Conservation Service, with CCC enrollees (not army personnel) doing the driving. And when it comes to active and reserve military commanders, Mr. Powell failed to point out that active duty commanders were replaced with reserve officers, many of whom had been put out of work themselves, so they had more in common with the enrollees than with their active military brethren.

Not content to put a stain on the CCC by implication, Mr. Powell then purports to outline some of the work done by the CCC and the statement is cynical enough to be worth quoting at length:

“The CCC men worked primarily in wilderness areas planting trees, trying to control tree diseases, and building fire towers and truck trails that might be used for fighting forest fires…CCC officials claimed they imparted useful skills like reading. The CCC was expensive, costing over $2 billion between 1933 and 1939, and a disproportionate amount of money went to western states.” (Emphasis added.)

So in Mr. Powell’s assessment the CCC tried to control tree diseases (where no meaningful effort had been made previously) and they constructed improvements that might be used for fighting forest fires. Furthermore, officials “claimed” that the program imparted useful skills, “like reading.” I’ll assume that Mr. Powell does in fact believe reading to be a useful skill. Again, had he bothered to look at some facts, Mr. Powell would have learned that in addition to reading, enrollees learned valuable work skills and discipline that they carried with them the rest of their lives. Many enrollees would go on to have life-long employment based upon skills they gained in the CCC. As for the question of whether or not the work of the CCC was useful in fighting forest fires, the statistics show a marked decline in the occurrence of forest fires during the years that the CCC was in operation and many of their forest roads are still in use today. Dozens of CCC enrollees died while fighting forest fires; a fact that Mr. Powell apparently failed to dig up in his very limited research.

Mr. Powell closes the statement by claiming a disproportionate distribution of CCC funds. The claim is vague enough that it will escape scrutiny by most readers. What does Mr. Powell mean when he refers to “money” that went disproportionately to western states. If a larger amount of funds for CCC work went to western states, it’s because a larger chunk of the public domain is in the west. If Mr. Powell takes enrollee allotments into consideration, then he’s way off the mark. While a majority of the physical and aesthetic improvements took place in western states, a good number of enrollees came from large eastern cities. These enrollees were required to send as much as $25 of their $30 monthly allotment home to their families back east. If we compare total enrollments by state for fiscal year 1937 for example, we see that 3,863 Coloradoans were enrolled, 1,468 Arizonans were enrolled, and 8,411 Californian were enrolled. By comparison, 16,697 New Yorkers were enrolled, 12,646 Pennsylvanians were enrolled, and 11,973 enrollees hailed from Massachusetts. So, if we talk simply in terms of work done and improvements made, it could be argued that the western United States benefited more from the work of the CCC than did the rest of the country. However, if we consider where the bulk of enrollment took place and thus where the enrollment benefits were going, we’ll see that the eastern states gained their share of benefit from the CCC as well.

Jim Powell’s final comment regarding the CCC involves an “embarrassing” episode involving Henry Ford, who was an ardent opponent of the National Recovery Administration. It seems Mr. Ford refused to sign on to the NRA’s automobile code. Nevertheless, when the CCC ordered 500 trucks, Ford’s bid was $169,000 less than the next lowest bid from Dodge. In the end, Mr. Powell reports, the CCC went with Ford’s lowest bid, and the reader is left to puzzle a bit over what the real scandal was exactly. Again, had Mr. Powell done any meaningful research in connection with the CCC, he would have leaned about the infamous 1933 “toilet kit scandal” and it’s implication of CCC bid-rigging. Furthermore, Mr. Powell doesn’t bother to explain why the CCC accepted bids for trucks if the army was doing all the driving, as he claims in an earlier section of the book.

Admittedly, Jim Powell’s book isn’t about the CCC exclusively, but given the paltry research done to back his claims, Jim Powell would have done well to leave the CCC out of his book. Furthermore, the flimsy arguments Mr. Powell uses to attack the credibility and usefulness of the CCC, call into question the arguments he uses to attack the rest of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Amity Shlaes’ new book has come out to rave reviews. It will be interesting to see how she addresses the CCC in her appraisal of the New Deal. Frankly, without new, meaningful research to support it, no meaningful case can be made against the New Deal using the CCC as an example. In short: Criticize the New Deal to your heart’s content, but don’t hang your argument on the Civilian Conservation Corps.
(Copyright 2007, Michael Smith)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Hey, accidents happen!": Drunken Driving, Foul Balls and Mechanical Defects

Historians are really just storytellers. The best historians are those who can find the best stories, without having to resort to embellishment or revisionism after the fact. In the years and decades to come, historians, researchers, scholars and avid students of the Civilian Conservation Corps will eventually turn their attention to more obscure source material, in an effort to recount new and better stories about to the CCC. The realm of CCC history is a wide-open field for research and many are beginning to see that, especially as the 1941-1945 war years become evermore burnt over from a historical research standpoint. Future storytellers may be rewarded with some interesting insights into lesser-known aspects of the CCC and from time to time they may even get a chuckle out of what they find.

For example, in 1935, 1936 and 1937, there came up for discussion a number of Senate reports entitled “Settlement of Individual Claims for Personal Property Lost or Damaged From the Activities of the Civilian Conservation Corps.” These reports are basically a listing of claims made by regular citizens against the government, seeking reimbursement for damages received as the result of CCC activity. Understandably, nearly all of the claims in the 1935-37 period were the result of vehicular mishaps.

Each of the incidents is noted to have been investigated by a board of officers who then made their recommendations regarding payment of claims and in some cases, fixing partial blame on the CCC enrollee. In only one case does it appear that full responsibility was placed on the head of the unfortunate CCC enrollee. On November 26, 1933 – perhaps in connection with Thanksgiving festivities that year – an intoxicated CCC enrollee, operating a CCC truck on the streets of Grand Junction, Colorado, “struck and damaged” a legally parked automobile belonging to one Andy McKelvey. “The operator of the truck,” the report states, “was apprehended, tried, found guilty, and confined as a result…” Mr. McKelvey received the princely sum of $65.35 “on account of damages sustained.”

Bureaucratic red tape is nothing new and in the CCC there existed a strict set of guidelines and particular forms that had to be filled out in the event of an accident involving a CCC enrollee or vehicle. In the Manual of Administration for the Civilian Conservation Corps, written as a how-to guide by Army Lieutenant L.P.D. Warren in 1935, there is printed a sample copy of an investigation report. Lieutenant Warren points out in his text that if the owner of the private vehicle expresses their intention to file a claim against the government for damages, they were required to fill out Quartermaster Corps (QMC) Form #28, five copies of which would accompany the report of the investigating officer, but the Form #28 would not be listed as an attachment to the report. Other forms that were to be included and listed as attachments were the driver’s report of accident Form #26 and the investigating officer’s report Form #27.

Ironically, in Lt. Warren’s manual, there also appears a sample accident report for a mishap involving a CCC truck from a Soil Conservation Corps CCC camp at Athens, Georgia on May 4, 1935. It seems that on that day, government Dodge truck #32341, driven by Enrollee “X” (I’ll protect his name. He might be a member of a CCC veteran in your home town.) collided with a vehicle owned and driven by Mr. Ramey Epps of Athens, Georgia. Although the truck was listed as being on “official business” from Camp SCS-1, it was determined that Enrollee “X” was under the influence of intoxicants and he was found fully responsible for the accident. As a result, Enrollee “X” was required to pay $4.00 to cover the cost of repairing the government vehicle. The investigating officer’s recommendation that Enrollee “X” also pay $13. 35 to cover repairs to the privately owned vehicle was overturned by the District Headquarters.

Most of the incidents cited in the Senate reports don’t include things as salacious as drunken CCC enrollees cruising the streets of America’s cities looking for things to bang into, in fact most of the accidents are chalked up to bad road conditions and a condition generally referred to as a “mechanical defect.” For example a vehicle belonging to a Frank W. Brunner of Springfield, Illinois was damaged to the tune of $38.55, “when, due to a mechanical defect in the front wheels” the operator of a CCC truck struck and damaged Mr. Brunner’s car. In another incident involving a CCC truck outside Minersville, California, “the clevise (sic) pin sheared off,” leaving the CCC vehicle out of control, at which point it collided with a privately owned automobile causing $49.10 in damages. “Mechanical defect” was also along for the ride when Miss Lucy Ahrens’ vehicle was damaged due to a collision with a CCC vehicle in Tacoma, Washington on May 14, 1935.

Not all mishaps involving the CCC and damage to vehicles were the result of drunkenness, mechanical defect or treacherous road conditions. On April 14, 1935, Mrs. Clara B. Chapman was proceeding east on State Highway Number 103 in Van Buren, Missouri. Mrs. Chapman passed Big Spring Park as a group of CCC enrollees were engaged in baseball batting practice – as part of the authorized athletic program of Company 1740, the report is careful to point out. A foul ball struck Mrs. Chapman’s car “damaging it to the extent of $15.10.” One has to wonder how a foul ball can cause $15.10 worth of damage while other claims involving the collision of trucks with private vehicles occasionally resulted in claims as low as $7.90.

Finally, there is the Senate report involving a claim filed by H. C. Ledford of Randle, Washington. Here it seems fitting to quote the entry as it appears in the report:
“On May 4, 1935, the operator of a Civilian Conservation Corps truck, while proceeding in a westerly direction on Lower Cispus Road, near Randle, Wash., at approximately 25 miles an hour, attempted to stop after being hailed by boys who were driving a herd of cattle. Upon applying the brakes the pin sheared off, causing the operator to lose control of his vehicle, which collided with two cows, property of the claimant, damaging one of them to the extent of $20.”
How would one determine if a cow had been “damaged,” exactly? Furthermore, with the price of meat what it is today, I wonder if it’s still possible to only do $20 worth of “damage” to a cow.

So, what’s the lesson in all this? Storytellers – historians – aren’t always interested in portraying the entire story if one piece of it will suit their needs. For example, it’s become fashionable among scholars and academics to argue that Pearl Harbor was somehow the United States’ fault and that Hiroshima was simply an act of barbarism perpetrated on an already beaten Japanese nation. Do you think that our CCC history will be immune from such slanders in the years to come?

Taken as a whole, the Senate reports on payment of claims due to accidents involving the CCC are a useful insight into the workings of our government and they offer a glimpse of how things were handled in the camps. Picked apart and taken selectively, the reports might be construed to show that CCC enrollees were a bunch of boozing truckers, rumbling around the nation in vehicles rife with “mechanical defects” and thus not fit to drive.

The story of the CCC is your story but it will only serve for good if you tell the story. When grandchildren, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters ask you to tell of your time in the CCC, they’re asking because they want to know and that’s reason enough to tell the story. However there will be a bigger purpose to the telling in years to come when those memories take the form of oral histories and personal narratives that historians use to recount the story of Roosevelt’s Conservation Corps. Sure, tell the whole story, warts and all, and good historians - storytellers who are faithful to the trade - will accurately recount what you accomplished in a worldwide economic depression and a World War, while perhaps adding that no CCC enrollee was perfect.
Copyright 2007, Michael Smith (This article appeared in a slightly modified format in the NACCCA Journal.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Soil Army Invades Phoenix South Mountain Park

A Conservation Army Mobilizes
Given its quiet beauty today, it’s hard to believe that South Mountain Park played host to some 4,000 members of a peacetime conservation army between 1933 and 1940, but that is the fact of the matter. Indeed, without this peaceful occupation by self-proclaimed “Soil Soldiers,” Phoenix South Mountain Park would not exist as we know it today.

When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the office of president in 1933, America was in its fourth year of what has come to be called The Great Depression. Fully one-quarter of the population was without work and some 2 million young men and women are believed to have taken to the road in search of work and a meaningful future. Rightly or wrongly, many grew fearful that this wandering generation would fall into mischief or worse, under the spell of agitators. Action was needed and fast.

Among the many programs created in the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s fledgling New Deal was the Emergency Conservation Work program, which came to be known as the Civilian Conservation Corps – the C.C.C. Open to young, single men aged 17 to 28, the C.C.C. mobilized over 250,000 enrollees in the spring of 1933 and by the time the program was discontinued following the attack on Pearl Harbor, some 3 million young men served in the program, working in camps in every state and territory of the United States. Arizona saw its share of benefit from the labor of the C.C.C. On average 50 camps operated in the state and by 1942 some 41, 362 Arizona men received valuable employment and training in the C.C.C.

The Camp That Almost Wasn’t
South Mountain was a likely candidate for placement of a C.C.C. camp when the second phase of work began in the fall of 1933. Little had been done to improve what was then known as Phoenix Mountain Park following its creation in the 1920s so the area seemed a natural fit for the establishment of a C.C.C. camp to perform useful work and create valuable improvements. Nevertheless, there was a snag. The government mandated that C.C.C. camps must possess a source of potable water. In 1933, Phoenix Mountain Park lay some 8 miles outside the Phoenix city limits and possessed no viable source of water.

The city balked at the idea of providing a water supply for the then remote park site so Phoenix’s application for a C.C.C. camp was denied. There the matter might have rested if not for the intervention of Senator Carl Hayden who contacted the Office of National Parks, Buildings and Reservations to assure them that the $5,100 needed to provide a water supply would be taken care of. Senator Hayden was able to impress upon city officials the important potential benefits of having a C.C.C. camp at the park and on October 25, 1933, the Arizona Republic proclaimed “Opening of Mountain Park Well Assures Corps Camp.”

The Showplace Camps
Senator Hayden’s efforts paid out in spades because South Mountain was actually allotted two C.C.C. camps, designated SP-3-A and SP-4-A. The establishment of two camps so close to Phoenix can be traced to a request from the Secretary of the Interior to the director of the C.C.C. asking that some camps be established in areas adjacent to population centers. The proximity to a major city meant that the South Mountain Park C.C.C. camps became the showpiece camps of the Phoenix District, with civic leaders and dignitaries dropping by seemingly without notice.

Louis Purvis, an enrollee who transferred to South Mountain with the rest of his C.C.C company from a camp at Grand Canyon in October 1937, described camp SP-3-A in his book, The Ace In The Hole:
The road from Phoenix to South Mountain came through the campsite, separating the administrative offices from the rest of the buildings…it was imperative that the entire camp be ready for inspection at all times. This camp was the showplace for the Phoenix, District. All official guests who came to visit the Phoenix District headquarters were escorted to South Mountain and Camp SP-3-A.

For a C.C.C. company recently stationed in a remote camp near Grand Canyon, assignment to a camp so close to Phoenix was a welcome prospect, even if it meant the attention of visiting dignitaries, but high-ranking officials weren’t the only potential drop-in guests at the South Mountain camps. The 1936 Phoenix District Annual noted that Company 2860 and camp SP-4-A were “always on display and always ever ready for inspection by that most critical inspector, The Public…” South Mountain Park was already becoming a popular visitor attraction in part because of the work of the C.C.C. and the enrollees were expected to keep up appearances at all times.

The Tunnel That Almost Was
The work of C.C.C. enrollees at South Mountain Park, like the work of enrollees across the country, was varied and vigorous. A project plan for October 1935 through March 1936 included construction of vehicle, horse and hiking trails, erosion control, construction of guardrails, rock excavation and landscaping. Rock for some of the projects was excavated and hauled from as far away as North Mountain, on the opposite end of the city. According to one remembrance, the burly enrollees were usually selected for this work.

One project did not materialize, despite having the unqualified support of the landscape architect assigned to work on C.C.C. projects in the park. Department of the Interior plans called for a 500-foot long tunnel through the mountain near the summit of Telegraph Pass, linked to a southern approach road. In a 1936 letter to the Parks Department in Phoenix, William H. Douglass, the landscape architect who took credit for the tunnel idea, expressed satisfaction at hearing the tunnel was still being considered. Douglass explained that upon receiving word to halt construction of the tunnel road, he and the camp superintendent instead put the C.C.C. enrollees on overtime to excavate the site and, just before the camp was to close for the season, they set off charges, “so they [the next work crew] had to go ahead with the new location or leave a scar in the side of the mountain.” Despite Douglass’ best effort, the tunnel and its southern approach road were never completed, though the idea continues to crop up even today when residents living on the south side of the park demand better access to their jobs near downtown Phoenix.

A Fitting Legacy
By 1942 when the C.C.C. was disbanded South Mountain had 40 miles of trails, 18 buildings, 15 ramadas and 164 fire pits, water facets and other improvements largely due to the work of C.C.C. enrollees. Today, South Mountain Park no longer sits at the edge of the city, but is instead surrounded by homes and businesses, and little remains of the camps in which the Soil Soldiers lived and worked. However, the work of Roosevelt’s conservation army lives on in the ramadas and hiking shelters that continue to benefit visitors to South Mountain, and a careful hiker may even find a star-shaped stone and concrete structure that served as the base of the camp flagpole nearly 70 years ago. Copyright 2007. Michael Smith
(A modified version of this article previously appeared in the South Mountain Villager.)

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona