Civilian Conservation Corps: blood, sweat and teamwork
Too bad Leroy Lewis isn’t around to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Colorado National Monument. He’d have loved to share the limelight with other men who remembered what it was like to bust their tails on the monument’s road-building crew.
Lewis died last year at 98, I’m sorry to say, but not before he took the time to reminisce.
He grew up on a ranch near Hotchkiss in the early 20th century, a skinny kid whose work ethic made him succeed beyond his wildest dreams. Of course, he knew plenty of others with the same story.
It began like a fairytale, “Once upon a time, millions of rawboned young men without any prospects or grub in their bellies ended up shoveling dirt for the Civilian Conservation Corps …”
But their CCC story was real, he said in 2008. Lewis was 96 and had clear blue eyes and a boyish laugh that lit up the small study in his Grand Junction condo.
“It had a helluva impact on my life,” Lewis remembered. “It was hot and hard.”
The Great Depression hit his family hard as it did millions of other Americans. He determined to leave the ranch in order to help his destitute parents survive.
So in 1933 Lewis enrolled in the CCC, provided with food and clothing (WW I uniforms) and assigned to a camp at the monument. A road project was under way because there was no Rim Rock Drive back then, and the local business community knew a monument road would boost tourism.
CCCers earned $25 a month. They were allowed to keep $5 and sent the rest home to their families. Lewis said they bunked together, ate “a big meat and potatoes diet,” played sports, studied math and went dancing with young women from nearby communities on weekends.
Labor for the historic Rim Rock Drive construction project drew heavily from the CCC, Works Project Administration and Public Works Administration, all part of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created to help Americans dig themselves out of the Depression, and to fortify America’s public lands.
Within a regimented setting of long barracks and military discipline, Lewis sharpened new skills — even hammering away on a typewriter as a clerk when he wasn’t smashing rocks with a pickax on the road project.
The mission to build a 23-mile road up and over the monument took many years and human lives with it. With hundreds of young men exploding dynamite on the edge of 400-foot-high canyons, this ambitious enterprise
carried inherent risks.
This massive workforce of sinew and muscle worked year-round, pulverizing untold tons of Entrada sandstone. How? By drilling 12-foot-deep holes in rock, tamping them with dynamite and blasting a safe route along the canyon rims to make way for motorists and cyclists of the future.
On a chilly December day in 1933, a gigantic rockslide killed nine older laborers, called Local Experienced Men. They were charged with mentoring younger CCCers like Lewis. He recalled the tragedy vividly.
“Lots of broken bones,” he said. “And lots of blood.”
Today’s 23-mile ribbon of smooth blacktop stretches from the southeast entrance of the monument near Grand Junction to the northwest entrance near Fruita. Most of Rim Rock Drive was completed when World War II began and the CCC was disbanded. The National Park Service finished the job in 1950.
Sixty-one years later, Rim Rock Drive offers spellbinding vistas to more than half a million visitors annually. As for the road-builders, their legacy endures even today. Not only is the road itself a testament to their work ethic and spirit of teamwork, but also young men and women continue to perform laborious improvements on the monument’s hiking trails every year as part of youth conservation groups.
The CCC changed the lives of untold numbers of young men like Leroy Lewis. He enjoyed an illustrious career in the Army and was awarded the Bronze Medal for valor in World War II, and the Oak Leaf cluster for valor in the Korean Conflict.
Two years before his death, he told me: “In these times, I think they should bring the CCC back. It’s what we need.”
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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.