Civilian Conservation Corps left twisting blacktop legacy
This is the 12th in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
Of all the mind-bending experiences out here, nothing quite compares to skirting the canyons from Rim Rock Drive. Whether you drive it, bike it or run it, you gasp for air (a plentiful commodity out here) while yelling “Holy smokes!” (or something like that).
A wild road trip indeed. The primary reason? Design. Sixty-one years after completion, this 22.5-mile ribbon of asphalt (with three tunnels) resonates among road experts as an engineering marvel without peer.
“It is the best,” says Merle Palmer.
Palmer, a Fruita resident, knows Rim Rock Drive better than most. He understands what went into its construction. He has talked to some of the old-timers who, when they were young and strong, used picks and shovels, exploded tons of dynamite and wore their muscles raw to make Colorado National Monument easily accessible.
Some readers may think of road builders as large, clumsy brutes whose sole talent was breaking rocks. Palmer has a different take on them, however. Long after the road was finished in 1950, Palmer worked at the monument for the National Park Service. He retired in 1994 as chief of maintenance.
During his 35-year career, he and his staff made repairs and improvements that brought him into intimate contact with the road itself. In some cases, flash floods washed out sections of road that had to be rebuilt.
Palmer, a rough-hewn man who measures his words thoughtfully, reveres Rim Rock Drive’s craftsmanship. He mentions that, in addition to the road itself, several stone buildings, stone walls and stone culverts survive out here as testimony to the road builders’ precision and know-how.
Conceived during the Great Depression of the 1930s, these handmade structures remain in use today. All reflect a mastery of function and design that “will never be done again,” Palmer says.
Engineering nuances are often lost on first-time visitors, however. When they arrive here, their eyes tend to scan vast emptiness off the road’s berm while the road itself, like some primitive rolling escalator, carries them about 2,000 feet up from the floor of the Grand Valley.
Local history buffs, of course, recognize Rim Rock Drive as the masterpiece of thousands of men who enrolled in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Road building meant survival.
Employment during the Depression — any job at all and particularly one that paid $25 a month (plus free room and board) — was a rare luxury. When they weren’t swinging picks, CCCers learned trades, such as stonemasonry, and basic skills in math and reading.
Along with the Works Project Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA), the CCC comprised Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal programs launched to revive an ailing U.S. economy.
Nationwide, CCCers built an estimated 90,000 miles of road as part of an ambitious mission to transform America’s public lands in the years leading up to World War II. Nicknamed “Tree Army,” they not only planted trees, but also built dams, canals and fire towers. They even saved livestock during bad storms.
Some of their achievements remain in evidence throughout the country’s national, state and metropolitan parks in the form of healthy forests, handsome picnic shelters and magnificent roads like Rim Rock Drive.
According to government records, more than 3 million men worked for the CCC from 1933 until Congress discontinued the program in 1942. During the program’s first three years, 1.7 million men had earned $371 million and sent $265 million of those wages to their destitute families back home.
“It has been possible for many enrollees to remove their families from public relief rolls through their work,” one federal official reported.
But the CCC’s impact extended far beyond pocketbooks. When the U.S. Department of Labor conducted follow-up research, it discovered intangible rewards.
“Thousands of actual case records reflect the fact that the CCC men (who) returned to their homes definitely benefited physically and mentally,” the labor department reported. “Their outlook toward the future is brighter (and) their sense of self-reliance and their ability to adjust themselves to economic conditions is stronger.”
The director of the CCC, Robert Fechner, wrote a history of the program shortly before he died in 1939. He concluded, “It is the consensus of opinion (that the CCC) work will prove of lasting value not only to the men of the CCC but also to the entire nation.”
Remember at least two of those words the next time you’re on the road. Lasting value.
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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.