The Physical Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps

From cabins to trails, the stamp of this incredible Depression-era group is still seen most everywhere.


The legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transcends the physical work they accomplished. From the conception of the program as part of the New Deal to the value placed on conservation by its very existence, the CCC encouraged Americans to appreciate and protect the natural world for its intrinsic value. With foresight that can be attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the creation of the CCC also underscored the importance of natural resource management, as opposed to out and out resource exploitation. Because the program was implemented as a social service, it became a tangible example of the goals can be accomplished by working together.

But it’s not the academic legacy of the volunteer corps that stirs nostalgia in our hearts. It’s the physical structures they built that – after 80 years – continue to provide refuge from the elements. It’s that distinctive timber and wood shelter that excites you for the wild lands that lie beyond. We make the trek to see Half Dome and Old Faithful, but it’s the distinctive CCC cabins and signs and shelters that tell us, “You’ve arrived.”

The stamp of the Corps is everywhere. Structures built by the CCC are in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Though Alaska and Hawaii were not states when the program ran, they did have CCC camps.) It’s an architectural style of necessity and charm, built from local materials on little to no budget. With the attention and quality of workmanship that the young men of the CCC put into their work, that style has become a treasured part of our national identity.

You know a CCC building when you see it. They’re iconic: roughhewn timbers, locally collected stones, and simple log construction. The CCC stamp of functional, naturalist form is on welcome signs, park museums, ranger stations, overlook refuges, and picnic shelters – so many picnic shelters – across the country.

When considering the sheer quantity of work accomplished, it’s extraordinary to note that the CCC only ran nine years, 1933-1942. It was the brainchild of newly elected President Roosevelt. The concept was simple. In exchange for shelter, clothing, food, and a small stipend, young unemployed men would do necessary conservation work around the country. Initially, the efforts were focused on erosion prevention and reforestation.

The program received overwhelming support from government officials, the general public, and the hordes of “boys” in line to sign up. Of its greatest strengths was its ability to be fluid at the administrative level. This fluidity manifested in changing the process when unforeseen opportunities and needs arose. For example, communities encouraged the CCC to welcome local, skilled craftsman to work alongside and train the “traveling” enrollees. When the fiscal success of the program was proven, the CCC began to offer educational programming to its enrollees. The education component was inconsistent and somewhat controversial. Still, more than 40,000 illiterate enrollees were taught to read and write.

Building park infrastructure was just one check on a long list of accomplishments. The CCC was firmly entrenched in conservation on all levels. In its nine-year run, the men of the organization:

  • Planted more than 3 billion trees
  • Built 3,470 fire towers
  • Built 97,000 miles of fire road
  • Constructed more 800 parks
  • Fought wildland fires
  • Protected range and wildlife corridors
  • Improved drainage infrastructure on 84,400,000 acres of land
  • Responded to regional emergencies

All told, more than 3 million young men enrolled in the program. Of their $30 monthly stipend, they were required to send $25 home. That money is largely credited with keeping small communities liquid throughout the Depression. And the men, many of whom were too poor to feed and house themselves, regained health, strength, and pride through the work. The CCC ended its run in 1942, when the United States entered into World War II, and those same boys were drafted into the armed forces.

Most powerful legacy or not, the structures built by the CCC are inextricable from our national outdoors experience. They are the harbinger of excitement as you enter a national park; the appreciation for shade when you stop for lunch at an overlook; the sense of camaraderie that washes over you when you rest against the cool of an oversized rock pillar and know that someone – a long time ago – was looking out for the future of our wild lands.

Saguaro NP weekend cabin ccc

CCC picnic shelter at Saguaro National Park, Tucson

weekend cabin ccc  Shelter at River Bend Theo Roose Nat'l Park by Jess Stryker

CCC shelter at River Bend, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Abilene State Park weekend cabin ccc

CCC pergola, Abilene State Park, Texas

Zion national park ccc weekend cabin

Zion National Park, south entrance sign

CCC_Enrollees_in_Truck_NPS

CCC enrollees on their way to work

Crater Lake OR weekend cabin ccc

CCC Building in progress, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.

Contributing editor Brook Sutton lives in Durango, Colorado.
Showing 16 comments
  • Ryan

    Sadly I doubt such a great program would pass our divisive congress today. Can you tell me where that first picture was taken? Looks very much like a shelter on Orcas Island in Moran State Park.

    • Brook Sutton

      I agree. There are quite a few regional organizations based on the CCC model, but I don’t foresee a national program anytime in the near future.

      The picture is from the same neck of the woods as Orcas Island. It’s from Twanoh State Park, in Union, Washington. http://www.parks.wa.gov/294/Twanoh

      • Ryan

        Thank you Brook I have actually been to that Park to camp with the Family so maybe I have seen that structure – great article.

  • JonnyCanuck

    As a Canadian, I’ve long admired the principles, leadership, accomplishments, and legacy of the US CCC. Wish we’d had such a government-initiated organization in Canada (I don’t believe we did…).

  • JonnyCanuck

    PS — thanks Morgan. Through your article, I learned more about the breadth of the CCC Program.

  • JonnyCanuck

    Uh, Brook (sorry, too quick on the send button)

  • Sewcrates

    I love the CCC signs all over the parks. They are so distinctive.

    That said, it wasn’t perfect. There were a number of ridiculous erosion projects that mar the beauty of the Wasatch mountains to this day. For some reason, they thought digging terraces around the peaks was a good idea. Anytime you see horizontal lines going down a mountain, thank the CCC.
    Conservatism has come a long way since the 1930s.

  • Richard Cashin

    My Dad was in the CCC in Massachusets until WW2 shut it down so the “boys” could enlist. Since then I’ve seen (and used) many of the structures and trails built by the “boys” in Illinois, Minnesota, California and probably many others of their labors I didn’t even know were CCC . Would that we had such visionaries today who could imagine and implement such useful, longlasting and thought provoking results. Watch the Congress today and wonder if anything they’re doing today will have an effect in 85 years and longer.

  • J B

    Nostalgia (sigh…). Imagine if , in 2008 when former Goldman Sachs head and then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had stumbled to the podium with his yellow legal tablet, toting three pages of hand -written notes as the financial markets were imploding that late pre-Obama election summer. Lehman konked and bonked, imagine if Paulson had said- rather than granting endless bazillions to the banksters who got us into the jam in the first place–
    “We are going to dedicate $750 billion dollars to the men and women who are presently unemployed, and take care of the deferred maintenance and brick and mortar projects that will benefit the American citizens and Nation, now, and for the next 75 years. These projects, and the people will build them, will create a groundswell of pride, self-worth, and recirculate their earnings into communities throughout America.
    The Banks and financial markets, their attorneys and accountants have the wherewithal and and creativity to work themselves out of the mess they have created.”
    Trickle-around, instead of trickle-down….

    Just imagine that… Instead, we … well… aw ….phuc…

    sigh

    The unrealized potential

    • Curtis

      I would vote for this in a second. But, it would never pass, too much common sense and self worth in your plan.

  • Will

    I lead trail crews for a Conservation Corps in the Denver area. Just this past weekend we stayed at an old CCC bunkhouse to do some trail work at a local park. It was really cool to picture all those guys living there and working in the same area we were, just 80 years earlier.

  • Tom

    One other accomplishment of the CCC: many of the leaders were U.S. Army officers and sergeants. They learned how to manage large organisations (the CCC was, through the first 2/3 of its existence, much larger than the U.S. Army) through the CCC experience. And many young men who eventually became leaders in the Army had first learned how to lead groups in the CCC.

    • Jay Beigh

      Army back then was draft/ conscription. Not sure I get the point of your post, and I mean no disrespect.

      The new, pay/go army will be America’s next Welfare group. I can’t say, ‘thank you for your service’. I can and do say, “Wow, I hope YOUR choice was worth it- we will both be paying for it for the rest of our lives!’

      • SV

        Seriously? You can’t thank them for risking their lives because it isn’t compulsory and instead is a volunteer force?

  • Liz

    I’m always thrilled when I come across a CCC structure; they evoke within me a kind of pride and and solidarity. Whether it’s view-point, cabin or lodge, I try to take some time to enjoy the building’s special features and imagine the young men who worked on it and how much the $25 helped their familes during the depression. What a good idea. Thanks for the article!

  • Rocky

    I love Teddy Roosevelt, I love the CCC! The work they did in Acadia is breathtaking.

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