Stories from the CCC at the Colorado National Monument
by Camille Jestrovich
Nearly every one of our country’s monuments, national parks, national forests, and other public lands still profits from work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program.
Founded in 1933, the young men in this program, under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park System, and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, came to be stewards of the land.
CCC crew members planted over three billion trees, fought forest fires, reseeded grazing areas, and implemented soil-erosion control methods in more than 800 parks during the program’s nine-year existence.
They also built many of the facilities enjoyed by park guests, such as the campgrounds we stay in, the trails we walk on, and roads we use to travel today.
The CCC was a work relief program during the Great Depression that provided millions of young men employment on environmental projects. It is thought by many to be one of the most successful of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs. The CCC joined FDR’s passion for conservation and the expectation of America’s youth in service to their country.
A majority of the unemployed young men that enrolled in the CCC lived in cities in the east, although much of the work was in the west. This created an operational complication that the United States Army helped to settle by overseeing the transportation of thousands of enrollees to work camps across the country.
Adjusting to Life at the CCC Camp
Of the three camps established on the Colorado National Monument from 1933 to 1942, the first was the temporary CCC tent camp NM-1-C (National Monument-1-Colorado), which was located amidst the rock formations known as the Coke Ovens.
There were fifty enrollees from the surrounding area and twenty-six local experienced men, known as LEMs, who supervised the recruits and taught them trades such as carpentry and masonry.
Later, more young men from neighboring counties arrived together with trucks and compressors. The narrow ledge where their camp was perched was getting crowded! Leroy Lewis, a new recruit, noted, “It was no place for sleepwalkers.”
One of the first enrollees assigned to Colorado National Monument was Thurlow R. Pitts. As a boy, he had hiked and climbed around in the canyons. He was happy to have the chance to live and work on the monument but wasn’t as fond of the uniforms. “We were issued army clothing of 1918 vintage. Trousers and shirts were of wool, and the trouser legs were so pegged it was hard to get some of the boy’s feet through the pant leg.”
Pitts recollected “walking and working in blasted Colorado stone” in his army-issue shoes. “After a few days the stitching that held the soles on parted company with the shoe uppers, and we found ourselves with shoe strings and uppers in good shape but no soles or heels. Socks were the next to go.” He was given an aged and oversized pair of shoes from an officer for which he was most grateful.
But many of the CCCers were also dissatisfied with the conditions at the camp. They were to be housed in tents on wooden platforms rather than barracks. “They did the best they could with what they had.
Our first beds were army cots with straw mattresses, wool army blanket, and no sheets. It is not hard to picture the discomfort of some who were allergic to wool – especially in Colorado in June and July,” recalled Pitts.
Leroy Lewis was in the same camp as Pitts and enrolled in the CCC in order to send money home to his family in Hotchkiss. Using crowbars, shovels, and sledgehammers, the first task at hand was to upgrade the entrance road so trucks could more easily drive to camp.
“Work gloves had not arrived and there were plenty of blisters. Sore arms were also in order, as all the men were given numerous inoculations with wicked-looking syringes that mounted humongous needles!”
Many years later, Lewis recalled the superintendent’s quick fix to their aching arms “was to swing a twelve-pound sledgehammer at the never-ending supply of rocks!” Pitt recalled that it was necessary to spend months of labor using their hands to clear road cuts and fill areas.
Another worker commented that in lieu of heavy equipment, “the front-loader was your two hands.” CCC workers were reminded by their supervisors that they were in a national monument and therefore were under obligation to keep the natural habitat as undisturbed as possible.
On November 9, 1934 everyone in the Coke Ovens Camp was relocated to a permanent camp at Saddlehorn near the present-day Colorado National Monument Visitors Center. With a bathhouse, mess hall, and barracks measuring 100 feet by 20 feet, the amenities at the first CCC camp at CNM were still basic. Wood and coal-burning stoves were used when heating the buildings.
The barracks, being uninsulated, could be either too cold or too hot, depending on where a worker’s bunk was in proximity to the heat source. Their mattresses were stuffed with hay grown in Glade Park. Enlisted men were required to work for a period of at least six months, collected $30 a month, and were obligated to send $25 home in an attempt to boost their family’s income.
Learning Trades and Skills
Saddlehorn Camp, NM-2-C, provided training in skills such as woodworking and photography, as well as accounting, typing, and bookkeeping. The educational opportunities were a big draw, attracting 80% of workers in some facet of the program throughout its existence.
Leroy Lewis honed his newly developed skills working as a clerk when he wasn’t doing road work. He wrote, “Once upon a time, millions of raw-boned young men without any prospects or grub in their bellies end up shoveling dirt for the Civilian Conservation Corps… It had a helluva impact on my life. It was hot and hard.”
Numerous former CCC workers assert that the disciplined military fashion of the camp structure was responsible for teaching them the significance of hard work and skills for the workforce.
Many men also took their training straight into serving in WWII. Lewis went on to have a distinguished career in the Army and was presented medals for Valor in WWII and the Korean War.
Each of the three camps labored on various segments of the road. In 1933 another temporary camp was set up near Glade Park. Ultimately, this camp was relocated in 1934 to the base of Fruita Canyon.
In order to have better access between their Glade Park camp and the new one being constructed, a series of wooden ladders were built by the young men. These ladders, known to the men as the “Fruita Ladders,” dangled precariously from the cliff tops 400 feet into the canyon!
The newly completed camp NM-3-C was positioned at the mouth of Fruita Canyon, near the present-day site of the west entrance station. This location gave the men greater access to the towns of Fruita and Grand Junction. It also produced its own newspaper, Monument Murmurs, every two weeks. Later, during WWII, German POWs were housed in the camp barracks.
Danger, Drought, and Death
Tragedy struck on November 9, 1933, when nine of the twenty-six LEMs, ranging in age from nineteen to sixty years old, were killed in the region known as Half Tunnel. CCC workers were taken off the job only days before because they did not possess the proper protective masks to shield them from the rock dust created from blasting. It is believed that a powder charge was set off by a CCC worker on the other side of the canyon which caused part of the rock overhang to break off.
To avoid being crushed by the falling rock, three men chose to jump over the 300-foot cliff, dying from their injuries. Six other men were crushed in the cave-in, and one man was partly buried and freed, only to die later that night.
The accident was a disastrous blow to everyone working on the road and was a particularly emotional matter because only local men, eight from Glade Park and one from Fruita, were killed. Under review, officials determined it to have been an “unavoidable” accident.
A drought in 1934 brought about more difficulties for the camps. The lack of water required nine drivers and three trucks to make the trip to Grand Junction twenty-four hours a day to haul water for bathing, drinking, and cooking.
From the outset, attaining a steady supply of water at the camps was a dilemma. Fruita and the National Park Service came to an agreement. In exchange for 10% of the flow to the Park Service from the pipeline, the CCC workers would replace the original wooden water service line with cast iron pipe.
Drought was only one of the hardships that the camps faced. In July 1934, NM-3-C supplies were greatly diminished when the camp was isolated by floods that washed out roads for several days. In April 1935, there was a second outbreak of diphtheria, the first being in 1933, and a quarantine was once again put into place.
For the CCC workers at Colorado National Monument, constructing Rim Rock Drive was of the greatest importance. They are also recognized for building the campground at Saddlehorn and the caretaker/custodians stone house which is now used for administrative offices.
A utility area for government equipment and a nine-mile-long steel wire fence was also completed to keep the bison residing in the monument in and the local livestock out.
Enlistment in the camps had diminished to 160 men in each camp by March 1936. This had a tremendous consequence on the road-building efforts. However, in 1937, Rim Rock Drive opened 20 miles of graded gravel road to visitors and it was a huge success.
Only a few hundred people annually had visited this magnificent place up to this point. 1937 brought 20,000 guests to witness the beauty and sanctity of the remote canyons and impressive rock formations. Work on Rim Rock Drive remained incomplete until the late 1940s when work began to pave the entire 23 miles of roadway, and by 1959 Serpents Trail was converted into a hiking trail.
The CCC program at the monument ran until November 16, 1942, when it ended due to the onset of WWII. In looking back, most men conveyed extreme pride in their accomplishments and many felt that the CCC saved their lives. With their hands and backbreaking work, what they were able to accomplish became even more treasured, when after many years they began to tell their stories.
To learn more about The Civilian Conservation Corp on the Colorado Plateau:
- History of the Civilian Corp in Colorado: Littleton District-Grand Junction District
- A Classic Western Quarrel: A History of the Road Controversy at Colorado National Monument National Park Service website
- With Picks, Shovels and Hope: The CCC and Its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau by Wayne K. Hinton with Elizabeth A. Green
A note on the photos: These photos are from Denise and Steve Hight’s collection. Many thanks to them for sharing with all of us. Photographers in order: Green, unknown, Erwin, Lewis, Dean, and Clements.
by Nancy McGuire
No….not the kind who lull you to sleep at night. We are talking rams and lambs! (not to mention ewes and yearlings….)
I had the wonderful experience of being a census taker for the monument’s most famous and sought-after residents – bighorn sheep.
I was assigned the duty of stopping at all the overlooks between the West entrance station and the pull-off for Liberty Cap and scouring the canyons and cliffs with binoculars in search of sheep.
The day began early (I guess the sheep are early risers). It was cold, and fog covered the top part of the park. Since it had rained the night before, the air was filled with incredible smells, and everything was glistening. But since I was working my way up from the west entrance gate to the top, I had clear weather down below.
After I scrutinized the area surrounding the entrance station with binoculars, I slowly worked my way up to Fruita canyon. Since this was my first year as a census volunteer, I started to have anxiety about “what if I don’t find a single sheep?”
My worries were short-lived. I stopped at the Balanced Rock pullover, and with my binoculars I spotted a group of 6 males about 2.5 years old, frolicking, leaping in the air, head butting, and other male bighorn activities. I watched them through binoculars and decided to drive up a bit further.
Never mind falling rocks, etc., there is one certain sign that bighorn are afoot – cars stopping along the road a short way up the hill. As I arrived on the scene there was an explosion of bighorn. They seemed to be everywhere, scampering across the road, down the canyon and up the canyon. There were too many to count effectively so I just started taking photos figuring I could count and categorize them later. The photos proved interesting, a sort of “Where’s Waldo” game. Every time I looked at the photos I discovered “hidden” bighorn that I added to the list.
For the very first time, after the onlookers dispersed and as I walked along the East side of the canyon, I could hear some of the sheep bleating. I never knew they made any sound! My prior experiences had been that they silently stare at you.
In the quiet, I could also hear their feet crunching on the rocks and dirt, and the sound of them chewing as they grazed and munched.
It is interesting to view the sheep up close through binoculars. I had attended a training meeting that Monday where the volunteers were educated about how to tell males from females, and how to identify yearlings and lambs.
Expertise comes with experience, as yearling males and ewes look very similar. Back views of the sheep would be helpful, but they rarely pose as you would like them to!
One of the perks of census taking is that you get to experience many of the other joys that visiting the monument offers. One of the unique aspects of the monument is quiet.
A bonus at this time of the year was an abundance of wildflowers of every color scattered all around. At the Artist’s Point viewpoint, the resident white-throated swifts were swooped and chittered continuously. In the quiet, I could hear the whooshing sound of their wings. And, of course, numerous sightings of iconic, soaring ravens.
Smells, sights, sounds. My census experience will go into my newly acquired (at the wonderful monument gift shop, of course!) journal so that I may forever look back and recall a very special day connecting with a very special park.
I encourage everyone to spend time at the park and/or become a volunteer. Your experiences there will well reward you!