Last night on the PBS series The American Experience I spent a hypnotic hour watching the episode The Civilian Conservation Corps. I've long thought that the CCC was the finest, most significant domestic government program of the twentieth century. Operating from 1933 to 1942, during the worst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's brainchild provided employment and training to 2.5 to 3 million young, unemployed men. ages 18-28. And not just any work ~ the genius of the CCC was that workers were housed in nearly 1,500 camps distributed among the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet attained statehood), and those workers provided the skill and muscle to build 300 types of public works projects which fell into ten classifications ~
- Structural improvements ~ bridges, fire lookout towers, service buildings
- Transportation ~ truck trails, minor roads, foot trails, airport landing fields
- Erosion control ~ check dams, terracing, vegetative covering
- Flood control ~ irrigation, drainage, dams, ditching, channel work
- Forest culture ~ planting trees and shrubs, timber stand improvement
- Forest protection ~ fire prevention, fire fighting, insect and disease control
- Landscape and recreation ~ public camps and picnic grounds, lake and pond clearing
- Range ~ stock driveways, control of predators
- Wildlife ~ stream improvement, fish stocking, cover planting
- Misc. ~ emergency work, mosquito control, surveys
Many projects focused on identifying and conserving natural resources. The work was outdoors and arduous, the food was healthy and plentiful, and workers' achievements were a visible source of pride. CCC volunteers received $50 a month, of which $40 was sent home to their families. A generation of young men learned the value of banding together to reach a common goal, following instructions, getting along with men from other backgrounds, and serving their country. Thus the CCC was the foundation, usually unrecognized, for the abilities and positive attitudes of the "greatest generation" of men who went on to fight in World War II.
During the worst economic passage this nation has had to navigate, the CCC planted nearly 3 billion trees to reforest America, constructed or refurbished more than 800 parks nationwide, built a network of public roadways in remote areas, and updated forest fire fighting methods. Roughly 55% of enrollees were from rural communities, and 45% came from urban backgrounds. Most had not completed high school. At the time of entry, 70% of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed. Few had meaningful work experience. All that changed during their 6-24 months in the CCC. They left with robust health, confidence, and pride in a job well done. The income they sent home helped to stimulate the depression economy.
And their work endures. When you visit nearly any national park or national monument, chances are that you are walking on trails or driving on roads built by CCC workers. Why aren't we embarking on a similar program today? During the sluggish recovery from the Bush recession, at a time when the nation's bridges, dams, highways, port facilities, and other infrastructure are in need of repair, and with unemployment at unacceptable high levels (especially for young people), a renewed CCC seems like a near-perfect solution.
I invite you to watch the American Experience episode here. You will also find tabs taking you to a CCC timeline, interactive maps showing CCC projects and camps across the country, and a photo gallery. Interviews with CCC veterans bring the reality of their experience home. During those dark depression days, we managed to build our own redemption. All it took was a vision.