In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a program to put young men to work planting trees, building trails, creating campgrounds, and erecting buildings and bridges on public lands throughout the United States. This group of youths, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), would help change the face of public lands across the country, including Grand Canyon National Park.
Beginning in 1933, unemployed young men could sign on to the CCC for six month stints. By the time the program ended nine years later, millions of young men had served in about 4,500 CCC camps across the country, including the more than 120 camps that were established in Arizona. In these camps, the government provided barracks-style sleeping spaces, meals, and medical care, giving young men a disciplined work environment and helping them improve their physical health and manual job skills. In addition to this, individuals earned $30 each month – $25 of which they were required to send home to their families.
Grand Canyon’s first CCC group arrived a little less than two months after Roosevelt created the program. Eventually six camps of CCC workers, who often referred to themselves as “Civies,” would be established at the South Rim, North Rim, and inner canyon areas. In the wintertime, some of these groups were sent to work on projects near Tucson and Phoenix. On an average day, somewhere between 400 and 600 Civies worked at the Canyon on construction, maintenance, conservation, and educational projects. At least 4,000 CCC men would work at the Grand Canyon before the program ended in 1942.
CCC projects in the Grand Canyon Village area included constructing log benches between Verkamp’s Curios and Hopi House, replacing the boardwalk between Verkamp’s and Kolb Studio with flagstone and asphalt pavement, and improving the rim trail from Yavapai Observation Station to the Village.
Civies removed overhead utility lines erected in 1903 in the Village area that had long marred visitors’ views of the canyon, placing them underground instead. They also extended sewer, water, steam, and electrical lines to all public buildings at Grand Canyon Village and Desert View on the South Rim and Bright Angel Point on the North Rim. The CCC helped to beautify the Village area by razing many old structures, creating new landscaping schemes, and reseeding or replanting disturbed areas.
In another major project in the Village area from 1934-1935, Civies built the rock wall that runs along the rim from Verkamp’s Curios to Lookout Studio. This wall replaced a deteriorating wood and drywall fence structure. Civies constructed most of the stone and masonry parapets along the rim and retaining walls at the overlooks along the road to Hermits Rest as well. Though the walls were meant for safety, CCC workers took care to design them to look attractive and blend into their Grand Canyon setting — and they were made to last. In fact, today they have become such a part of the environment that many are covered extensively in lichens, helping these human constructions more fully become part of their natural surroundings.
Other important CCC projects in Grand Canyon National Park included construction of the Bright Angel Campground, construction and improvement of many inner canyon trails (blasting some out of solid rock), and building several shelters along Bright Angel Trail using rock and timber that helped them blend into the environment.
Enrollees provided a valuable service to the Park by fighting forest fires as well. Civies also completed a telephone line connecting the North and South Rims. This line was used frequently to aid hikers, mule riders, and river rafters who were in distress. Though today radio and other forms of communication have become more widespread, some sections of the original line are still used.
Though the original purpose of the CCC was to put men to work as manual laborers, it also was meant to teach them skills and trades to ensure that they would become upstanding, productive citizens. Educational programs had to be practical, and were usually supplemented with real-life experiences tied to the realities of the local environment. For example, enrollees at the South Rim who assisted with landscaping and building projects were taught carpentry, masonry, and landscaping skills. At the Grand Canyon, Civies had the opportunity to learn skills such as typing, bookkeeping, plumbing, welding, and blacksmithing. The CCC Educational Advisor also taught classes on math, history, geography, and photography, as well as reading, spelling, and writing for the many enrollees who were illiterate.
Across the United States, nearly 3.5 million youth between the ages of 17 and 28 and many World War I veterans eventually served in the CCC. Their accomplishments included building more than 28,000 miles of new trails, planting 8 million acres of trees, and constructing over 63,000 buildings and 38,000 bridges around the country. At the Grand Canyon, trails, fences, buildings, walls, streets, telephone lines, and campgrounds constructed by Civies are still in use today.
The Civilian Conservation Corps accomplished many conservation and construction efforts that had been put on hold for years due to the lack of money and/or manpower and that otherwise would likely have been delayed or left undone. Although the CCC program ended in 1942 after World War II called a high percentage of these young men into military service, they helped shape nature and culture at Grand Canyon National Park and other public lands across the country in a way that affects how visitors experience these areas even today.
Written By Sarah Bohl Gerke
- Anderson, Michael F. Living at the Edge: Explorers, Exploiters and Settlers of the Grand Canyon Region. Grand Canyon Association, 1998.
- Anderson, Michael. Polishing the Jewel: An Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park. GCA, 2000.
- Anderson, Michael, ed. A Gathering of Grand Canyon Historians. Proceedings of the Inaugural Grand Canyon History Symposium, January 2002. GCA, 2005.