Seventy years ago, the United States was nearly a decade away from a world war, and facing a more immediate domestic crisis. The Great Depression had left one in four Americans jobless and many others homeless. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by signing an emergency bill that created the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most successful government programs in history. The CCC put more than two million young men to work building trails, planting trees and making other improvements to public lands.
Behind the historic Kolb Studio on the Grand Canyon's south rim, a flight of stone stairs descends to the rim trail.
Grand Canyon National Park ranger Bob Audretsch holds an old photo of the stairway up to the present structure and finds its original sandstone blocks right where they were placed.
"Let's see, here's this one. Yep, there we go. This one. These up here," he laughs, "isn't that beautiful?"
This stairway was built in 1936, one of several Grand Canyon projects completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It's been somewhat improved with a new surface and handrails. But the stairway still looks remarkably like the one in the photo.
"It isn't very often that we can go back to a photo from 70 years ago approximately and see pictures of young men working and walk to that very location and see the very same stones that these young men put in for us," said ranger Audretsch.
After President Roosevelt signed the CCC into existence in March of 1933, a massive cooperative effort among different government agencies got the first enrollee sworn in and on the job within two weeks. The first CCC workers arrived in Grand Canyon in May. Many of them came from Texas and had never seen the canyon before. "I didn't know what good times were and everybody else was in the same condition as I was, so I just thought life was like that," said 92-year-old Louis Purvis, who came here as a CCC enrollee in 1934. He recalls he jumped at the chance to join the corps after struggling to find work as a farm hand in Callahan County, Texas. "So when I had an opportunity to do that, well I signed up," he added.
Mr. Purvis was initially paid $30 a month, $25 of which went back to his family in Texas. That's not much by today's standards, but he says it helped his struggling family immensely during the leanest years of the Depression. And although his CCC work was a tremendous physical challenge, he says it gave him the confidence he needed to achieve success in his life.
The work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps can still be seen along the most popular hiking path below the park's rims. The Park Service acquired the Bright Angel Trail in 1928 and rerouted it to make it more accessible to tourists. The CCC was then given the responsibility of maintaining the trail and improving it with retaining walls and rest houses. Grand Canyon historian Mike Anderson said the Bright Angel Trail would not be such a beautiful footpath were it not for the CCC.
"This trail, in other words, would not have had many walls, stone walls and that type of thing,' said Mr. Anderson. "And the CCC came in and they built those walls. Thereafter they maintained it. They put oil palliatives on it so it wouldn't be dusty. They replaced the checks and steps and water bars and so forth. So, yeah, they were very much involved in working with the trail."
In addition to the trails and buildings, the CCC built roads and bridges in Grand Canyon Village, the park's tourist community on the South Rim. Workers also planted hundreds of trees. You can't visit here without walking on or driving by a Civilian Conservation Corps project. Backcountry ranger Pam Cox gives a presentation about the corps to visitors at Phantom Ranch. She says the CCC left behind a legacy of important and lasting projects in Grand Canyon. But she says the men had a more mundane goal in mind when they joined the Corps.
"A lot of these guys, they were just doing a job. They didn't think they were leaving behind this amazing legacy," said Ms. Cox. "For them it was a job and it was a way to survive. And when you think that what each of these individuals did together, what they left behind is pretty amazing. And I think that the most important thing is that we simply continue on remembering these men, remembering what they did. And I think we need to remember them until the last wall crumbles, until the last tree falls over dead and even beyond that."
Grand Canyon park rangers are marking the 70th anniversary of the CCC with special events in April. They've also developed a walking tour of the corps' projects in Grand Canyon Village.