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Living history: Depression era CCC made an impact still felt in Utah

Published July 19, 2014 5:14 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During this country's Great Depression, thousands of banks failed, businesses shuttered, and cities teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. By 1932, more than 13 million people were unemployed. Unpaid credit swelled into foreclosures and repossessions. Farmers lost their land, equipment or both, and city folks their livelihood and homes. Shantytowns — "Hoovervilles" — sprung up. Breadlines formed. People rode the rails in search of work. Others took to the streets. Thousands took their own lives.

Utah was hard hit. According to historian John McCormick, in 1933 the state's unemployment rate was "35.8 percent, the fourth highest in the nation." By spring, 32 percent of its residents relied on government relief.

In a battle to right the Union, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president and, defeating the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover, took office on March 4, 1933. He pledged a "new deal for the American people." Within his first 100 days in office he established the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of the administration's New Deal Coalition.

A public works relief project, the CCC offered training and jobs for thousands of unemployed, unmarried, unskilled physically fit young men to generate financial relief for their families. The temporary program fostered the president's belief in environmental conservation and natural resource development on federal, state and local lands, parks and forests. It reinforced his goals for "relief" (jobs); "recovery" (economic growth); "reforestation"; and "reform" (regulation of banks and railroads).

In August 1933, nearly 300,000 enrollees ages 18 to 26 worked in some 1,400 CCC camps across America. After Utah's first was built in Logan Canyon, 26 others became home to 900 Utah boys and 4,300 youths from the Midwest, the eastern seaboard, and the American South.

Each worker was given a six-month contract with opportunity to re-enlist for an additional two years. They worked 40-plus hours a week, earned $30 a month—from which a mandatory $25 check was sent to their families—and were provided clothing, food, shelter and medical attention.

Unemployed "local experienced men" (LEMS) were hired as project leaders in carpentry, blacksmithing, agriculture, mining, and road building. CCC enrollees attended high school classes and learned to drive trucks and operate heavy equipment. They took emergency training, rescue and firefighting courses, and were valuable assets during Utah's severe drought.

"In 1934, in terms of firefighting hours logged by the CCC, nearly 12,000 man-days were [consumed]," Kenneth Baldridge wrote in the Utah History Encyclopedia. "Added to their regular work, the CCC force constituted a 5,500-man fire brigade, units of which could be mobilized anytime for forest fire suppression."

When a devastating blizzard hit Utah in December 1936, CCC crews braved sub-zero temperatures and deep snowdrifts to save thousands of stranded sheep and cattle from starvation. They evacuated sick people and brought food and supplies to isolated towns and ranchers.

Assigned to federal divisions and state departments, CCC crews worked on widely diverse projects. They planted trees to combat soil erosion, cleared irrigation channels, put in pipelines, and terraced steep mountains. They rid streams of noxious weeds, protected wildlife habitats and improved bird refuges on the Bear River and in Ogden and Willard Bay. They built roads, bridges, reservoirs, canals, and dams; added telephone lines and a thousand miles of fences; developed trails; and built cabins, recreational campgrounds, and buildings in our national and state parks.

Throughout the CCC's tenure, 30-35 CCC camps were built at any given time representing a total of 116 camps in 27 Utah counties. Tallied collectively, more than 16,000 Utah boys, 746 American Indians, 4,000 personnel and 23,000 out-of-state individuals participated.

The CCC boys gained life-long skills. They boosted Utah's economy and went home. An editorial in the July 3, 1942 Salt Lake Tribune surmised, "The [CCC] aided youth to get a new grip on destiny and obtain a saner outlook on the needs of the nation."

Eighty-one years on, the CCC's contributions to this state remain enormous.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Notes: Additional sources: First Biennial Report of the Utah State Department of Public Welfare, 1936-38 and the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy.