SHERIDAN — This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Started in 1933, the program was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was created to provide jobs to unemployed young men, whose options were limited during the years of the Great Depression, and to use the talents of those young men to complete service projects on public lands.
According the PBS documentary “The Civilian Conservation Corps” and its accompanying website, at its height, 500,000 men were enrolled in the program, and approximately three million took part at some point during the nine-year program. Living in camps, corps members were stationed across the country.
The average enrollee in the program was 18 to 25 years old, had been unemployed for nine months or more and was unmarried. Participants received $30 per month, $25 of which was sent directly to his family back home.
“They did a lot,” said Helen Laumann, a member of the Sheridan County Historical Society who has researched the history of the CCC in our area. “A lot of those things we are benefiting from today.”
In Wyoming, 24 camps were scattered at different times across the state including several in the Bighorns near Basin, Tensleep, two near Buffalo and Turkey Creek camp near Steamboat Rock. During winter months, the mountain camps were deserted and enrollees moved to the “Dayton Camp,” or Camp F-34-W, which Laumann said sits near the current high school location.
The National Park Service website lists a score of CCC projects that took place in the Bighorn Mountains.
According to the site, the CCC constructed the Sibley and Meadowlark Lake dams, constructed Crazy Woman Canyon and Shell-Tensleep roads, constructed 80 miles of fire roads, developed 102 acres of campgrounds, built 82 miles of drift fence, built 11 cattle guards, strung 88 miles of telephone lines, constructed 25 bridges, built Hunter Mesa, Tunnel Hill and Steamboat Point fire towers, planted 250,000 tree seedlings, thinned trees on 4,500 acres, did rodent control on 12,950 acres and had 4,148 man-days of firefighting.
In addition, crews built many of the ranger stations on the forest, including Burgess, Shell Creek, Big Goose and Porcupine ranger stations.
In a 1936 report, Harold North, superintendent of the Dayton Camp, noted that his crew had participated in “about every class of general construction work from stream improvement and fish rearing ponds to house construction; every form of landscape work from roadside improvement to a complete rework for ranger station premises; every type of truck trail construction from simple fire protection roads to blasting out high class truck trails as those in Crazy Woman and Tongue River Canyons, and the trail that will open up the Paint Rock Lakes region.”
“…let it be said that the work, educational and recreational facilities in Camp F-34-W have been such that every enrollee that passed through its portals has become a better citizen, a higher skilled workman and given a clearer understanding of the principles of conservation,” he concluded. “In addition to this many beauties of the Big Horns are being enhanced and made more accessible to the large number of tourists who visit it yearly.”
Aside from construction or maintenance activities, enrollees were often engaged in that perennial summer activity in the West, firefighting.
“That was one of the things the CCCs were trained in is firefighting,” said Laumann.
Unfortunately, in August 1937, 15 firemen were killed fighting the Blackwater Fire near Cody in the Shoshone National Forest. It remains one of the country’s worst fire tragedies.
“The men that were killed in the Blackwater Fire were from the CCC camp here in the Bighorns,” Laumann said. “That wasn’t the only fire they fought at, they fought at others, but that is the only one where some were killed.”
Promoters of the CCC claimed that benefits of the program flowed not only to communities who housed camps, but also to the enrollees themselves. Education was a high priority in many of the camps.
“All the men were entitled to go to school,” Laumann said. “They had classes every night for them. They spent 10 hours each week on education at a minimum, or more if they wanted to. They also had training in truck driving, blacksmith, mechanics, carpentry and first aid.”
Because of the heavy daily workload, educational classes were kept short. In a paper written in the late 1980s by Tena Hanes located in The Wyoming Room of Sheridan County Fulmer Library, she noted that she interviewed Phillip Davis who was superintendent of Ranchester High School from 1930-1935 and left that position to teach at the camps. He said literacy ranged among the enrollees from college graduates to men who could not spell their own names. The men learned a variety of subjects and skills from reading, writing and math to carpentry, bookkeeping, typing and mechanics.
In “History of Civilian Conservation Corps Colorado-Wyoming District,” published in 1938, it was noted that the Dayton Camp was twice named the best camp in Wyoming. The report also made a prescient prediction about the completion of Sibley Dam planned for that year.
“This dam will back up a beautiful lake, 40 acres in area, surrounded by pines and fir, right beside one of the finest mountain highways, a thing of beauty at which thousands of tourists will marvel,” it reads. “It will become a recreational feature that will stand for many, many years, a monument to the perseverance and labors of the enrollees of CCC Co. 1811 (Dayton Camp).”
The spirit of the CCC lives on in the current Wyoming Conservation Corps. Started in 2006, the organization is based at the University of Wyoming and works on public service projects related to energy, wildlife, recreation, grazing, water and air quality and more. According to their website, in the summer of 2012, 48 corps members worked 36,000 hours on Wyoming public lands. Corps members are primarily college students who are pursuing a degree in the natural resources field.
The WCC plans to be in the Sheridan area the week of Aug. 5-14 for work on a riparian exclosure fence on the West Fork of the South Tongue River.