In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The program was intended to give work to nearly 5 million young men who were unemployed after WWI. The most amazing part, to me though, is that through the CCC, America’s National Park System saw project completions and reforestation that shaped the parks we know and love today. One of the most impactful projects by the CCC was without a doubt the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
The Civilian Conservation Corps
The Civilian Conservation Corps was a voluntary public work relief program in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men that operated from 1933 to 1942. The depression-era program provided income for those who volunteered and helped establish many of our country’s public lands.
The requirements for eligibility were pretty straightforward. Male US citizens who were physically fit between the ages of 18-25, unemployed, unmarried, and willing to accept a payment of $30 a month were welcome to join. Volunteers agreed to remain in their camps and work for a minimum of six months. The idea was simple – provide opportunities for work that would not interfere with normal employment focusing on forestry, preventing soil erosion, flood control, and other similar projects. On April 17, the first camp, NF-1, Camp Roosevelt, was established at George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
Throughout the country, CCC camps popped up to house, feed, and support the men as they worked. You can find their work all over the nation in many areas that would eventually become part of our public lands. But without question, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is probably the one that benefitted the most from the program.
CCC in the Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a unique history of being driven by citizens who wanted to preserve the land where conservation met collaboration. After years of logging and damage done to the land, the CCC focused on restoring the Smoky Mountains with projects focused on planting trees, fighting fires, and addressing erosion.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park had more CCC camps than any other two parks combined. This is why today you can still see a great deal of work that was done by the corps. With 22 CCC camps in the Smokies and up to 3,000 men working at any given time.
Historian James Jackson wrote, “Perhaps no works of the CCC have gotten more public use than those of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park… And nearly all of its infrastructure was built with CCC labor.”
CCC Projects in the GSMNP
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has quite a few CCC projects still standing. Though a number of them are long gone, the foundation of what the CCC built still remains. In the park, the CCC focused primarily on fire control, rehabilitation, and recreation projects.
White Rock Tower
Fire roads and towers quickly went up across the park and among those is White Rock Tower. The tower can be reached by hiking to Mt. Cammerer via the Low Gap Trailhead next to the Cosby Campground.
One of the most beautiful architectural features that the park has and can still be seen today is the 4 arch Elkmont Bridge. The project speaks to the skill of the park’s landscape engineers, project foremen, and the labor of CCC workers. The bridge still stands and straddles the Little River.
The CCC also created and established countless trails across the area of the park, both in North Carolina and Tennessee. Among those trails are the Alum Cave Trail, the Appalachian Trail, Bull Head Trail, and Sugarland Mountain Trail. Each trail was carved from solid rock and incorporated the landscape around it.
The Chimneys and Smokemont Picnic Areas
If you find yourself driving along Newfound Gap Road, you’ll see The Chimneys picnic area which was constructed by the CCC. In another area of the park, you’ll find Smokemont campgrounds and picnic area. Both picnic areas are popular with park visitors and showcase how much work the CCC did.
The CCC also focused on projects that helped preserve the Appalachian and Mountain culture that had existed before the park was established. One of those preservation projects, Cable Mill, can be seen when visiting Cades Cove.
The CCC built roads and bridges as well as many of the scenic lookouts along Newfound Gap Road. Other projects included retaining walls, backcountry shelters for AT hikers, and camping facilities.
With a focus on stream improvement, the CCC also removed dead trees, constructed ponds for trout fisheries, and helped reestablished forests for wildlife.