The History of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Each October the brilliant leaves in the mountains entice several million
people to the Blue Ridge Parkway. That scenic roadway was built some
seventy years ago by agencies of the federal government. Among the
armies of workers on the massive project were thousands of young men
employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The CCC was
one of the most successful of the many New Deal programs intended to
address the crisis of the Great Depression. No other economic slump had
been so deep, so long, or so painful. In 1933, when Franklin D.
Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, one out of every four Americans
was unemployed, and in many large cities nearly half of the adults were
out of work. Some 500,000 people had lost their homes or farms because
they could not make their mortgage payments. Thousands of banks had
failed; millions of depositors lost their life's savings.
the new president's top priorities were the creation of jobs for the
unemployed and the conservation of the nation's natural resources. On
March 31, 1933, just four weeks after his inauguration, Roosevelt signed
into law the Emergency Conservation Work program, soon known as the
CCC. Its mission was to recruit single, unemployed men between the ages
of 18 and 25 (later revised to 17 and 28) and put them to work creating
or improving national, state, and local parks and forests. The recruits
were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. (In
today's dollars that $30 a month would be about $340.)
Army operated the hundreds of CCC camps scattered across the country,
mostly in state and national parks and forests. Recruits were given a
physical exam, inoculated, issued uniforms, given physical training, and
then trucked to the camps where they lived amid a military regimen.
Awakened at 6 a.m., they worked 8 hours a day under the supervision of
foresters, engineers, and architects. On Saturdays they worked until
The CCC workers built roads, trails, bridges, beaches,
campgrounds, picnic shelters, fences, and dams, fought fires, improved
streams, installed water, electrical, and telephone lines, restored
historic sites, and planted millions of trees.
But the CCC
provided much more than fulfilling work for jobless young men suffering
from starvation and want. President Roosevelt emphasized that "the moral
and spiritual value of such work" would be more important than the
labor itself. His concept of the CCC was holistic. In addition to jobs,
the CCC gave disadvantaged teens technical training and social
experiences that enabled them to become productive citizens. In the
evenings the recruits could take classes to learn to read or to earn
their high school diploma or certificates for specialized skills. The
camps also organized athletic teams and musical ensembles. In addition,
the young men learned about personal sanitation and hygiene-and first
aid. Three meals a day helped the recruits gain an average of fifteen
pounds after their first month in camp.
The CCC experience helped
the workers develop greater self-confidence and self-discipline. George
A. Moody recalled that his year in the CCC "showed me a lot of rights
and wrongs, it grew me up, grew a bit faster than I would have grown
otherwise. It kept me out of trouble, chances are. It showed me how to
gain responsibility, get out and fend for myself in a proper way."
the summer of 1935 there were 502,000 young men living in 2,600 CCC
camps. A public opinion poll conducted in 1936 revealed that the CCC was
the most popular New Deal program. When asked, "Are you in favor of the
CCC camps?" 82 percent of the respondents said "yes," including 92
percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans.
In 1935 the
Civilian Conservation Corps was asked to help construct the
469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway linking the Shenandoah National Park in
Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North
Carolina. (The Skyline Drive in Virginia, another CCC project, was
already underway.) Four CCC camps, each housing about 200 men, were
developed along the parkway route in North Carolina and Virginia. While
private construction companies did most of the specialized work on the
parkway, the CCC recruits focused on landscape planting and constructing
the recreation areas and trails.
For all of its success, the CCC
was dismantled early in 1942 because the nation's young men were needed
for the war. Although short-lived, the Civilian Conservation Corps left
many lasting achievements, not the least of which is the Blue Ridge
Parkway, the most visited park in the nation-especially in October.
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University