The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Building of Zion National Park

by AMY D. WILDE

Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Zion National Park is one of the United States’ natural hidden treasures and would not be the utopia that it is today without the efforts put forth by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Also known as the CCC, this program was created to help sustain jobs and to give opportunity to the young unemployed men of the United States as well as to improve public lands during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Signed as a national park in 1919, Zion is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets and the first national park of the state. Mukuntuweap Canyon, which was the original name for Zion Canyon, was the  “cool habitat that became the home for the first people of Utah … around 11,000 B.C.,” writes David Oswald in his book, A Journey Through Mukuntuweap: The History of Zion National Park. Located in the southeast corner of the state, Zion is a spectacular Park that can only be accessed by one double-lane state road, which is closed to public traffic in the summer months. Instead, visitors ride park-run busses that help keep the park almost emission free, clean and pristine. One thing that is more than likely forgotten by the visitors who come to the park is the history and how it came to be. Zion not only has a rich history of Native American culture but also an opulent history that involves the growth sustainability of the United States as a country.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the CCC on March 31, 1933. The organization was created to fight against soil erosion and declining timber resources by utilizing unemployed young men from large urban areas across the country. It is said that “the speed with which the plan moved through proposal, authorization, implementation and operation was a miracle of cooperation among all branches and agencies of the federal government. It was a mobilization of men, material and transportation on a scale never before known in time of peace.” (CCC Legacy) After establishment the program boomed, and held great public support with hundreds of thousands of young workingmen enrolling every day.

Zion Canyon, Zion Lodge, circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

The Zion Camp was established in June 1933 and began to flourish not too long after. A newspaper ad from the Garfield County News on September 9, 1941, ran with a title, “Openings Announced in Zion CCC Camp.” An excerpt reads, “During this period of National Emergency there is a great demand for trained workers and the Civilian Conservation Corps performing its share of training young men for better jobs.” It gave insight into the demand for workers and the scarcity of position openings at the camps during their peak years. During the nine years that the CCC spent creating Zion, members “built and improved many of the Zion Canyon’s trails, created many of the parking areas, fought fires, eradicated invasive plants, helped build campgrounds, built park buildings, and reduced flooding of the Virgin River.” (NPS)

The booming year for the CCC camps was 1935 and by the end of the year, there were over 2,650 camps operating in all states. In total, $322,682 was spent expanding the Zion National Park through the CCC, according to Wayne K. Hinton in his 2011 Utah Historical Quarterly article. California had more than 150 camps, each housing over 6,000 people. CCC enrollees were performing more than 100 kinds of jobs and skills. Some of the specific accomplishments of the Corps included 3,470 fire towers erected; 97,000 miles of fire roads built; 4,235,000 man-days devoted to fighting fires; and more than three billion trees planted. (CCC Legacy)

For payment, the men were given somewhere to sleep, food to eat and clothing to wear, and made about $30 a month. Most of them kept $5 and the remaining $25 was sent home to their families. (Oswald) Topics regarding the “hearty Army meals and menus,” the clean hospitality that was given to the workers, as well as the hefty budget that was dedicated to running the camps can be seen in an article from the Kane County Standard on February 15, 1935. The reporter writes, “When the American boy of today goes into the woods he takes his appetite with him no less than his older brother took and appetite to war in other days.” Men gained an average of “9 ¾ pounds” after working in the camps for only three months, according to an article form the Iron County Record published on March 8, 1934. This information was noteworthy news because of the Great Depression in which the rest of the country was rationing food and supplies. Working for the CCC was not only beneficial to the country, but also for the workingmen who got the opportunity to enroll.

The men spent all week completing backbreaking jobs around the park, including building the 1.1-mile tunnel through a solid mountain. But they still had the energy to spend time taking hikes throughout the park on the weekends. One example of this is from the diary of Belden Lewis, a CCC enrollee who worked in the park from 1934-1935.

“I went on a long hike. First to West Rim, then on the way back Widdison and I went to Angels Landing and signed our name in the autograph book. The hike was at least 25 miles long round trip and we were tired.”

These places that Belden mentions are some of the most popular hikes in the Park and today are very frequently traveled trails, which were created by the CCC. “The main roads and trails of the canyon were built, including the trail to The Narrows by the men of the CCC.” (Larson) The men worked extremely hard on creating the beautiful park that we see today, but also had the amazing opportunities to explore the park themselves.

The CCC did wonders for Zion and almost the entire park holds the history of this hard time for the United States. When the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work in Zion was ended in 1942, many of the men were able to transition from structured CCC life to the structured life of a military man as they fought in World War II. The CCC was essential in the creation of Zion and without their work it is hard to say what would have became of the canyon, if anything.

Today, more than 2.5 million curious patrons visit Zion National Park annually, and many hope to catch a glimpse of the sun rising on the Towers of the Virgin. In the summer months, busy sightseers crowd the paths like sidewalks in New York City during rush hour, and walk upon trails created by the CCC. Zion National Park holds nothing less than the jaw-dropping landscapes and awe-inspiring cliff faces one would assume. There is nothing like it in the world and without experiencing this veiled sandstone treasure with your own eyes, you cannot say that you have seen the earth’s natural true beauty.

Amy D. Wilde is a senior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication and minoring in international studies.

Sources

“Openings Announced in Zion CCC,” Garfield County News, September 9, 1941, 1.

“Supt. Patraw Praises CCC,” Kane County Standard on February 15, 1935, 1.

“Men of CCC Camp in Good Condition,” Iron County Record, March 8, 1934. 1.

“CCC Camp Now Located at Zion Nat’l. Park,” Iron County Record, August 2, 1934. 1.

Wayne K. Hinton, “Getting Along. The Significance of Cooperation in the Development of Zion National Park,” Utah Historical Quarterly (2000): 313.

Karl A Larson, “Zion National Park—Park with Some Reminiscences Fifty Years Later,” Utah Historical Quarterly (1969): 408I.

David Oswald, A Journey Through Mukuntuweap: The History Of Zion National Park (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace, 2009).

J.L. Crawford, Zion National Park: Towers of Stone (Albion Publishing Group, 1988).

Zion National Park Museum, “The Diary of Belden Lewis,” 1934-1935.

National Park Service, “Civilian Conservation Corps,” http://1.usa.gov/HjZiGs

“CCC Brief History,” Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, http://bit.ly/Hiaym9

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