Tag Archives: civilian conservation corps

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Mother of the American Youth Conservation Movement

Liz Titus Putnam looked at dozens of people in the dining hall at a Dutchess County summer camp — eating, talking and laughing — and she saw a room full of connections.

Although many people in the Sharpe Reservation hall that October morning were in their early 20s, their ties stretched back to 1953. That was when Putnam, a 20-year-old Long Island native and junior at nearby Vassar College, came up with an idea.

After reading a magazine article on the deplorable state of the national park system, Putnam used her senior thesis to propose a voluntary student service program to work at the parks. Her inspiration came from the Civilian Conservation Corps created two decades earlier by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

“I knew that I would be interested in doing that work. And I thought other young people would be interested, too,” Putnam said.

Through timely encouragement and helpful connections that seemed to show up just when needed, the new college graduate founded what became the not-for-profit Student Conservation Association (SCA), with its first crews of 53 men and women (Herself included) arriving in 1957 at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks to do trail work. The Peace Corps and Earth Day were still years away.

Six decades later, more than 90,000 young people from every part of the U.S. and many foreign countries have gone through the SCA, with most members later going on to jobs and careers in the field of conservation at a myriad of organizations.

Since the beginning, SCA members have performed about 40 million hours of public works service at parks and other public lands. In today’s dollars, that would be worth about $600 million.

Last month, their ranks grew by another 40 people who graduated from the Hudson Valley SCA 2019 program under Putnam’s appreciative and proud gaze. The ceremony was held at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.

“I have so much hope for the future, to see young people getting involved,” said Putnam, now an 86-year-old resident of Vermont where she lives on a farm. She retired from running the organization day-to-day as its president in 1969, but under the title of Founding President remains active and involved.

“You will have many adventures. You have one life, and it goes by very fast,” Putnam told the Hudson Valley SCA graduates. “It is what you do each day. You are part of a team, with the humans all around this earth. Each person counts.”

President Barack Obama presents Liz Titus Putnam with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2010. The award is the nation’s second-highest civilian honor. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Putnam believes that connections helped her all along the way, starting with her faculty advisor at Vassar who encouraged her to pursue her idea. Then through a family connection, she met the daughter of the late Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service. She in turn introduced Putnam to his successor, former park director Horace Albright. He was intrigued enough by the idea to urge her to visit four national parks to gauge local interest in a volunteer corps, giving her a letter of introduction to ease the way. After that trip in 1955, the superintendents at Grand Teton and Olympic said yes to accepting her student volunteers.

Liz Titus Putnam (left), near Grand Teton National Park during the first year of the Student Conservation Association in 1957. To the right is fellow Vassar College alumna Martha “Marty” Hayne, who co-founded the SCA and later was a member of its board of directors. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)
Liz Titus Putnam and Martha “Marty” Hayne share a laugh back in the day. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

“I had no connections at the time, But the connections appeared when they were needed. That is the miracle,” Putnam told a visitor at the Hudson SCA graduation.

Speaking there, Putnam shared her tale of actually joining the group that she helped found. It was after fires had devastated Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and the SCA was lining up people to come help. She was 56 years old.

“I spoke to our staff, asking if anyone could join. And they said yes. And I asked if I could join, and they said yes,” Putnam said. “And I said, no special treatment, treated just like everyone else? And they said yes.”

After filling out an application, she got her SCA acceptance letter (she recalled saying ‘Yippee!” upon opening it), later arriving at Yellowstone under an assumed name to wield hand tools and help other members repair burned out bridges and cut downed trees. One day, a college student from Texas said he knew who she was, because she had spoken at his school about the SCA. “I asked him to keep it to himself, and we would be fine. And he did,” said Putnam.

Liz Titus Putnam plans a tree at Vassar College during a ceremony in her honor in 2018. (Credit: Vassar College)

“Liz is very inspiring,” said Dana Reinstein, a 23-year-old Queens resident who is finishing her second SCA stint. “I got to meet her when she was at Vassar last year, when she was helping plant a tree there.”

Now serving as an environmental educator in New York City schools, Reinstein said working at the SCA was about “a lot of new connections and experiences,” starting with lessons on how to use hand and power tools. “This is not something that I ever thought I would do. When I started, I did not even know how to use a hammer properly.”

A graduate of SUNY Fredonia with a degree in geology, Reinstein became part of an SCA team that provided more than 71,000 hours of service, valued at $1.7 million, working this year on trails, waterways, and recreational habitat.

Marking its 20th anniversary, the Hudson Valley SCA works with New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, local Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Scenic Hudson, Audubon New York, and Vassar College. The Hudson Valley SCA Corps is an AmeriCorps program.

Some 900 young adults have gone through the Hudson Valley SCA since it started, logging some 1.7 million hours of service that would have cost $30 million if workers had to be hired.


Check out this slideshow of some of the members of the Hudson SCA 2019 session. (Credit: Hudson SCA)


‘Once an SCA member, always an SCA member’ seems to be a cardinal rule of the organization. When Putnam asked how many people attending the graduation had been in SCA, many hands went up.

One belonged to Melissa Miller, park manager for Grafton Lakes State Park, Cherry Plain State Park, and Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Miller did two SCA terms in 2001 and 2002, working on landscape tours at Olana State Historic Site, and then as an environmental educator at Grafton, where she was hired subsequently as a State Parks employee.

“Before that, I had been working in a restaurant. Being in the SCA was such a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “It gave me my career.”

Sarah Davies, an alumna of the original Hudson Valley Corps in 1999, is now Chief Environmental Educator with State Parks after service with DEC. “SCA was the best decision of my professional life. It was the catalyst for my 20 years in government service,” she said.

Liz Titus Putnam, left, with Ann Harrison (center), bureau chief of environmental education at the state Department of Environmental Education, and Sarah Davies (right), chief environmental educator at NYS Parks. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks


Learn about applying to SCA here.

See Liz Titus Putnam interviewed on the 2009 Ken Burns film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Read the 1953 Harper’s Magazine article that inspired Liz Titus Putnam — then a 20-year-old college student — to create the Student Conservation Association. She described the article as “hitting me like a bolt.”

Read this in-depth interview with Liz Titus Putnam

Watch a short history of the SCA

The Allegany Zoo… Who knew?

Millions of people visit Allegany State Park every year, but how many have ever visited the zoo?

Tucked up on the hill, behind the Red House Administration Building among the maples, Scotch pine, and cherry trees, sits the stone foundation of what was once a highly-visited tourist attraction.

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Path to the zoo, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

Like so many other places on the East Coast, this area (in what is now Allegany State Park) was logged from the 1860s to the 1920s.  Hemlocks, white pines, and hardwoods were harvested to supply large cities with building materials. While humans built houses, many local animals lost their homes and habitat.

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Postcard of the zoo, note the Red House Administration Building on the left, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

The Outdoor Museum and Zoo was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was intended to exhibit the local animals, birds,  plants, fungi, and rocks of this area. The Zoo’s rectangular foundation (25×40 feet) and 3 ½ foot high walls were built from local sandstone quarried off the hill behind the museum.  Chestnut and cherry posts supported a shake shingle roof. Shelves and brackets around the sides of the museum building supported animal cages, insect trays, unique plants, and rock and mineral exhibits. Cement pools with dry platforms housed aquatic creatures such as frogs, turtles, muskrat, and fish. Since this was a seasonal museum, the CCC oversaw collecting specimens for the Zoo. Upon its opening in 1933, the exhibit hosted a raccoon, skunk, woodchuck, rabbit, chipmunk, porcupine, five types of turtles, and several different species of frogs, toads, and salamanders. Five kinds of snakes had their own special snake pit separate from the rest of the museum. Irving Knobloch, a National Park Service naturalist oversaw the museum and its animals during the CCC days, after which the Allegany State Park (ASP) rangers and naturalists operated the zoo.

Two of the first residents of the Zoo were “Smoke” and “Soot.” The bear cubs were rescued by forest rangers during a fire caused by sparks from the smoke stacks of the trains carrying lumber out of the area. The rangers decided to take the bears home, but as they grew, the small cubs became too much for the rangers to handle; so, they built them a small bear den surrounded by wire. They eventually escaped and roamed the area for handouts.

Another famous creature of the zoo was Cleopatra, a golden eagle, owned by Egbert Pfieffer, a world-renowned bird specialist and ASP naturalist. Cleo was a trained eagle who would sit on Mr. Pfieffer’s arm as he walked around the area. Pfieffer also supplied the museum with a red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, owls, and other birds of prey.Cleo

The Zoo was open from May until early October, when all the animals were released back into the wild. It was closed in 1944 due to World War II and was never reopened. The building was torn down in the 1960s, but the foundations remain.

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Zoo foundation, photo by State Parks.

The cages and displays are long gone; but the Environmental Education Department still tells the story of the zoo. You can find amazing small wildlife like millipedes, salamanders, toads and frogs in or near the pools once inhabited by turtles and fish. One of the frogs, Louise, a green frog, was named by a kindergarten class who first discovered her two years ago.

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Louise the Frog, photo by State Parks

Come visit the zoo, sit quietly on the moss covered stone walls, and imagine the sounds of excited children as they rush from one exhibit to another, looking at and learning about the wonderful wild things of long-ago Allegany.

To learn more about the Zoo and the history of the CCC and Allegany State Park, visit the Allegany State Park Historical Society.

Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the New Deal legislation, photo from Wikipedia

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration which put thousands of young men to work reforesting one million acres. Within his first one hundred days of his presidency FDR enacted the Civilian Conservation Corps, a national work program which gave men ages 17 to 28 unskilled labor jobs in infrastructure. The young men were paid $30 a month, $25 of which had to go home to their families. By the end of the program nine years later, over three million men from all fifty states had made significant improvements to the nation’s road system, planted three billion trees, and built thousands of facilities in state parks. The CCC had a major impact on New York’s state parks, with many of the structures remaining today.

 

Fairhaven Beach SP and CCC
The oldest surviving cabin built by the CCC at Fair Haven Beach State Park (and placard).

The CCC was active at Fair Haven Beach State Park from 1934 to 1942. The young men employed by the Corps built roads, cabins, service buildings, and created barriers against waterfront erosion from Lake Ontario. Park manager Jerry Egenhofer says: “The establishment of the CCC – with their readiness to lend assistance with personnel, built in financial aid, and their readily accessible materials – aided greatly in expediting and promoting the park’s development and growth.”

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CCC activities at Green Lakes State Park.

A CCC company of Spanish-American War veterans built cabins, service buildings, roads, trails, the boathouse, the golf course, and the golf clubhouse at Green Lakes State Park. The men transferred tons of sand from Oneida Lake to create the beach in the park.

Letchworth SP and CCC
Civilian Conservation Corps members constructing the Lower Falls foot bridge in Letchworth State Park in 1935, with the current bridge shown in the inset picture.

Allegany State Park can also thank the CCC for many elements of the current park, including bridges, roads, camp sites, trails, and the ski area. The CCC also worked on wildlife conservation projects, including reforestation and stream bank retention.

Bear Mtn - Perkins Tower

At Bear Mountain State Park, both the Perkins Memorial Drive and Perkins Memorial Tower – named after the first president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission – were built by the CCC between 1932 and 1934. On a clear day, four states and the Manhattan skyline can be seen from the summit.

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Eleanor Roosevelt is introduced at a Camp TERA meeting, 1933, image from Wikipedia

Bear Mountain State Park also housed Camp TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Assistance), the first of several camps for women established by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, nicknamed She-She-She camps. Jobless, single women under 40 from the New York City area spent the summer months in the woods learning new skills and recovering from health problems brought on my acute poverty and lack of food.

At Gilbert Lake State Park the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

Facing mounting controversy over racial integration, the CCC director Robert Fechner decided to segregate the camps in 1935. The “colored” CCC company at Newtown Battlefield hosted black educators and medical officers, and following complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other advocacy groups, the CCC appointed black officers to command the camp.  The men built cabins, restrooms, ball fields, and the picnic pavilion.

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A CCC worker posing at Robert H. Treman State Park, August 1935. Image from: Friends of Robert H. Treman State Park

CCC Emblem
Civilian Conservation Corps emblem, image fromhttp://whs-ushistory-1930s.wikispaces.com/CCC

The CCC contributed to many more projects at other state parks and historic sites not featured in this article. Without a doubt, the efforts of the CCC members created the foundation of New York’s incredible state park system, and their legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.

Post by: Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Sources

Civilian Conservation Corps in the Finger Lakes, Part 1. Walk in the Park, April 17, 2014. (Includes a video with a presentation by State Parks environmental educator Josh Teeter)

Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy

Kahramanidis, Jane. “The She-She-She Camps of the Great Depression.” History Magazine.  February/March 2008.

Prejudice & Pride: Civil Rights and the CCC: Company 1251-c at Newtown”. The Preservationist. Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, 2007.

Thompson, Craig. “Force for Nature: Civilian Conservation Corps”. New York State Conservationist. Department of Environmental Conservation, February 2008.

State Parks Master Plans

Wikipedia

Personal Experiences: Excelsior Conservation Corp

Since January, we have been members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps, an AmeriCortps program. We work in New York State Parks and state-owned campgrounds and improve the infrastructure (structures that we use to access and enjoy spaces – such as roads, trails, buildings, etc.) of these natural areas. One of our first experiences as members of this program took place in Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. Our project was to work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) workers, and produce thunder boxes (box toilets), outhouses, and register boxes (for trailheads). We helped cut, paint, and attach all of the pieces, and then put them together in a way that would help people in the future easily assemble them in the field. Our crew enjoyed carpentry projects such as this. We did more than just improve our carpentry skills during those cold March days, we created friendships within our own crew and with the workers in Saranac Lake. To show their appreciation for our hard work, our project partner took us to the summit of White Face Mountain, the fifth tallest mountain in New York! We got to ride in an elevator made by the Civilian Conservation Corps – the group that our Corps is based on. We also explored the weather station that is situated at the summit and marvel at the gorgeous high peaks of the Adirondacks. This was a great time and was just an introduction to the adventures that would follow!

In June, our crew ventured to Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca. Our job was to rebuild steps on the Gorge Trail. When we arrived, we found a steep trail covered by asphalt and parking barriers and we had the task to remove it all. We started by prying up the heavy concrete barriers and chipping away at the asphalt. Once removed, we then had to carry it all either up or down the hill, depending on what part of the trail we were on. We estimate that we moved more than 20 tons of material over the course of about 18 days! We then began cutting wood and digging dirt to install box steps – 147 steps to be exact! These steps were made from 3 pieces of wood, continuously stacked on top of each other and filled with gravel. The new steps are safer for hikers and will slow down trail erosion allowing park visitors to enjoy the trail for many years to come!

It was a lot of hard work, but we were rewarded with thousands of thank yous from park visitors, beautiful views (Ithaca really is gorges!), and the satisfaction that comes with another completed project.

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All of the steps were cut by a chainsaw! , photo by Michaela Aney

These were two of the amazing projects we completed this year.

Post by Michaela Aney and Marlena Vera-Schockner, 2016 ECC members

Learn more about the Excelsior Conservation Corps.