La Plata County
The Civilian Conservation Corps
by Elizabeth A. Green
Over the nine and one-half years of the CCC’s existence, more than 3.5 million 16- to 25-year-old men worked in 4,500 “permanent” camps and many temporary camps across the U.S. and its territories. Three CCC camps were located in La Plata County, in Southwest Colorado.
The army, and sometimes the navy, ran the camps, while federal land agencies managed the work projects. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service were the most involved, although the Bureau of Reclamation, Division of Grazing, and Soil Conservation Service also played a role in La Plata County. The park service also was charged with creating and improving state parks. Under that directive, Durango secured a camp in 1934, for the purpose of creating a “metropolitan park” on Reservoir Hill, the current site of Fort Lewis College. At the time, the area contained an airport and the city reservoir.
With construction of camp buildings in high gear, officials calculated that the CCC infused more than $17,500 a month into the local economy, including salaries, building supplies, food, other supplies and equipment.
Most of the boys in the Reservoir Hill camp [Camp DSP-2-C, Company 1848] worked where they lived. They transplanted trees, improved drainage, built roads and trails, and installed picnic areas, a water system and rock features using locally quarried sandstone. Small crews from the camp were sent to work at Aztec Ruins and in Farmington, either commuting daily or staying in a temporary “spike” camp and returning to Reservoir Hill on the weekends.
“Even the stone work that has been constructed looks as if it had sprung right out of the ground,” the Durango Herald-Democrat crowed in April 1936. “Everything erected is being erected to last a life time, and when finished Durango will have a city park that we otherwise wouldn’t have acquired in a thousand years.”
About a fourth of the enrollees were local, including Durangoan Bob Tyner, who worked on sloping banks, laying water lines and digging trees for transplanting. “We loaded dump trucks with shovels, one shovel-full at a time,” he recalled, adding he “soon got off of that.” During the winter he dug deep trenches to uproot pinyon pines that were to be transplanted elsewhere in the park.
Like his fellow CCCers, Tyner earned $30 a month, but was allowed to keep only $5. The rest was sent to his father, who saved the payments to help his son attend college. He played a lot of poker in his free time, “penny ante because we didn’t have very much money.”
“That was my livelihood, and also a means to an end,” he reflected almost 75 years later. Tyner attended Fort Lewis College (then a junior college south of Hesperus), and Colorado State University, where he earned a degree in engineering. He eventually became project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Durango.
As happened often in the CCC, the park project ended and the boys were transferred to Morrison camp [SP-13-C], on the Front Range, where they worked on Red Rocks Amphitheatre, among other projects in the Denver Mountain Parks. The Soil Conservation Service took over the camp [changing its designation to SCS-10-C], focusing on irrigation and erosion control projects around Durango. The camp closed for good in November 1941.
The boys in a second CCC camp in western La Plata County worked for the Division of Grazing, improving water management and eradicating nuisance wildlife under the supervision of Hans Aspaas. The Red Mesa camp [DG-9-C], on the bank of the La Plata River, opened in mid-1935. Less than a year later it was slated for closing, but Congressman Edward T. Taylor interceded. Like the Durango CCCers, some of the Red Mesa men [Company 3842] were sent to a side camp in Farmington, prompting business owners there to protest the closing as well.
On New Year’s Day 1938, the Red Mesa camp hosted a “Good Will & Appreciation Banquet,” attended by 200 people from neighboring communities. Five months later, the camp was closed and the men were transferred to Paradox, Colorado.
CCCers from Forest Service camps in the region came to La Plata County to fight forest fires on Junction Creek and Missionary Ridge, as well as two fires east of Bayfield. A Bureau of Reclamation CCC camp in the Pine River Valley provided labor for road building and tree clearing in preparation for filling Vallecito Reservoir.
Seventeen-year-old Morris Grodsky started his CCC stint with the Bureau of Reclamation near Grand Junction [Camp BR-22-C, Company 2803], then was transferred to Vallecito in April 1940. “Each day we got on the trucks and drove down precarious improvised roads to our work sites,” he wrote many years later. “This was backbreaking labor, and it was our daily fare.”
On weekends, Grodsky recalled, the CCCers “splashed on after shave lotion and jumped on the trucks taking us into Durango.” It was, he wrote, “a wild town on a Saturday night. Cowboys, miners, and CCC boys all came into town raising hell.”
The CCC-Indian Division had temporary “family camps” in both Towaoc and Ignacio. Unlike the regular CCC, the Indian Division enrolled married men with few age restrictions. Enrollees and their families were required to provide their own tents and household goods, while the Office of Indian Affairs provided wood, water and sanitation facilities. Like the regular CCC, Indian Division camps offered recreational activities and both vocational and academic classes to interested enrollees.
Despite the newspaper’s predictions of a municipal park that would last for centuries, only two picnic structures survive on Reservoir Hill. The Lions Den overlooking the city of Durango is well known, while a second structure is relatively hidden behind the college dormitories. Both are testimonials to the skilled stone work that characterized the CCC throughout the country, and especially in the Southwest.
Most of the reservoirs and a number of the dikes and roads built by the Red Mesa CCCers still serve area ranchers. There remains one remnant of the camp on private land that had been leased by the government: a single, tall stacked sandstone column that once marked the entrance. The remainder of the camp is on Southern Ute land, with numerous remnants of camp buildings.
Thirty years after he left the CCC, Morris Grodsky returned to Vallecito with his sons. The lake, the road surrounding it, the vacation cabins and dude ranches were an “entire population where there had once been only stray white-faced cattle.” He looked at it all and smiled.
“We did it,” he thought proudly.
Elizabeth A. Green is co-author of With Picks, Shovels & Hope: The CCC and Its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau. She is president of the La Plata County Historical Society board of directors.