On the trail of the CCC in Idaho forests

By Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson

For The JournalRafters bobbed their way down the Salmon River in June as we left Highway 95 at Riggins and drove east along the Salmon River Road. We were beginning eight weeks of summer research gathering material about the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Idaho forests. Most of the rafts we saw that day were taking it easy on the lower Salmon, not challenging the Wild and Scenic Salmon River upriver and farther east. We knew that the CCC played a central role in the Salmon River road story, and we were heading upriver to make a site visit at the former French Creek CCC camp.
We found concrete slab foundations, stone retaining walls and waterworks in the area now occupied by a Boy Scout camp, formerly the site of Camp F-109. Perched on a dry bench above the river and the mouth of French Creek, the duff-covered remains recall competing visions of resource conservation, wilderness preservation and economic development that marked much of the CCC activity in Idaho.
During the 1920s and 1930s, local boosters from Lewiston in western Idaho and Salmon in eastern Idaho wanted an east-west transportation corridor through the middle of the state. Especially vocal were successive chambers of commerce in Salmon, who created a regional campaign “to boost the Salmon City-Lewiston” road, as the Idaho County Free Press reported in their Aug. 31, 1933, edition. The Chamber opposed the expansion of the Idaho Primitive Area, newly created in 1931, because they saw it as a threat to the road and commercial development.
Forest Service managers were split on the road project: Regional Forester Evan Kelley from Region 1 north of the Salmon River contended that the road-building project had “little to commend it except the booster spirit of but a relative few.” His counterpart in Region 4 south of the Salmon River, Richard Rutledge, dismissed opposition to the road as “abstract and hypothetical.” Thanks to wilderness historian Dennis Baird, we know Kelley’s retort: If Rutledge’s support of the Salmon River road project wasn’t itself “abstract and hypothetical,” he shot back, “I’ll eat blubber.”
The “Good Road Boosters” won the first round, and the Idaho Primitive Area was not extended to block the river road construction. Political pressure transmitted through politicians such as Idaho Congressman Compton White assured that the CCC was assigned to build the Salmon River road between Salmon and Riggins. By 1935 CCC companies assigned to build fire trails and fight fires in the summer were reassigned to winter CCC camps at French Creek in the west and Ebenezer (Cove) Creek in the east. Work began in earnest to blast the road along the river and right through the center of Idaho.
Idahoans had heartily embraced the freedom that automobiles provided. The possibilities for tourism and commerce seemed limitless, and with Idaho having one of the highest fatality rates from auto accidents per capita in the country, road improvement seemed not only advisable but also positively necessary to the state’s wellbeing and economic recovery.
On the other hand, wilderness advocates Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall joined other conservationists who felt strongly that the automobile and unfettered roadbuilding threatened what little was left of wild America. They created the Wilderness Society in 1935 to help prevent precisely the road projects into wild areas that the Salmon River road project proposed (the Wilderness Society later successfully advocated the Wilderness Act of 1964, whose fiftieth anniversary we celebrated in 2014).
The debate about wilderness challenged natural resource conservationists. While most were strong supporters of the CCC, the question of roads penetrating wilderness divided them. And here was a firsthand example of the CCC building a road through what Marshall called “one of the few areas still largely in the state of undevelopment.” The debate was in full swing when the National Geographic Society sent an expedition down the river on wooden rafts in 1935 that stopped overnight at the French Creek CCC camp.
Between 1933 and 1941, the CCC crews blasted, bulldozed and shoveled their way through the sheer rock canyon wall that dropped dizzyingly to the river’s edge. Hampered by persistent opposition from wilderness advocates, increasing cost of construction, and the lack of demonstrable economic or social benefits, road building stopped completely when the CCC camps closed in 1942 as the United States entered World War II.
The CCC had finished less than half of 135 miles needed to complete the road, leaving the remote Salmon River wild. In 1980, the River of No Return Wilderness was created (with the “Frank Church” added in 1984) on approximately the same “expanded” boundaries that Bob Marshall had advocated 50 years earlier at the time he opposed the Salmon River road. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic River Act ended the decades-long debate by including the Salmon River and precluding a road through its canyon. Although no one now seriously proposes a road along the Salmon River, the struggle continues in Idaho over the control of public land, road access, and natural resources, as shown in contemporary debates over sage hens in southern Idaho and mega loads on Highway 12.
As we drove the winding river road back toward Riggins, we stopped at the Manning Crevice Bridge that spans the Salmon River downriver from the French Creek Camp. The Manning Bridge is as recognizable a CCC-built structure as any in the state, named after a CCC enrollee who died in a fall from it. The one-lane, 240-foot wooden bridge built in 1934 has been used by generations of rafters to reach the takeout several miles upriver at Carey Creek and to access the back road to Warren and Bergdorf. Without much fanfare, the U.S. Department of Transportation plans to demolish the Manning Bridge and build a concrete span nearby, in order to facilitate the passage of larger vehicles.
The contest between conservationists, wilderness advocates, and boosters were remote from the concerns of the desperate families in New Jersey, Ohio, Idaho or Tennessee, many of whom had been without income for more than two years. In 1933 they learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new Emergency Conservation Work (later renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps) would soon be enrolling unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 25. Their sons could work on conservation projects for $30 a month for six months, $25 of it sent directly back home. For parents, the CCC was a godsend that would help their family through the Depression while keeping their sons decently fed, clothed, employed and out of trouble.
Likewise, national debates were not priorities for unemployed Idaho craftsmen and loggers, who possessed work experience in trades and who, as Local Experienced Men (LEMs), could train and supervise the generally unskilled young men at CCC camps. It meant getting back to work at a time when unemployment was at a national all-time high. Military officers facing layoffs were pleased to be reinstated to provide oversight and discipline for the enrollees at CCC camps. Small business owners and farmers who supplied the many camps eventually became strong supporters of the program. Out-of-work teachers coached weekend students toward literacy and perhaps a high school diploma. Supervisors, medical personnel and service providers—the CCC economic stimulus reached deep into local communities and economies, offering steady work during a decade of economic turmoil.
CCC enrollees and employees may not have known what “conservation” meant, but everyone knew that the forest resources were in deplorable condition, destroyed by massive overcutting, stream degradation, fire, insects and disease. Franklin D. Roosevelt made forest conservation a top priority when he created the CCC. The Forest Service, just 25 years old and short of manpower, suddenly acquired hundreds of thousands of strong young men who could be trained and employed to complete forest management projects. The CCC not only transformed forests, it transformed the Forest Service into the modern institution it is today, expanding its mission and shaping its policies. No longer merely the custodians of the forest, the Forest Service became its managers. The same infusion of manpower transformed state and national parks, soil conservation efforts and land reclamation.
Because 39 percent of Idaho land was managed as national forest, Idaho provided a unique laboratory in which to apply the techniques of forest management and conservation. Of the 50 states, Idaho had the largest proportion of its land in the national forest system and had the second largest number of CCC camps in the nation (California, a much larger state with a larger population, was first). Federally funded CCC work programs in Idaho built fire lookouts, trails, roads, structures, and parks, fought fires and blister rust, planted trees and strung thousands of miles of backcountry telephone lines.
The incredible influx of manpower of the CCC, suddenly arriving in Idaho in 1933, helped restore a vigorous forest to the state. Forests devastated by the 1910, 1931, and 1934 fires and overcut by the timber industry were replanted by the CCC; forest fires were greatly reduced, giving forests the opportunity to regenerate; and rapidly spreading tree diseases were slowed. CCC-built roads opened access to forests for firefighting and also served recreationists, rural residents, and private businesses.
The CCC also had direct and diverse impact on local communities and economies, which leads us to some of our most productive sources of local history–newspapers. McCall Public Library’s quiet backroom houses a fine collection of materials about McCall and Valley County, including paper versions of the Cascade News and the Payette Lakes Star newspapers. In communities like Cascade and McCall, CCC and other New Deal projects were front-page news for most of the decade. State and national news mingles with CCC recruitment notices, fire reports, project updates, reports on seasonal camp movement, and community-camp sponsored events, such as the CCC-McCall Summer Carnival.
The amount spent on food and supplies infused cash into local economies. An article in the Nov. 9, 1935, edition of the Sandpoint Daily Bulletin reported that the total amount of CCC payroll and supplies for Idaho at the peak of CCC activity was $7.5 million, the equivalent of $130 million in 2014 dollars. The money spent locally was a bonanza for local farms and ranches, and won over many merchants suspicious of F.D.R.’s alleged “socialist” experiments. According to the Moscow Daily News Review of January 23, 1936, seven firms in the Lewiston CCC District received food contracts for February totaling $40,098.
For some towns, however, the coming of the CCC brought an unwelcome influx of young outsiders who often outnumbered the inhabitants. The resulting relationship between local towns and CCC boys was not always smooth. Indian enrollees worked on tribal projects and could live at home. But new federal non-discrimination policies for black enrollees encountered white resistance. Idaho originally had sixteen camps with African American enrollees. All served as kitchen helpers. At Camp Osborne Springs, F-94, African American enrollees who complained about harassment in camp and in the town of Ashton were dismissed from the CCC after an Army investigation. The Spokesman-Review headed its October 3, 1933, report, “Negroes Go to Virginia.” In the article, Assistant CCC Director Charles Taylor noted, “all of the colored enrollees are being returned to the Corps Areas of origin.”
Within camps, ethnic-racial relations challenged deep prejudices in enrollees and supervisors. As one white CCC enrollee related in an oral interview, “You had to take ’em and treat ’em like a white person.” In the Bovill CCC Camp, African Americans were not allowed to go into town on the weekends. When enrollees were taken to Moscow they could not leave the Moscow CCC camp site. An African American enrollee in the Bovill camp with previous experience as a boxer refused to box whites at the Bovill camp, aware of problems he might have if he won.
Generally, few problems between CCC enrollees and Idaho communities erupted over the decade, and we find that CCC enrollees from elsewhere often stayed on or returned after their term was up, got jobs with the Forest Service or local businesses, and married local women. Our continued research of Idaho newspapers and personal histories will undoubtedly uncover many more connections between the CCC and Idaho communities, made easier by the number of local efforts to digitize their newspaper collections. We are grateful for the extraordinary efforts made by local communities to discover and preserve their history, and for their willingness to share those sources with historians and the wider public.
A wealth of documentation about the CCC was produced in the 1930s through government’s aggressive promotional campaigns employing newspapers, photography, film, and radio. Once implemented, every agency involved generated periodic reports. Newspapers large and small picked up national stories and wrote their own local coverage, while enrollees carried small lightweight Kodak cameras, kept simple diaries and wrote letters home about their experience. However, after the nation entered World War II and New Deal programs were ended, not much was written about the CCC until the 1980s, when intensive research and oral history initiatives with CCC survivors took place in recognition of their fiftieth anniversary.
We are entering a critical moment in the preservation of resources related to the CCC in Idaho. Although very few CCC enrollees and employees are still living, Forest Service employees, historians, CCC alumni volunteers, and history society workers who collected materials and conducted interviews with participants are still active, although many are approaching retirement. Their knowledge could be lost. The preservation of their work on the CCC is urgent because of drastic funding cuts to all government agencies, especially evident in the little time available to forest historians, archaeologists and architectural historians to store and work with archival material.
Many of the significant issues challenging the nation in the 1930s are still topics of national debate today, including conflict over control and best use of public lands; debate over wilderness preservation and commercial development; public policy toward western lands and forest management; forest fire policy; job training and education of youth; and the role of outdoor recreation in society. In various ways, the CCC dealt with all of these and shed light on public policy today.
Fortunately, there is a renewal of interest in these topics and dedicated history conservationist throughout the state and the region committed to sharing their knowledge and collections digitally with the public. We look forward to our continued collaboration with them and with the University of Idaho Library as the CCC in Idaho Forests Digital Portal becomes a resource for all to share.
This article was reprinted from the newsletter of the Idaho Humanities Council.

About the authors:
     Patricia Hart is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Idaho and a social historian. Her books include “A Home for Every Child” (University of Washington Press), the edited “Women Writing Women” (University of Nebraska Press) and, with Ivar Nelson, “Mining Town: The Photographic Collection of T.N. Barnard and Nellie Stockbridge from the Coeur” (University of Washington Press).
     Ivar Nelson is a former director of the University of Idaho Press. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and a Foreign Service Officer in Africa and to the United Nations. He co-founded Bookpeople of Moscow and is currently active with the revitalization of the Kenworthy Theater in Moscow. He is the co-author of “Mining Town: The Photographic Collection of T.N. Barnard and Nellie Stockbridge from the Coeur” (University of Washington Press).