THE SKIING LEGACY OF THE CCC
Copyright David Goodman
All rights reserved, reuse only with written permission of the author
First published in SKI Magazine, December 1994
They were the unlikeliest ski pioneers. They didn't ski, most were impoverished city kids, and many had never seen a mountain before. Yet some of America's most renowned ski trails and ski areas are the legacy of the young men who formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The CCC was born of twin crises. The first was the Great Depression: by the early thirties, about one-fourth of people under 25 were unemployed. Some two million people were drifting as hobos or vagrants, including 250,000 young people who had been dubbed the "teenage tramps of America".
The U.S. was also in the grips of an environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions. Where forests had once covered 800 million acres of the country, widespread plundering left only 100 million acres of virgin timber by 1933. Destruction of the forests gave rise to soil erosion: by 1934, precious topsoil covering a sixth of the continent had washed away or been carried off by wind. So massive were the dust storms blowing across the Great Plains that snow in Vermont was tinged brown with dust in the spring of 1934.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into office promising to rescue both of these wasting resources. Within a month of his March 1933 inauguration, FDR signed emergency legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was charged with hiring unemployed men to do conservation work. Recruits were drawn primarily from families on the relief rolls, and each man earned $30 per month for his work, of which about $25 went to his dependents.
The CCC was in existence from 1933 to 1942. Some 2.5 million men passed through "Roosevelt's Forest Army", making it the largest peacetime government labor force in American history. The "CCC boys" improved millions of acres of forest and park land, built roads, constructed irrigation systems throughout the west, fought forest fires and provided disaster assistance. Their most visible and enduring legacy is the parks they built. In the south, 13 states had no state parks and half had no parks at all in 1933; within six years, the CCC had built parks in 10 of those states. The CCC ultimately developed hundreds of national, state, county and municipal parks around the country.
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So how did a federal jobs program end up cutting ski trails? The explanation lies with the fact that the CCC contingents in each state fell under the authority of the state forester. Among the state foresters were a handful of ski enthusiasts. When thousands of able bodied axe-wielding men were put at their disposal, these foresters had just the job for them.
The best known of the skiing foresters was Perry Merrill, state forester of Vermont. Merrill had attended forestry school in Stockholm in the twenties. It was while a student there that he glimpsed the legendary Scandinavian passion for skiing. Merrill left Sweden with a vision: perhaps Americans would pursue skiing with equal zeal if they were provided with the proper trails.
When Merrill was put in charge of the Vermont contingent of the CCC, he asked Charlie Lord, then an unemployed state highway engineer, to lead a CCC crew in cutting ski trails on Mt. Mansfield, the state's highest mountain located in Stowe.
"There weren't too many people who knew much about skiing, and I knew hardly anything, but I did ski," recounts an amused Lord, now 92. Lord complied by leading a crew of 25 CCC men in July 1933 and cutting the two-mile long Bruce Trail. The trail was an instant hit. Skiers came from hundreds of miles away to ski the Bruce, and in February 1934 it was the site of the first downhill ski race on Mt. Mansfield. Dick Durrance won the race in nearly 11 minutes; Lord came in second.
Encouraged by their success, Lord and the Vermont CCC men cut a half-dozen more trails on Mansfield [see sidebar], which formed the nucleus of the Stowe ski resort that began in 1936. In his seven years with the CCC, Lord also consulted on mountain design for numerous other Vermont ski areas, including Mad River Glen, Okemo, Burke Mountain, Killington, Middlebury and Ascutney. Perry Merrill, who died in December 1993, wrote proudly, "The CCC made Vermont the Ski Capital of the East."
New England was the greatest beneficiary of the CCC's ski trail blazing. The New Hampshire CCC contingent was one of the most prolific, contributing ski trails on Mts. Washington and Cardigan, and on Cannon, Wildcat, Bald, Piper and Belknap Mountains. The Maine CCC cut ski trails on at least four mountains, and the CCC groups in Massachusetts and Connecticut also blazed trails for skiers.
The CCC cut a smattering of ski trails in the western U.S., but skiing in the west did not take hold in earnest until after World War II. The most notable western ski trails cut by the CCC were the first runs at Sun Valley.
"What was special was that those kids were so enthusiastic," recalls Friedl Pfeifer, who directed the CCC men in cutting the Sun Valley trails and was a founder of both the Sun Valley and Aspen ski areas. "They were all out of the city and some hadn't seen green grass in the open. It was beautiful to watch, and it was a very useful program."
Ironically, few CCC men skied, in part because they could not afford the equipment. But they would enthusiastically come to see others ski the trails they cut. "Probably a lot of them thought we were crazy," quips Lord. "When we first used to have races down the mountain, we used to have quite a few sightseers [from the CCC]. I think they expected people to get killed!"
The CCC also built roads that made remote mountains accessible to skiers. They were responsible for building access roads into Mad River Glen and Sugarbush in Vermont, Timberline in Oregon, and Snow Basin in Utah, to name a few.
Another lasting contribution that the CCC made to skiing was its people. With the skills they learned, a number of CCC alumni went on to become pioneers in the budding American ski industry. Among them were Lord, Warren Warner, who helped design and run four New England ski areas, and Alf Engen, the legendary director of the Alta Ski School.
Did the CCC leaders ever imagine that skiing would become the booming industry that it is today? According to Warren Warner, a close colleague of Perry Merrill's, "[Merrill's] vision for skiing is precisely what happened: It became a source of recreation and revenue and a boon to rural towns like those in Vermont that had nothing much else."
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Modern ski area developers would envy the ability of the CCC to operate on public lands with impunity. Ski areas today often face bitter fights over their development plans, with environmental groups, developers, and government officials squaring off in contentious and lengthy permitting battles.
But CCC veterans are quick to point out that theirs was a different era. "I shudder to think that in the beginning there was no control over cutting those ski trails," confesses Lord. But, he adds, since they only worked with hand saws and axes "we didn't disturb trails enough to warrant [regulations]. It was only when they started to bulldoze trails that we saw you had to do something to protect the mountains. Today, if [ski area developers] are left alone, they might go overboard."
Many CCC alumni say that their early years spent in the mountains and forests had a deep effect on them. Warren Warner, who helped design Stowe, Okemo, Smuggler's Notch and Gunstock ski areas in the northeast, reflects, "[The CCC] influenced me greatly, primarily in my feeling for mountains, and the various uses your forest can have. Forest land can have many facets and uses at different times of year, and all should be cognizant of the other."
Warner urges restraint in the way that skiers and ski areas approach the environment. "There must be a time in the enlargement of a ski area when you have to say you're big enough. Or else you will just have bald hills with lifts on them."
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With America gearing up for World War II in the early 1940s, the need for the public works and jobs relief functions of the CCC declined. Young men left the CCC to work in the well-paying and burgeoning defense industry, and many joined the military. The CCC officially disbanded in 1942. Described by one historian as "one of the most popular of all New Deal measures... [and] one of the most successful", there have been periodic proposals to revive a version of the Depression era jobs corps; President Bill Clinton is the most recent proponent of such an idea.
Many CCC alumni stress that the greatest accomplishment of the corps was the hope it restored and the horizons it broadened among enrollees, many of whom signed up in desperation.
"They were probably the best years I ever spent," says Charlie Lord of the seven years he lived in the rugged CCC camps of Vermont. "To see the boys develop and to see the work they did was gratifying. And the spirit they had was good."
Maybe that spirit is what still brings a smile to skiers who descend the timeless CCC trails today.
SIDEBAR: CCC SKI TRAILS LIVE ON
By David Goodman
Following is a selection of ski trails originally built by the CCC that are still in use at downhill ski areas. In addition to the trails below, there are a number of ski trails cut by the CCC that are still used by backcountry skiers but are not lift-serviced.
Stowe, Vermont Nose Dive
Sun Valley, Idaho Ridge
Caberfae Ski Area, Michigan Number One
Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire Taft Trail
Wildcat Mountain, New Hampshire Wildcat Trail
Shawnee Peak, Maine Jack Spratt
(formerly Wayshego Trl)
Alta, Utah High Rustler
Mohawk Mountain, Conn. Deer Run
BACK TO JAMES F. JUSTIN CCC MUSEUM, ANECDOTES EXHIBIT
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