Dec. 12, 2023

Constructing the Trail

Today we’re going back to the earliest days of the Appalachian Trail to learn more about the critical role that the Civilian Conservation Corps played in making the trail a reality.


Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction

Myles Fenton  00:01
My own boss, but I liked it, the friendship and the camaraderie. And the work we did. It was heavy and hard work, but I liked it

Mills Kelly  00:21
Hello, and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast about the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. Today we're going back to the earliest days of the Appalachian Trail to learn more about the critical role that the Civilian Conservation Corps played in making the trail a reality. That clip you just heard was Myles Fenton, who was one of the millions of American men who were enrolled in the CCC. Between 1933 and 1942. Fenton worked on a CCC crew in Maine, and helped build the Appalachian Trail there. When Fenton's CCC Crew finished the last mile of the trail in Maine in 1937. The entire trail was complete. From the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, to the summit of Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia. The interview you just heard took place in 2012. On the 75th anniversary of the trails completion. The building of the Appalachian Trail largely coincided with the greatest economic crisis the United States has ever faced the Great Depression. The CCC was one of the foundational programs in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. And the program gave work to 3 million unemployed young men between 1933 and the American entry into World War Two.

Ben Alexander  01:47
And the CCC was the first New Deal program that involves the government directly providing jobs to unemployed persons as a means of relief.

Mills Kelly  01:56
That's Ben Alexander, the historian, and the author of The New Deal's Forest Army.

Ben Alexander  02:02
It was also the only such program that was live in the enrolees. That's what they were called, lived in camps of 200 that were run by the army, the way it worked, the young men who joined the CCC had to be members of families that were on the relief rolls. And they had to be unemployed and out of school, out of school could mean they had graduated. But in a lot of instances, probably most, it meant that they had dropped out. And by the way, while the minimum age was 1817. And some of the years a substantial number of younger teenagers who had dropped out of school got into the CCC by lying about their age. But not all of the CCC enrollees were young. There were also CCC companies made up of veterans from World War One and prior military engagements.

Mills Kelly  02:54
Enrollees in the corps lived in camps set up by the army, and they spent their days working outdoors on projects that ranged from planting trees to building fire towers to helping to create roads, trails and structures in America's national parks. Fortunately, for Appalachian Trail hikers, a fair amount of that work took place along the AT. CCC enrollees helped to build and sometimes relocate long sections of the trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and especially in Maine. In addition, they built lots of structures along the trail, including many shelters that hiker still used today. For example, if you hike to the summit of Blood Mountain in Georgia, you'll find yourself at a stone shelter built by a local CCC crew. That shelter is a testament to the CCC is love of cement. In addition to using cement to bind the stones used to make the walls and the chimney, the floor of the shelter is poured concrete. And in one of the more amusing quirks of the CCCs work along the trail, someone in that Georgia crew dropped his claw hammer into the carrying cement on the floor of the shelter. He retrieved it but didn't smooth the cement back over and ghostly impression has remained ever since. To remind us of that moment. Just north of Blood Mountain at Neal's gap, hikers come to the willow ice interpretive center. It's a large stone building that now houses to popular mountain crossings outfitters built by the CCC between 1934 and 1937. This beautiful old building served as the dining hall for decades. It's also only about 40 miles from the trail southern terminus, and as often were North Bounders who find through hiking too difficult bail out and go home. Being CCC and Rolly wasn't all fun in cement though. As Ben says, Life in the CCC camps was very regimented.

Ben Alexander  05:09
The camps were run by the army. Every camp had a captain and several other officers in charge. But the enrollees weren't given military training. Some elements of camp life did resemble the military. The dining hall was called the mess hall, and their bunk beds were inspected every morning for neatness. But during the day, the enrollees for the most part did work under civilian bosses, either in the forestry or the parks department. At night, they were back in the camps run by the army. And it was hard work dangerous too, because CCC enrollees were called upon to fight forest fires, sometimes losing their own lives. So by any standards, the government demanded a lot from CCC enrollees.

Mills Kelly  05:57
In addition to lots of hard workout doors, the enrollees received a number of important benefits. The

Ben Alexander  06:03
Enrollees were paid $30 a month, of which 23 had to be allotted to their families back home, leaving them $7 a month for pocket money. On weekend nights, the boys went into town. Back then $7 A month was real money. They went into town on their nights off, went to dances met young women, a number of enrollees met their lifelong soulmates at the local dances. They would wake up early in the morning, they would have their beds inspected by the army officers. And then they'd get into trucks and go work for civilian bosses for the day doing whatever they were doing. And they come back at night, have dinner in the mess hall. And by the way, the meals served in the CCC made a big difference.

Mills Kelly  06:57
And it wasn't just the enrollees who were well fed. Sometimes at hikers got to sample the wonders of the CCC kitchens. Not long ago, I found an account of a hike from Harpers Ferry to Skyland lodge in Shenandoah National Park in the archives of the Potomac Appalachian Trail club. It was the story of two young men from Baltimore who decided to spend a week on the 18th and 1937. Their hike didn't start off well, because they got caught in one torrential downpour after another after a week on the trail. They showed up bedraggled at a CCC camp in the north end of the park, where they were given a hot shower, a hot dinner, bunks to sleep in, and then a hot breakfast. Here's how Ben Beck describe their experiences.

BEN BECK (Voiced by Dan Howlett)  07:46
Before going to bed, the construction boss took us to the dining hall to eat. He rose to two cooks who opened up the dining hall and dried out a colossal meal. It was a daisy for us to bombs. They serve stuffed peppers, to ham sandwiches with real ham and lots of it. Biscuits, tomatoes, coffee, bread, butter, elegant BlackBerry jelly herb ate it with a spoon on the sly and two large balls of sliced pineapple fit for a king, don't you think? The following morning we went down to the cook house and had a breakfast of oatmeal have biscuits and bacon and eggs finishing that repast we were told we owe them nothing. So packed up and we're on the trail by eight. Last night was an example of real hospitality. Their kindness was well evident and certainly appreciated by Herb and me. 

Mills Kelly  08:35
All the food mattered even more to the enrollees. Here's miles Fenton again,

Myles Fenton  08:40
Meals were good, but Sunday was always sliced meat at at night and there was salami and something else and liverwurst. And the noon time we ate out in the trucks the meals would be liverwurst and real sliced meat and it got so after a while I liked it and I go so where I could eat it.

Mills Kelly  09:04
Given that it was the Great Depression, being able to eat so well made the heavy work expected to the cruise a lot easier to do. 

Ben Alexander  09:12
A lot of enrollees who had been undernourished when they entered gained weight. Now they had to meet certain weight requirements and health requirements to get in in the first place. But still, a lot of them had their health drastically improved by getting quality meals while in the CCC.

Mills Kelly  09:34
The CCC administration also wanted to make sure that enrollees left their experiences on a crew better able to function in the modern economy.

Ben Alexander  09:44
At night they were likely be attending classes because from the start it became clear that one of the biggest needs of the enrollees was education. The first year classes were improvised and makeshift but by the second year there was a formal education program With every camp having an education advisor, the classes ranged from basic literacy and math to more advanced subjects, including higher math, vocational skills like auto mechanics and electronics, and history and current affairs.

Mills Kelly  10:24
ATC Chairman Myron Avery was very enthusiastic about enlisting the CCCs labor pool for the Appalachian Trail. But there was a big fundamental problem standing in the way of using CCC workers to complete the trail. The enabling legislation that established the organization said that young men enrolled and CCC crews were supposed to work on federal or state lands, not private property. And the vast majority of the 80 was on private land. What to do, especially in Maine, where the most work remains to be done in the mountains where the wildest.

David Field  11:03
Maine was very different. There were limitations in the legislation on work on private land. My name is Dave field. I'm a professional forester who spent most of his career as a college professor, running forestry programs from various places. I've worked on the Appalachian Trail every year since 1956 55, actually, and been a member of the Maine Appalachian Trail club since then, an officer of the lane Appalachian Trail clubs since 1967. Served on the Appalachian Trail Conference Board of Managers for 26 some odd years, chairman of the board for six years, and I've just been very involved with the trail primarily in Maine. And about 90 95% of the Appalachian Trail in Maine was on private forest land. And there were 28 active CCC camps in Maine. There are only 12 of those that were authorized to work on private forest land. Were just about all the 80 in Maine was located.

Mills Kelly  12:10
Just in case you didn't catch that. Dave has been a volunteer with the main Appalachian Trail club for just shy of 70 years. And he maintained the trail and Saddleback mountain for 60 years. I think it's safe to say that no one knows more about the ATN main than Dave. According to Dave, the ATC leadership, principally ATC Chairman Myron Avery found creative ways to work around the limitations placed on CCC labor.

David Field  12:41
There was this clause that referred to work in the public interest. That was the key claim. And so the argument was made well gee, the Appalachian Trail is this national treasure and that's certainly in the public interest. But, but Myron Avery, who was of course centrally involved with a trail in Maine, really leveraged as much as he could, was the fact that most of the authorization for work on private land in Maine by the CCC was for fire protection, forest fire protection. And that included building roads and trails to improve access for forest firefighters and equipment. There was a forest fire over in Andover North surplus back in the 1930s. The firefighters use the very rough Appalachian Trail at the time to get to the fire and Avery would just say see, see? Don't yourself. So he levers out among other things. The operation of the CCC and main was put entirely under the main Forest Service, working in coordination with the US Forest Service. Forest Service had kind of final say in it, but it was really the main Forest Service.

Mills Kelly  14:00
Dave explains most of the AT in Maine ran through what is known as the unorganized territories, meaning millions of acres of rural land that is managed directly by the state without any sort of local governing authority, like a county or a town. And a large number of the CCC camps in Maine were located in the unorganized territory. It was enrollees from those camps, who did the vast majority of the work building the 80 in Maine between 1935 in 1937.

David Field  14:31
The final two miles were completed on August 14 1937. Between Spalding mountain and Sugarloaf, a high saddle between Spalding and Sugarloaf and one of the most magical experiences I've had is on August 14 1987. We had a really great gathering near Sugarloaf and we had actually seven CCC veterans there including man named Myles Fenton who was on the crew August 14 1937. We cheated a little and unrolled the gondola up to the top of Sugarloaf but then we hiked over to a big boulder and Myles went with us and installed a plaque commemorating that event.

Mills Kelly  15:16
Those seven surviving CCC enrollees, told some stories.

David Field  15:20
They were really thrilled they volunteered for Appalachian Trail work. One person talked about being in the CCC like being at an elegant dinner and the Appalachian Trail was desert. They really liked getting out and contributing to what they saw was a really good project.

Mills Kelly  15:44
I spent a fair amount of time in the forest of New England and upstate New York. And as beautiful as they are. They're also afflicted with an insect that is proof, at least to me, of the existence of Satan. The black fly if you've ever been bitten by a black fly, you know what I mean? I asked Dave, how those CCC enrollees dealt with those awful insects.

David Field  16:08
HA! You can't, you can't I mean, like my first job in the woods in Maine was up in actually, township, 10 range 17. In the summer of 1959 I was using it was a really awful flight that consisted of power and citronella. And you name it and I left half a bottle of somewhere up in the woods there and never went back. I haven't used light oak for 40 years. Well, you know, dt, which is the main ingredient and most things came out of World War Two research. Really, power and citronella were the kind of the standard ingredients of most of the stuff that was being used that and man smoky fires, I mean, you couldn't do much.

Mills Kelly  16:54
So they just talked it out and got eaten alive while making a trail for us to enjoy. Speaking as someone who seems especially tasty to biting insects like the black fly, I'm not sure I could have done what Dave has done all these decades. As the year comes to a close, we are so grateful to all of you who have supported our show by listening by reviewing us on your favorite podcast app, and by boosting us on social media. On behalf of our team, I'd like to ask you to please consider making a donation to support the work we're doing. The gift of any amount will help us keep making the world's best podcast on the Appalachian Trail. So please go to our website, our two and click on Support us thanks.

Ben Alexander  17:51
For AT, hikers who venture onto the trail south of the Potomac River, work at the CCC is almost impossible to avoid it Shenandoah National Park, the 80 cuts back and forth across Skyline Drive the scenic road that runs through the park from north to south. Although CCC crews didn't build the road itself, that work was done by the bureau of public roads. CCC crews did build most of the overlooks along the drive. In addition, they built big Meadows lodge near the center of the park in 1939. Most importantly, for hikers though, CCC crews relocated large sections of the AT that had been obliterated by the construction of the scenic road and working with volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail club. They built many of the stone and beam shelters called huts in the park that are so characteristic of the trail and Shenandoah, south of the park. CCC Crews also helped with the early stages of construction of the 460 mile long Blue Ridge Parkway. As in Shenandoah, the enrolees built overlooks waysides and other structures along the parkway locations frequented by AT hikers. The parkway also forced the trail to move off the ridge top in many locations, and CCC crews helped with the relocation of the trail, often just down the slope from the road. They at south of Toronto moved away from the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1952. But before it did, a CCC crew in Floyd County built one lonely stone shelter overlooking Virginia's Piedmont and what is now the rocky mountain recreation area. Earl Shaffer the first through hiker, it's been a cold and windy night and that shelter. That unnamed shelter holds a special place in my heart because it is one of the few tangible remnants of the original route of the ATA in Virginia. And the views from his front porch are pretty spectacular. In the Smokies, CCC crews built miles of trail and said Some of the more difficult to get to stretches of the new park in the Pisco, Cherokee and not to hail a national forests, CCC crews built and maintained hundreds of miles of the AT. And in Maine, in addition to a substantial portion of the trail, enrollees built many trail side shelters, all in the western part of the state. The main woods were much more difficult places to work, and not just because of the blackflies. Instead of building stone and cement structures, CCC crews built those shelters out of logs and fresh cut shingles that they shaped right on site. 

David Field  20:38
The CCC shelters were all roofed with hand hewn shingles, and they began to leak about two years after they were installed. And I slept in a lot of those and got really wet.

Mills Kelly  20:52
All the one of those main CCC shelters are gone now.

David Field  20:57
There is only one that I'm certain is still standing. The CCC built to lean tools at horns pond on the Bigelow mountain range. There are new ones there now but one of the old ones that was kept and it's kind of rundown. There's discussion about whether to keep it and there is the Antiquities Act that comes to play here and some of the CCC shoulders that we dismantled required a lot of paperwork to get permission. This one had horns pond, of course is on state land, not national park land. So it is a little different, but the state is still bound by some of the Antiquities Act. I'm particularly protective of this one because it's the first one I ever slept in 1955 and I spent a memorable night there March 28 1958. Were a guy with me and I got to the site and there was nothing but a flat snow field with a little tree top sticking up out of it and we finally picked a spot and started digging and two feet down. We hit the ridgepole of that lean tool and then had to dig it out to get into it. It was 15 feet of snow.

Mills Kelly  22:10
AT hikers who are used to nice flat plywood or plank floors in the trail shelters would have found those old shelters just a wee bit uncomfortable for sleeping in 

Mills Kelly  22:22
All the CCC lean tos and may not have had boards for floors. 

David Field  22:25
They were all small peel poles took 40 or 50 Very tiny little spruce and fir poles to build up a floor and and of course they were awful to sleep on. Except that people don't understand that the first thing you did in those years when you got to Alene two was cut a bunch of furrow bows and weave them into those polls and build up a beautiful springy fragrant mattress for about the next time you got there. You tore out the old ones and put into ones which of course would have denuded the forest for miles around if the practice had continued but this was before sleeping pads were invented.

Mills Kelly  23:00
One of those shelters was the Myron H Avery Memorial shelter in Bigelow call. Built in honor of the legendary ATC chairman. Avery was a son of Maine, and certainly would have loved knowing that a shelter in the Bigelow's was named for him. It's not there anymore, though.

David Field  23:18
The citizen referendum in 1976 directed the state to buy the land that greeted the Bigelow preserve and protected the Bigelow mountain range. The feeling was that the Bigelow call was just too fragile in environmental area to have an attraction like the link to to draw people there. And by that time, the firepower in the mountain had been abandoned. The wardens cabin in the call was abandoned in the main Appalachian Trail club set up a volunteer program using the call for caretakers and overseeing what became a develop camping area with prepared platforms, but no shelter. And it's called the Avery Memorial campsite now.

Mills Kelly  24:09
All those roadside turnouts, stone lodges and trail shelters are tangible reminders of the critical role the CCC played in helping to complete the AT, what's less obvious is what enrolees did to reshape the mountain landscape and ecosystems, The trail passes through. Many of the mountains to AT crosses were open farmland in the 1930s when the trail was being built, and CCC crews helped reforest many of those mountains. According to Ben Alexander, CCC, enrolees ultimately planted more than 3 billion trees across the United States. It would be great if the story of the CCCs involvement with the Appalachian Trail was just one big happy story but History is rarely like that. For all the great work CCC crews did for our country, the Civilian Conservation Corps administration also perpetuated one of the worst aspects of American society at the time, racial segregation.

Ben Alexander  25:16
That has to be seen in the context of the bigger picture, there was still a Supreme Court decision on the books from 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson, that said that segregation was perfectly all right with the Constitution, with the fiction of separate but equal. It also needs to be understood that especially in the south, the need for segregation was an article of faith among whites. We're not just talking prejudice, we're talking sense of identity rooted in racial superiority and rooted in the need for a very ritualistic caste system. So especially in the south, the white public would not have gone along with racially integrated CCC camps. So there were white camps and so called colored camps.

Mills Kelly  26:06
Not surprisingly, CCC administrators, who were almost entirely white men consistently favored the interest of white enrollees over Black enrollees.

Ben Alexander  26:16
When white and Black enrollees were in the same company, and when white enrollees engaged in racist attacks against the blacks, from what I've been able to find on record, authorities generally tended to treat it as a Black problem rather than a racism problem. It should also be noted that everywhere north and south local white communities screamed bloody murder at the thought of a camp of 200 young Black men being located anywhere near where they lived, a fear that was not supported by any reality. But even with all the indignities that they suffered, and there were many Black enrollees benefited from being in the CCC, African Americans were over represented in the ranks of those who needed relief from unemployment and poverty. And the CCC provided that relief. Black enrollees had a higher rate of choosing to re enroll for a second term.

Mills Kelly  27:14
President Roosevelt micromanaged much of the CCCs work and was very aware of these problems. But he tended to let others in his administration take any heat coming from Black leaders, or the Black press over the ways that Black enrollees were dealt with by their officers.

Ben Alexander  27:31
FDR walked a tightrope on the subject. On the one hand, he was careful not to offend southern white sensibilities because he needed the support of the white southern Democrats in Congress for all of his new deal measures. And they were making a rare exception as it was tolerating any expansion of the functions of the federal government on account of the dire conditions of the Depression. And FDR knew this swell. The Southern Democrats would ordinarily consider their racial protocols to be threatened by any expansion of federal power, whether it was about race or not. So FDR was careful to tread lightly when it came to southern white sensibilities. At the same time, he successfully won over a lot of the black population, with carefully measured gestures that he made sure were heavily publicized in the Black press.

Mills Kelly  28:30
Like enrollees in the camps in the South were often restricted from visiting local towns, many of which were predominantly or even entirely white, and all of which were segregated. While relations between the camps and local towns were often good, or at least tolerable, in at least one instance, near the trail and Southern Virginia, tensions between townspeople and Black men coming to the town for a day off exploded into a full on melee.

Mills Kelly  29:03
Leaders of the Appalachian Trail clubs, some of which were segregated themselves, did their best to ignore the issue of race altogether. When it came to obtaining help on the trail. I could find no evidence in the archives for the various trail clubs or the ATC, where leaders mentioned the racial composition of a given CCC crew. My take is that the clubs in the ATC were so pleased to have help on the trail that they were willing to set aside whatever racial views they might have had to make sure that they got help from the CCC. Despite these problems, the CCC provided relief to 3 million men at a time when unemployment in the United States was at an all time high. Being a part of the CCC didn't just help those young men and their families financially. It also offered them access to education and job training, all while being well fed at a time I'm when so many Americans were struggling to find their next meal. Across the United States, there are hundreds of national, state and local parks and forests that began or expanded dramatically with the help of CCC enrollees. Along the AT we get to stay in shelters eat and lodges can spend time in picnic areas built more than AT years ago by those strong young men strung out along the 2000 plus miles of the trail we'd love

Mills Kelly  30:40
The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me, Jeanette, Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a special thanks to Ben Alexander and Dave Field for sharing their insights into the history of the CCC and its connection to the Appalachian Trail. And to Dan Howlett for voicing Ben Beck. Original music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. We're able to bring you this show to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. To help us continue to produce the world's best podcast on the Appalachian Trail. Please visit our website at and click on the Support button to make a donation of any amount. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon.

Dave Field

Dave Field has been volunteering with the Appalachian Trail in Maine since 1955 and was the maintainer of the AT on Saddleback Mountain from 1957 to 2016. He has served as the president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC), on the ATC’s Board of Managers, and is a member of the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame. He is also a historian of the trail, working to transcribe and digitize Myron Avery’s correspondence and the papers of the MATC.

Dave is a professional forester who spent most of his career as a college professor running forestry programs in various places. Dave holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Forestry from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. He taught forestry at Purdue, Yale University, and the University of Maine, where he retired in 2006 after 30 years on the faculty.

Ben Alexander

Benjamin F. Alexander teaches American History and Government at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, and holds a PhD in History from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Deal's Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked (JHU Press, 2018) and Coxey's Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age (JHU Press, 2015). He resides in Bloomfield, NJ, just outside of New York City.