The Summit Museum at Mount Diablo State Park was built by the CCC

Over seventy-five years ago, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. After the stock market crashed in 1929, the slumping economy pummeled American workers. Tens of millions lost their jobs; others took lower paying work simply to scrape by.  By 1933, desperation and poverty were wide spread, with no end in sight.

Soon after taking office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a “civilian conservation corps” as part of his New Deal to lift America out of the Great Depression. In a March 21, 1933 speech to Congress, FDR envisioned a peacetime army composed of unemployed men, who would engage in: “simple work …confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects.  More important, however, than the material gains, will be the moral and spiritual value of such work.” 

CCC crew hewing picnic table tops in 1934

The Emergency Conservation Work Act of 1933 created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to give young men across the nation the opportunity to do useful work and support their families.  The CCC also provided access to education and medical care.  But most important, it restored dignity and hope to millions of Americans.

Between 1933 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps made an enduring impression on California’s state parks.  Before the Great Depression, California had designated thousands of acres as state parks, but lacked the funding to develop them for public use and enjoyment. By 1935, California hosted more than 30,000 CCC enrollees, including about 7,400 working in state and national parks.

Big Basin Outdoor Theater

The men of the CCC built bridges, roads, and trails, utility systems and campgrounds, restrooms, visitor centers, staff housing, and other facilities that made it possible to open up the state parks to public use.  They also erected more elaborate features such as recreation halls, open-air amphitheaters, museums, and lookout towers.  At its peak in the mid-30s, the CCC invested nearly $2 million per year in California’s state parks.

National Park Service architects designed the new state park facilities in the “Park Rustic” style, emphasizing the use of native stone and timber to create buildings and structures that complimented the landscape.  Building from the ground up, Park Rustic architecture employed minimal detail or embellishment, highlighting instead the natural beauty of the building materials and the local settings, as well as fine craftsmanship. 

The CCC built some 1,500 structures and landscape features in California State Parks during the 1930s.  Many survive, although some are now in dire need of repair and rehabilitation. The California State Park System owes its signature look to the thoughtful designers of the National Park Service.  And the people of California owe a debt of gratitude to the men of the CCC, whose labor, strength, and enthusiasm forged the unique character of California State Parks.  As long as we treasure and preserve these monuments to our heritage, they will continue to enrich and inspire generations of park visitors.

Pictured Top: Summit Museum at Mount Diablo, photo by Joe Engbeck, California State Parks. Pictured Middle: CCC crew in 1934 hewing sugar pine at Cuyamaca Rancho into picnic table tops. Pictured Bottom: Big Basin Outdoor Theater in 1936.