Life in the camps was generally good, though many arrived at camp unprepared for what lay before them. Many of the men were from cities and had never dreamed that places like Leetonia, Livonia or Laquin even existed.
The camp day began with reveille at 6:00 a.m. followed by physical training with breakfast at 6:30 a.m., then sick call, policing the camp and at 7:15 trucks were loaded with men and tools and they set out for the day’s work. At 4:00 p.m. the men returned to camp for flag lowering, dinner, and announcements. Following dinner the men had free time until lights out at 10:00 p.m.[i] the men were fed nourishing meals three times a day and many thrived on the food and increased vitality.
There were problems and complaints to be sure. Many of the complaints centered around bad food, dirty quarters, vermin infested bedding, bullying and hazing. The Army, which ran the camps, investigated the complaints and wrote most of them off owing to the personalities of the men.
As with any group of people when put together, personalities conflicted and sometimes it led to trouble. At camp NP 2 near Gettysburg a riot broke out on the night of March 26, 1934. Following the riot, Lieutenant James McDonnell commandant of the camp held a summary court and immediately discharged two men. It was reported that lights were smashed and bunks were destroyed in the barracks. It was reported that further action would be taken against other suspected leaders in the riot.[ii] In the summer of 1934 three men from the Shingle Branch Camp were arrested for creating a disturbance in Renovo.[iii]
The camps were segregated. Black enrollees were in separate camps. Other camps were largely comprised of men from the same area. For example a camp may be composed of men from western Pennsylvania, or southern Alabama. Some of the camps located in close proximity to each other that allowed for the men from the camps to meet in the local towns caused those regional and racial animosities to come to the surface and cause problems. Camp NP2 was a segregated camp and this probably played into the mix. In another incident a shooting occurred at the Medix Run Camp in Clearfield County. Though the shooting was not fatal, it was a serious incident and turned over to the Clearfield County courts for adjudication.[iv] Another near riot with racial undertones happened at a camp near Kane on August 3, 1933. The Kane Republican reported that the seven were dismissed from the C.C.C. and sent home.[v]
On June 23, 1937 enrollees from the camps at Cooks Run and Two Mile Run, both near Westport in western Clinton County met on the streets of Renovo and began to fight. The riot which involved over 250 enrollees was caused by regional animosities. The Cooks Run camp was southern men and the Two Mile Run camp was comprised of Pennsylvanians. Though the Civil War had ended some 72 year prior, there were still grudges. Despite the fighting no arrests were reported.[vi]
Despite problems the C.C.C. enrollees became community members for the time they were there. On June 15, 1933 two C.C.C. men from the Hyner camp rescued a young girl from drowning in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at Renovo.[vii]
As the program evolved, projects in areas concluded and enrollments were up camps were scheduled for closure. Another factor involved in the closings was 1936 was an election year. FDR in an effort to balance the federal budget proposed cutting the program despite its success. When the proposal was made to Congress both parties rebelled, Roosevelt backed off his proposal to reduce the camps to 300,000 men.[viii] In 1937 twenty camps were closed in Pennsylvania and 56 remained open.[ix] The year of 1936 is generally considered the “high water mark” of the C.C.C.
The C.C.C. was so prominent in American life and culture that Paramount Studios produced a movie, “It’s A Great Life” starring Joe Morrison and Paul Kelly, that detailed the life of the C.C.C. in 1936.[x] The movie was filmed in California and enrollees participated in the film project.
On March 17, 1936 one of the most devastating floods to ever hit Pennsylvania began. Known as the Saint Patrick’s Day Flood, practically every section of the state was affected. The C.C.C. proved invaluable in rescue and recovery efforts, helping the stricken people during and after the flood.
Despite their efforts, not all were happy with the program. Pittsburgh mayor William N. McNair, a long-time critic of FDR and his administration blamed the flooding on the efforts of the C.C.C. McNair was quoted as saying, “As long as these boys are in the woods we’re going to have floods.” He blamed the C.C.C. for clearing brush and cutting trees in riparian areas allowing for faster runoff causing the floods. In concluding his rant against the program he also stated, “And in addition to causing floods these boys cause forest fires. I’ve seen them go out for a hike or lunch and throw their pop or milk bottles under bushes. What happens? Along comes the wind and exposes the broken glass. The sun hits the glass and you have a fire. I want to take these boys out of the woods.”[xi] Whether McNair actually believed what he was saying or was just bloviating to score political points in the wake of the devastating flood is unclear.
L.S. Gross, Supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest was quick to respond to Mayor McNair’s charges, and without naming him directly it was clear that Gross was pointing out the fallacy of McNair’s accusations. He detailed how the state had been hit by an unusually large amount of precipitation over the past winter and it rapidly melted. Gross pointed out that the forest duff had been reduced by years of unregulated logging and fires thus reducing the water holding capacity of the forest floor. “Removal of vegetation over widespread areas on the watersheds has not been undertaken. The construction of forest roads and other developments represents an area so insignificant in comparison to the forested area of the state that such an assumption that the CCC is at fault is incredible. The real fault lies in man’s carelessness with fire in the forest.”[xii]
As 1937 progressed, the economy was beginning to improve. Young men were finding gainful employment and enrollment was beginning to drop. As a result camps began to close and consolidate. Across the country 60 camps would be closed because of the drop in enrollment.[xiii]
It wasn’t all trees and clean air. There were accidents and tragedy involved with the C.C.C. On June 28, 1933, Thomas Fox, 18 of Philadelphia, was killed when he fell from a service truck. Fox was a member of camp S-70 near Waynesboro in Franklin County. It is believed he was the first C.C.C. enrollee killed in the line of duty. The camp was one of the first in Pennsylvania having been erected on May 6, 1933.[xiv]
The first fire related death occurred on August 19, 1933. Stanley Ferguson, 19 of Owego, NY, was killed fighting a forest fire in Idaho when a tree fell on him.[xv]
A bizarre incident claimed the lives of two enrollees on June 30, 1933. The men were killed at the C.C.C. camp at Pine Grove Furnace, Cumberland County, when lightning struck the tent they were in. The dead were identified as Robert C. Armstrong and Herman B. Chuderwicz, both of Pittsburgh. Lawrence McGuire also of Pittsburgh was taken to the Army Medical School hospital at Carlisle and recovered. [xvi]
George Roberts of East Berlin, Adams County was injured when his motorcycle collided with a car near Mount Holly Springs on August 7, 1933. He was a member of Camp S-55 at Landisburg. It was reported he suffered a fractured skull and broken arm.[xvii]
Returning to their camp at Shingle Branch, Clinton County, on September 2, 1933, a truck carrying 12 C.C.C. men overturned killing William Arnold, 22 of North Bend and injuring the others. The men had been on a detail to pick up provisions in Lock Haven for the camp. Descending a grade, the truck went out of control and overturned. Arnold died of a broken neck.[xviii] On September 19, Henry Appenzeller of Philadelphia became paralyzed when he reached above his head to put away some dishes in the camp mess hall. Appenzeller was involved in the accident on September 2, and was treated at Renovo Hospital for an injury to his shoulder and lacerations to his hand. Following his paralysis he was transported to Renovo Hospital where x-rays determined he had two broken vertebrae in his neck. He was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. for further treatment.[xix]
M. Fink, 42 of Ridgway, was fatally injured when a large tree he was cutting fell on him at the camp near Croyland on November 4, 1933.[xx] Judging by his age Mr. Fink was probably an LEM.
Not all injuries were work related. Nello Collette of Camp Lowell Thomas, near Trout Run, Lycoming County died of a fractured skull on March 21, 1934. “The unfortunate incident was from a boyish fistic combat.”[xxi] On May 7, 1934 a canoe capsized on Lake Mokoma at Laporte in Sullivan County. William Kelly, 24 of Philadelphia drowned in the incident.[xxii]
Vehicles continued to prove dangerous to the C.C.C. enrollees. On July 23, 1934 several C.C.C. men in a truck on the way to a forest fire from their camp a Duhring, Forest County , were shaken up but none required hospitalization.[xxiii] A couple of months later on October 19 Franklin Page died from injuries he received when he fell from the back of a truck and was dragged some distance when his foot was caught in the rear gate of the truck. Franklin, of Sharon, PA was a member of C.C.C. camp S – 76 at State Camp.[xxiv] The following spring, on May 28, 1935 a truck carrying 25 C.C.C. enrollees overturned near Kane. Three of the enrollees required hospitalization at Kane Hospital.[xxv] The men were responding to a forest fire near Chapel Forks, McKean County. And on July 18 two men were injured when a truck carrying equipment to the new C.C.C. camp west of Huntersville, Lycoming County, ran off the road and upset.
The deadliest incident in the history of the C.C.C. occurred on Labor Day, 1935 in the Florida Keys. A hurricane, struck a C.C.C. camp of 684 veterans. In the aftermath 44 of the dead were identified, 238 were missing, and 106 others were injured.[xxvi]
On May 1, 1936, Daniel Dallas of Philadelphia and assigned to the Tobyhanna Camp, Monroe County died of injuries sustained in a truck accident on April 28. The truck with 17 men aboard was responding to a forest fire when it overturned. Dallas was thrown against a rock. He was transported to a hospital in Scranton where he died. Three others were injured in the accident and required hospitalization.[xxvii]
On April 30, 1937, Donald C. Kresskey, 20 of Bethlehem died at the Renovo Hospital from injuries he received when a ledge of rocks on which he was standing gave way, crushing him. Donald was a member of the Two Mile Run camp. By all accounts the C.C.C. was a comparatively dangerous place with an injury rate of seventeen per thousand in 1935, many of the accidents were related to motor vehicles.[xxviii]
The worst firefighting tragedy occurred on August 22, 1937. A fire in the Absaroka region in northwestern Wyoming claimed the lives of 11 firefighters, and injured scores of others when they were overrun by fire. [xxix] But Pennsylvania was not immune to death from fires. The worst was yet to come.
[i] Pennsylvania DCNR, The CCC Years, http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/thingstoknow/history/cccyears/index.htm
[ii] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1934
[iii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, August 3, 1934
[iv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 15, 1933
[v] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, August 4, 1933
[vi] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, June 24, 1937
[vii] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, June 15, 1933
[viii] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010
[ix] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, September 30, 1937
[x] The Daily Courier, Connellsville, PA, February 14, 1936
[xi] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1936
[xii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 2, 1936
[xiii] The News-Chronicle, Shippennsburg, PA, June 4, 1937
[xiv] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, June 29, 1933
[xv] Lebanon Daily News, Lebanon, PA, August 19, 1933
[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, July 1, 1933
[xvii] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, August 7, 1933
[xviii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, September 5, 1933
[xix] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, September 19, 1933
[xx] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, November 4, 1933
[xxi] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934
[xxii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 7, 1934
[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 23, 1934
[xxiv] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 20, 1934
[xxv] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 28, 1935
[xxvi] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010
[xxvii] The Plain Speaker, Hazleton, PA, May 1, 1936
[xxviii] Speakman, Joseph M. Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, Washington, D.C
[xxix] The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA, August 23, 1937