If Rocks Could Talk

National Park Service repairs Chiricahua trails seven decades after the Civilian Conservation Corps put them there

What stories they'd tell ...

One has only to hike the trails at Chiricahua National Monument to know what I'm talking about--the rock walls and steps holding these trails in place speak volumes about the men who built them, and the men and women who repair them.

Constructed during the Great Depression, the trails at Chiricahua National Monument were built by men desperate for work and something to hope for. The creation of these trails, along with the hope restored to those who built them, began with an election year campaign promise: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." With those words, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.

When he took office in March 1933, America was suffering its worst economic times ever. As many as 15 million men were out of work; there were bread and soup lines in the cities.

One day after taking office, Roosevelt called Congress into special session to work on emergency bills. Thus began America's "Hundred Days," during which an enormous amount of legislation was passed, much of it still in force today. Many relief agencies and programs were developed, among them a work program named the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC did more than put Americans back to work. The federal work program also cleaned up a huge environmental mess during a time when America's natural resources were being destroyed at an alarming rate.

In the early 1930s, Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, summed up the bleak conservation picture of the country with these words: "Thoughtlessly we have destroyed or wounded a considerable part of our common wealth in this country. We have ripped open and to some extent devitalized more than half of all the land in the United States. We have slashed down forests and loosed floods upon ourselves. We have torn up grassland and left the earth to blow away."

CCC crews planted billions of trees. Parks, dams, bridges and fire trails were built through wilderness. Millions of acres of ruined land was reclaimed; 814,000 acres of range land re-vegetated; 52,000 acres of public campgrounds developed; 13,000 miles of foot trails built, and much, much more.

More than three million men participated in the CCC at more than 4,000 camps established in all of the 48 states plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, from 1933 until 1942.

In Southeastern Arizona, CCC trail crews constructed nearly 12 miles of trails at Chiricahua National Monument between 1934-1937. Eleven of these trails were designed for horses, one as a short foot trail and another--built in 1939--as a fire trail. Though these trails are still occasionally traveled by strings of horses and mules from area guest ranches, most visitors to the park today hike them on foot. About 80,000 people visit Chiricahua National Monument each year.

A local rancher named Ed Riggs was responsible for design of these trails. Even before the area was named a national monument in 1924, Ed and his wife, Lillian, ran one of Arizona's first guest ranches out of their beloved Faraway Ranch at the mouth of Bonita Canyon, guiding guests on horseback into the mountains along the first trails Ed designed. Later, he became foreman of the CCC trail crews that expanded and improved the entire trail system.

After more than 70 years of use, the trails at Chiricahua National Monument are showing their age. For the most part, they have aged gracefully, with lichen and moss clinging to much of the original rock masonry. Some areas of the trails, however, have sustained damage from the many feet that have walked them and from often-violent summer rainstorms that send floodwaters rushing down the trails and creek beds.

During an especially powerful thunderstorm in August 1999, several sections of the park's trail system were severely damaged. Since then, National Park Service trail crews have been working to restore and improve these areas. Crews today use the same type of hand tools the CCC used, though they don't use the dynamite the CCC boys did, nor the jackhammers; no power tools are allowed in the 10,290 acres of designated wilderness areas. Men and women pack tools and supplies on their backs to work sites, sometimes walking as many as 10 miles a day, to and from projects.

No motorized vehicles travel these trails. When there is an emergency, rescue often comes in the form of a trusty horse named Boomer, a notoriously sure-footed navigator of the trails.

Working with rock is both physically and mentally challenging; rock masons must be as stubborn as they are strong to do the job well. Trail crewmembers joke that they are working like the "Flintstones."

A few of the crew are following in the footsteps of ancestors. Chris Davis, 21, of Willcox, worked with the crew this past summer in a seasonal position. He says his grandfather worked with the crew that built the visitors' center there.

"Seeing those big rocks they used at the visitor center, that was something, knowing my grandfather's hands once worked with them," he says. "Now there are rocks up there that my hands have worked, too." Davis says he only met his grandfather twice before he passed away, but has heard stories all his life about the big, strong man. He says the rocks connect the two of them.

At least these modern-day rock masons all have shoes. Kate Neilsen, park ranger/curator, says that some of the CCC enrollees arrived at their camps half-starved and without shoes. There were those, she said, that had to be fed a few meals before they had enough energy to hike to their job sites, and that some of those had to work barefoot on the trails until ordered shoes arrived.

Eric Stroecker, 33, masonry worker supervisor for the Chiricahua 2004 trail crew, has worked for the park service for nine years, three of those at Chiricahua National Monument. He says he is amazed at the amount of CCC-constructed dry stone masonry on these trails, compared to other national parks.

"The design and engineering that Ed Riggs used on that trail amazes me. I don't believe that in this day and age a trail of that same magnitude would be built," he says.

There are those who say the CCC saved America by putting young men to work while improving our national parks, range and forest land. There are even those who say the CCC won the war, because many enrollees ended up enlisting in the military once World War II began.

Recently, there has been evidence some politicians are looking closer at the CCC. A July 14, 2004 Associated Press headline read, "Kerry is proposing CCC-type program."

Meanwhile, the rocks along the Chiricahua National Monument trails remain silent, as always, while telling countless stories.

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