When Roosevelt Sent the Jobless Into the Woods

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During the Great Depression, one challenge for the government was how to create jobs without competing with private enterprise. In late March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended creating a "civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment."

The idea was to employ idle young men on a vast scale to improve the nation's public lands and natural resources. Work in national and state forests or on flood control and soil-conservation projects, "is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also as a means of creating future national wealth," Roosevelt explained. "More important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work."

Roosevelt estimated that a quarter-million temporary jobs could be filled by summer if Congress acted quickly.

Within 10 days, the House had passed a bill creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. A significant amendment from Illinois Republican Oscar De Priest, the only black congressman, stipulated that the law should allow no discrimination because of "race, creed or color" in hiring workers for the new corps. The bill passed the Senate, and Roosevelt signed it into law on March 31.

Moving quickly was essential: Roosevelt wanted work secured for the first 25,000 men within a few weeks. Project director Robert Fechner, who was vice president of the International Association of Machinists, telegraphed state governors on April 3 and asked them to send technicians to Washington within three days to cooperate with federal agencies in choosing the first sites for conservation labor.

Army recruiting stations served as registration centers, and military trucks transported workers to "forest camps." There, workers were given a physical examination, trained and assigned a job.

Robert Y. Stuart, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, estimated that the forest work camps would employ 250,000 men. The project would include constructing 13,000 miles of forest telephone lines, 900 miles of fire breaks, 11,700 miles of range fences, 3,600 miles of forest roads, and 54,500 miles of minor roads and trails, as well as clearing trash from more than a million acres of land that was vulnerable to fires.

One of the first encampments was assembled near New Rochelle, New York, and enrolled 1,790 men by April 15. (Although the New York Times reported that 351 young workers had departed because they were homesick, their parents objected to their enrollment or they had failed the physical exam.) Divided into six teams, these workers would "go to the forests" in early May.

De Priest's amendment brought jobs to black Americans during a time of deep segregation. On April 24, 1933, the first Pennsylvania site, briefly called Camp De Priest, opened its gates to black workers in the Allegheny National Forest.

Hope was returning for America's jobless.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the author on this story:
Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu