The world was in the grips of the greatest financial disaster it had ever seen, the Great Depression. Unemployment numbers in the United States grew to 25%—that’s 15 million Americans without work, many destitute.
Enter President Franklin D. Roosevelt who set up a series of programs that would help struggling families and open new work opportunities. One part of the “New Deal” was the Emergency Conservation Work Act (ECW), which took only four hours to write and gave rise to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Throughout the 1930s, the young men of the CCC (mostly between the ages of 18 and 25) swarmed across the country to build what many take for granted today—our national and state parks. In Alabama, 67,000 men found work making $30 a month, and $25 of that was sent home by the government to help support their families.
Today, more than 80 years later, their work stands as a monument to what Americans can do when faced with adverse situations and hardship. And now, just like then, you can hike these parks and forests and see their work first-hand. Here are nine recreation spots in Alabama with rich CCC history.
1. Cheaha State Park
If you were going to build a state park you would naturally want to build one on top of the highest mountain in the state, and the CCC did just that on Alabama’s Cheaha Mountain.
Cheaha State Park has embraced its CCC past by establishing a fascinating self-guided tour of this history. The tour begins at the park camp store right at the entrance, a remarkable stone structure that was hand built by the Corps. From there you can visit the towering Bunker Tower where a CCC museum is located; the beautiful stone Bald Rock Lodge, with its rich, dark wood interiors; Cheaha Lake; several stone bridges; and the park’s cabins, which are nestled in the hardwood forest.
In addition, you can catch the park’s famous views of the surrounding Talladega Mountains from the Pulpit Rock and Bald Rock trails, which were constructed by the CCC. While the Bald Rock Trail has an ADA accessible boardwalk that travels the ridge, the original trail runs parallel to the boardwalk.
2. Chewacla State Park
Even though it’s only 696 acres, Chewacla State Park is significant when it comes to CCC history. No matter what trail you hike—the Mountain Laurel, CCC, or Sweet Shrub—you will be presented with CCC handiwork, including remarkable hand-laid stone arch bridges and the beautiful 35-foot waterfall that roars down the dam built by the Corps to create Lake Chewacla.
The restrooms and bath houses are all stone CCC structures, as are the six cozy cottages that have been renovated and make a great place to stay during a mountain getaway. On YouTube you can see a U.S. Government film from 1935 that chronicles the CCC building the park
3. Flagg Mountain
Ever hear of Alabama’s Weogufka State Park? No? Well, unless you worked for the CCC in the late 1930s, you wouldn’t have.
The CCC began work on the park in the late 1930s in what is known as Weogufka State Forest. The men cut trees to create roughly hewn logs that were used to build several log cabins. On top of the forest’s centerpiece, Flagg Mountain (now recognized as the last mountain in the southern Appalachians), a mighty stone lookout tower was built that stood 52 feet tall and featured an adjoining recreation area and dining hall with a massive stone fireplace.
All work stopped when the U.S. entered World War II. The facilities were turned over to the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC), which used them as fire lookouts until the mid-1980s when they were abandoned.
Fast forward to 2018, and the “State Park that Never Was” suddenly is. Through the efforts of the AFC and several local conservation and hiking groups, Flagg Mountain and the CCC tower and cabins are open for business. While you can’t climb the tower yet (it still needs a little work), you can visit the Rec Hall and stay in the cabins, which is still quite a treat. During your visit, you can also hike the nearby Flagg Mountain Loop Trail to experience the forest’s beauty. For more information on visiting Flagg Mountain, contact the Alabama Hiking Trail Society.
4. DeSoto State Park
Honoring the work of the CCC, DeSoto State Park includes a CCC museum that is loaded with tributes to the men who built the park, and local residents donated many of the museum pieces.
Once again, the Corps was instrumental in building the roads, trailside shelters, cabins, picnic areas, and the lodge, all built with cut stone from the area. They even began work on the golf course and an airfield.
As you roam the trails of DeSoto, be on the lookout for signs of the CCC’s work—the stone bridges, the culverts, the trail shelters. One of the most beautiful shelters with a spectacular view of a canyon and raging river below is located high above the West Fork of Little River on the DeSoto Scout Trail. Plus, you can take the nice 0.75-mile Quarry Trail down to the area where the rock for the park was mined.
5. Monte Sano State Park
Sitting high atop the “Mountain of Health,” Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville is another great CCC historical site. Roam the South Plateau Loop Trail to see the stone and timber trail shelters. Along the North Plateau Loop you’ll see the amazing stone work put into the park’s lodge and picnic pavilions. Plus, the park is home to 11 cabins that the CCC built in the Arts and Crafts style. Available for rent, many of the cabins have stone fireplaces, and some include screened-in porches for relaxing in warmer weather. A small museum and nature center is also located within the park as well as a memorial site honoring those who built the park.
6. Moundville Archeological Park
While the CCC built several Alabama state parks, it also pitched in on many other projects throughout the state, including Moundville Archeological Park, which literally helped save history.
Native Americans inhabited the Moundville area as far back as 1000 A.D, and Clarence Moore discovered the site in 1869. In 1933, the site was made into a state park, which was originally called Mound State Park, and then later named Mound State Monument. The CCC was brought in to help uncover the area’s history and worked with archeologists to restore the ancient Indian mounds. Members of the CCC also built roads for visiting tourists and constructed the site’s first museum. During its work, the CCC uncovered 2,000 burial sites, 75 houses, and thousands of artifacts.
Today, you can roam the wide grassy field and visit those restored mounds, borrow pits, and the museum, which was renovated and modernized only a few years ago.
7. Muscle Shoals Reservation
Located along the banks of the Tennessee River in Florence at Wilson Dam, the Muscle Shoals Reservation is a project of the TVA to return some of its land to the public and provide many recreational opportunities. Within the reservation you’ll find more than 17 miles of natural and paved trails for hiking and biking, several of which take you back in time to CCC artifacts.
Along the Rockpile Trail, you’ll climb stone steps and pass check dams built by the Corps. When you’re there, have lunch or a snack and linger at CCC Park to enjoy a gorgeous view of the river below. If you walk along the Old First Quarters Trail, you’ll get another spectacular view of the river and visit the remnants of the Corps’ living quarters.
8. Gulf State Park
With all of its modern amenities, it’s hard to believe that Gulf State Park was a project of the CCC. While on the Gulf, the CCC built a casino complete with a dance hall and concession stand right on the beach, plus cabins that you can still rent today. The park also features three spring-fed freshwater lakes that the Corps described as being the “largest of notable size along the entire Gulf Coast.” The men of the CCC connected the lakes by digging channels between them, and today it’s a favorite paddling destination.
9. Little River State Forest
Located on the backroads of Escambia County, just north of Atmore in the town of Huxford, you’ll find the Claude D. Kelley Recreational Area, aka Little River State Forest. When the CCC built this 25-acre park in 1935, workers used shovels to form the berm that would contain Chitterling Creek and create the lake. Ever since, the locals have been spending their summers swimming in its cool, clear waters. You can see a video on the construction of the park and the dam on YouTube. Little River appears at 7:40 into the film, while Gulf State Park appears at the 3:37 mark.
While many of the CCC buildings no longer exist, you can walk the trails the Corps built all those years ago, including the two-mile CCC Loop Trail, which follows a portion of the road used to bring men and materials into the park. The CCC also built the three-mile (out and back) Gazebo Trail, which leads to its namesake wood and stone structure, which stands tall on top of a hillside near the trail’s end.
To learn more about the CCC in Alabama, read the definitive book on the subject, “The Civilian Conservation Corps in Alabama, 1933-1942: A Great and Lasting Good” by U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Robert Pasquill.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.