The Cortez CCC Camp: Chestnut Street in 1940

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:15 PM
The 700 block of North Chestnut Street in 1940, looking east.”

This is the first of two articles about the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, located at the north edge of Cortez before World War II. Very little remains of the camp, but historic photos and old newspaper articles are helping to fill in this part of our past.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, often called the CCC, was created in 1933 as part of the New Deal to provide work for unemployed men. By the time the Cortez camp was established, men could enroll who were not in school or in full-time jobs. Enrollees had to be unmarried, between 18 and 23 years old and had to make a commitment of six months. They could remain in CCC for up to 2 years.

Today, the view at the north end of Chestnut Street is very different than it was in 1940. About 75 years ago, 700 North Chestnut was the southwest corner of Civilian Conservation Corps Camp SCS-14-C, which housed Company 3837. This confusing name came about because the camp, like all such camps, was jointly operated by the U.S. Army and a federal agency – in this case, the Soil Conservation Service.

Camps were built in all parts of the U.S. to work on hundreds of different kinds of conservation projects for various federal agencies. In the vicinity of Cortez, there were camps at McPhee, Mesa Verde and Towaoc, in addition to the one at the edge of Cortez. Enrollees worked in companies of about 200 members who were overseen by military officers and supervised by a civilian staff. The CCCs never became a permanent government organization and went out of existence as the U.S. joined World War II. The Montezuma Valley Journal carried its first article about the Cortez camp on March 13, 1939. Readers were told the CCCs would be working in Montezuma and Dolores counties, on projects south of the Dolores River. Conservation work would be done on private land where farmers and ranchers had entered into agreements with the Soil Conservation Service. They might also work on federal lands.

The newspaper reported the camp would be half a mile north of the city limits “straight north of the Wark Mill” and north across the county road (Empire Street today), on land owned by N. E. Carpenter. The city agreed to provide water to the camp via a 2-inch line from the city water main in the vicinity of the Wark Mill at the rate of $20 a month. Construction activity would begin in April or May, and Army officers had contacted Highland Utilities and Mountain States Telephone Company for services.

Newspaper readers learned the camp was expected to house 200 enrollees and that 10 to 15 families associated with the camp, and a new Soil Conservation Service office would soon arrive. These new arrivals were expected to bring a monthly payroll of between $2.500 and $3,000. Also, most of the camp construction activity would be done by local contractors. As the newspaper said: “The undertaking is looked upon with favor by business interests of the town.”

The Journal ran several more articles leading up to construction of the camp. At the end of March, there was an announcement that open houses would be held in early April at the Mesa Verde and McPhee CCC Camps to provide local people with some idea of what the new camp would be like. The May 8 newspaper brought the news that camp construction would start that week. Lt. F.J. Mesmer would direct 35 CCCs as the work began. Then, the Aug. 31 Journal announced in a headline “Cortez CCC Camp Established: Active Work to Start At Once.”

CCC Company 3837 moved into Camp SCS-14-C at Cortez on Aug. 22, 1939. to work for the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Projects might include erosion control, irrigation canal maintenance, or even prairie dog eradication.

By September 1940, work was being done by 156 CCCs from the Cortez camp, 18 were working from a “side camp” at Narraguinnep, and 34 from a “side camp” in Dove Creek. The operation was overseen by two Army officers and supervised by a civilian staff of 13. There were also CCC enrollees in leadership positions. The men lived together in sections of 25. Each had an enrollee leader and assistant leader.

Next month: “Looking Back” will fill in more about the local CCC camp and the work enrollees were doing. What they accomplished has become an important part of our history.