I had the opportunity this past weekend to finally visit the Lewis and Clark Caverns in southwest Montana and couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more. The caverns are both a natural wonder and a testament to the energy and drive of a country that was willing to put its young men and women to work to not only fight a great depression but to build and develop their country.
The two hour tour was a remarkable experience. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a path through the caverns with stairs and lighting that are still largely in place, allowing thousand of visitors each year to experience a site that otherwise would only have been accessible to a small few. Between 1935 and 1941, 200 men worked to build the caverns into the park it is today. Many were injured and at least one worker died during the construction, but in the end, they built a lasting resource still enjoyed today.
As I listened to our guide talk about the work the Civilian Conservation Corps did to develop the caverns from a place only visited by a few brave souls with rope and lanterns to one that toddlers and the elderly can visit, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather, who worked for the CCC as a young man. I don’t know what my grandfather did during his time in the CCC–and records are difficult to acquire–but I felt a sense of pride as I thought of him being a part of this group who built this park and did so much other productive work for the country.
They did remarkable things, as Time Magazine described in 1939:
A few hard facts show that the U. S. got more for its money from CCC than from most other depression-begotten experiments. Largely on or near public forest and park lands, CCC by 1938’s end had planted 1,456,973,900 trees; put in 8,594,829 man-days at fire fighting & prevention; completed 102,004 miles of trails and roads; killed uncounted millions of prairie dogs, pocket gophers, jackrabbits, practiced “rodent control” on 30,774,000 infested acres; “re-vegetated” (grassed) 267,600 acres of grazing lands; built 41,960 bridges, 5,181 large dams, 3,612 towers and stations for fire lookouts, 68,990 miles of telephone line.
At the Lewis and Clark Caverns, they carved stairs, installed lights, blasted tunnels and even carted out bat guano by the ton.
One detail about the construction work in the caverns was especially impressive. Just off the Paradise Room, discovered by CCC workers and featuring some of the most magnificently colored columns and formations, CCC workers built a 538 foot tunnel which allows visitors to leave the caverns without hiking back up to the top. When finished, this tunnel, blasted into a mountain side, not only did no damage to the structures in the caverns, but was only inches from its planned course.
That CCC workers, who were largely like my grandfather, mostly rural men whose family farms no longer produced enough to support the family, were able to build such an impressive facility is a testament to working men and women–and a government that had the courage and wisdom to give them that opportunity.
It’s fashionable in some circles today to criticize public works programs and the New Deal. Conservatives are certainly correct when they argue that “government can’t solve all of our problems”–it’s in the very nature of strawperson arguments to be correct–but they’re simply wrong when they refuse to acknowledge the power of government working with its citizens, especially in challenging times.
The most important lesson of the New Deal and programs like the CCC is that government can work with its citizens to improve their lives and strengthen the nation. After serving in the CCC, my grandfather served his country in World War II before spending his life building homes and businesses as a mason. In a crippling depression, with millions out of work and struggling to take care of their families, the American government didn’t choose the easy path of demonizing those who struggled; it chose to believe in them, to give them opportunity and hope.
I’m proud of my grandfather and proud of a country that had faith in men like him.