Civilian Conservation Corps Builds the Refuge

CCC enrollees arrive in Burns for work at Malheur Refuge

The Great Depression greatly impacted the country with economic turmoil and rampant unemployment throughout the nation. In an effort to revive America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This action would ultimately have a profound effect on Malheur Refuge.

Roosevelt’s plan was to recruit thousands of unemployed young men, enroll them in a peacetime army, and send them to do battle (or to wage war) against destruction and erosion of our natural resources. This young, inexperienced $30-a-month labor force met and exceeded all expectations. Enrollee families received $25.00 of the enrollee’s monthly wage. The economic boost provided by this money was felt in cities and towns all across the nation. Between 1933 and 1942 three million young men worked on CCC projects across the United States; more than 1000 young men would complete projects during this time at Malheur Refuge.

With the purchase of the Blitzen Valley portion of the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company holdings, the Refuge became an ideal location for CCC projects, and would host three CCC camps. A seasonal camp was built near today’s Refuge Headquarters during the spring and summer of 1935. The first permanent camp was established at Buena Vista Station in October 1935. Large camps were located at Refuge Headquarters, Buena Vista Station and at Five Mile Lane, north of Frenchglen. A small side camp was set up at Ewing Springs on Malheur National Forest to cut timbers for work projects on the refuge. The last camp was closed in 1942 with the start of World War II. Little evidence remains of the camps, as the wood buildings associated with the camps were dismantled by the army and moved to Alaska to serve as barracks during construction of the Alaskan Highway.

An excellent description of the construction of the permanent camp at Refuge Headquarters comes from the May-June 1936 Camp Sod House Narrative:

“Sod House Camp was established here on May 5, 1936, having been moved from Cottonwood Camp in Idaho.

Approximately 121 boys are in camp for duty. The picture shows the mess hall, most of the boys’ quarters and officer’s quarters, is shown, with the Blitzen river in the right foreground. Malheur Lake is beyond the trees in the left foreground and next to the low hills in the distance.

The site is the place where one of the earliest buildings stood adjacent to Malheur Lake, a sod house built by two brothers, Chapman, and from this place came to be called Sod House Spring. The site for the headquarters was selected because it is centrally located, geographically, with respect to the lands of the refuge, accessible, both from the lands of the original refuge bordering the lake and the recently added sixty five thousand acres of the Blitzen Valley which extends thirty five miles south from the shores of the lake.

The site of the buildings is on the north slope of a low hill giving a fine view of the lake to the north and an abundant supply of water is furnished by Sod House Spring.”

 View of the CCC camp at refuge headquarters

In communities close to the camps, local purchases averaging about $5,000 monthly staved off failure of many small businesses. Each of the three Malheur Refuge camps sent trucks to Burns for food and other provisions at least weekly - if not daily. This, in addition to local hires, contributed about $15,000 per month to the Harney County economy. Skilled, local men were hired by the CCC and the Refuge to teach enrollees a variety of tasks, including carpentry, heavy equipment operation, surveying and concrete construction techniques. In addition to classes offered at the camps, the enrollees learned many life skills from these men in the course of their interactions and many used them to develop careers later in life. The Biological Survey, later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, selected work projects, while the Army ran the day to day operations of the camps.

“Of the incoming Company one hundred forty of the one hundred sixty here in camp were interviewed personally during November and invited to take part in camp classes, athletics, glee club, field trips, correspondence courses, and practical courses. One hundred two of our enrollees have never attended school beyond elementary level. Fifty four enrollees are educated to a high school level while two are on a college level.”

“Camp classes include arithmetic, spelling, writing, geometry, nature study, book keeping, clerical work, journalism, and typing. Practical subjects cover auto mechanics, bulldozing, masonry, building and bridge construction. We have nineteen enrollees taking correspondence courses. During November we had two field trips, one for geology and one for Refuge study. Three formal lectures were offered enrollees during November. We have a first aid class, a teacher training class and a glee club meeting each week.”
Camp Buena Vista, November 1936 Narrative

An impressive example of how enrollment in the CCC enriched the lives of many rural young men comes from the April 1937 Camp Five Mile Narrative:

“Leader Howard Archer, who has had 4 years continuous service in the CCC as junior enrollee, is going home to farm. He has saved his money, (earned while enrolled) and his parents have put aside a portion of their allotment to stock and equip the ranch. We are sure he will make a success of farming, especially if hard work has anything to do with it. Report has it the first shoes Archer ever wore he received after joining the CCC. We don’t like to lose Archer, but are very glad he has something better to do than when he “joined up.”

Construction materials could not always be purchased from local businesses, so these items were often manufactured by CCC enrollees on site or at other locations. The stone blocks used to construct the buildings at headquarters were quarried near Buena Vista Station, while the basalt used for the house at Buena Vista Station was transported from the Diamond Craters area. Willow stays, used for fence construction, were cut from many of the creeks in the Blitzen Valley. Procuring these materials often meant moving equipment and enrollees closer to the needed resources:

“A side camp, for the purpose of getting materials such as telephone poles, fence braces, fence staves, bridge piling, foot-bridge stringers and other timber products that will be needed for development of the Refuge, was established on June 7th at Ewing Springs in Malheur National Forest. At present there are 31 men at the side camp but this number will be increased to 49 as soon as enrollee replacements arrive at the main camp.” Camp Sod House Narrative, June 1938

Historic photo of CCC enrollees gathering rocks for a construction project

The three CCC camps on Malheur Refuge left behind an incredible legacy that remains today. Initial projects undertaken by the camps included fencing over 200 miles of the Refuge boundary; some of this fence is still in use today. Cattle guards were installed at all access points to the Refuge to prevent trespass by adjacent cattle. At refuge headquarters, work began on construction of four stone buildings (two residences, an office and a barn) to better manage the Refuge. The CCC also extended the telephone lines from the Narrows to refuge headquarters, and then on to the communities of Diamond and Frenchglen.

The telephone lines followed improved or new roads. Major portions of Highway 205 south of the Narrows were surveyed and constructed by enrollees from all three camps. This not only improved access to the camps and made transportation of materials more efficient, but enhanced the transportation network used by refuge neighbors. The enrollees also improved access to the community of Diamond as bridges were constructed across the Donner und Blitzen River. Along portions of the river channelized by the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company in the early part of the century, enrollees used dozers to sculpt the dredge piles into a network of roads that would traverse the center of the valley. Over 35 miles of road would provide access to the center of the refuge for better management of the newly acquired lands. Seven bridges were constructed by the CCC along this newly created Center Patrol Road.

As work progressed over the next seven years the CCC enrollees would construct five concrete diversion dams on the Donner und Blitzen River. Several of these dams replaced existing smaller wood structures left over from the ranching days. All five dams improved diversion of irrigation water along hundreds of miles of new or revamped irrigation ditches. Major diversion ditches, including the Buena Vista Canal, the East and West Canals, Ram Ditch and the Stubblefield Canal, increased the amount of water that could be diverted over a greater distance in the Blitzen Valley. Much of this water was directed to new ponds (the Buena Vista Ponds, Wrights Pond, the Knox Ponds, and Boca Lake) that were crafted from the valley floor.

As transportation improved across the refuge, the CCC also made significant improvements elsewhere on the Refuge. Two large shop buildings and a residence were constructed at Buena Vista Station to facilitate management of the north end of the valley. At the south end of the valley major renovations were made to Pete French’s White House to improve living conditions for new Refuge employees. Existing ranch buildings at the P Ranch were modified for new Refuge uses. An addition was also added to back of the Frenchglen Hotel, which became part of the Refuge with the purchase of the Blitzen Valley.

The improved access throughout the valley and better distribution of irrigation water led to increased public use. Four lookout towers were constructed in the last years of the CCC improvements. Two metal towers and two wood towers were placed at strategic locations across the valley for fire and wildlife observation. The most famous of these towers is the metal tower at P Ranch that is a favorite roost for scores of turkey vultures. The CCC was also responsible for early development of camping facilities at Page Springs Campground.

As the United States involvement in World War II loomed in the future, the CCC camps began closing on the Refuge. Young men who served with the CCC at Malheur would enlist in the armed forces and serve across the world as the war escalated. Many of the very skilled men from the camps would become civilian employees of the military and work under contract in many areas of the South Pacific. The final report made by the Sod House Camp commanders in May 1942 describes many of the improvements made by CCC enrollees on the refuge:

“Since the inception of the C.C.C. on the Malheur Refuge, there has been a great improvement made in the appearance of the area. Old fences obliterated and new ones constructed, several old buildings razed and a general cleanup made of the entire Refuge.

The construction work that has been done so far is, no doubt proving its worth as indicated by the increase of bird life from year to year. Nesting areas have been greatly improved by the better distribution of water, which is largely due to the construction of new canals and enlargement of the ones that were previously constructed, with control structures installed in the many places needed, also the dike program has greatly aided in the conserving of the water supply that some seasons is very limited.

There is still a considerable amount of development work to be done here to better facilitate the control of the water, such as the construction of dikes, water control structures and the opening of channels.”