Sep. 18—America's 20th-century "tree army" brought generations of citizens closer to nature's wonders while enduring the nation's greatest economic plight.
If the political winds are favorable, new recruits might get the chance to repeat that effort during the current health crisis.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and the National Wildlife Federation are proposing the creation of a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps to conserve and restore environmentally challenged sites while putting to work people who have been idled by the covid-19 pandemic.
The REVIVE the CCC bill, sponsored by Casey, is inspired by the original Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which provided jobs for about 3 million unemployed men during the Great Depression. Among them were 194,500 Pennsylvania residents.
Their efforts included constructing trails, roads and shelters in more than 800 parks across the country.
Many of those park improvements still are in use today, including 10 cabins that can be rented at Linn Run State Park, a 612-acre destination for outdoor recreation in Cook and Ligonier townships.
Off Linn Run Road, near the park office, the structures of wood and stone were built to last. With some updates through the years and regular maintenance by park staff, they've remained popular with visitors.
Park manager Corey Snyder noted an interior bathroom was added to one of the cabins, which was modified to comply with handicapped-accessible standards. Each cabin was furnished with basic modern appliances and fitted with an interior fireplace insert to improve heating. Outdoor fireplaces have been closed off for safety's sake.
"We repaint those inserts to keep them jet black," said Snyder. The five-man maintenance crew, which is responsible for two additional neighboring parks, also has refinished the wood floors in several cabins.
"They get a lot of heavy use," he said. "We want to make what's original last."
The more rustic cabins are served by a modern wash house with showers and flush toilets.
"It's a balancing act," Snyder said. "You want to make the cabins as accessible as you can, but some feel that the more amenities you add, it may take away from the charm."
The CCC cabins were designed in accordance with an architectural philosophy espoused by the National Park Service, calling for use of local, natural materials and placement of structures so they blend in with the surrounding environment.
But the cabins at Linn Run weren't cookie-cutter constructions. "They sleep from two to eight people," Snyder said. "It varies from cabin to cabin. They're all a little different."
Fishing and autumn leaf peeping are among activities that draw visitors to the Linn Run cabins, according to Snyder.
"We've always had a very high reservation rate," he said. "Linn Run, a tremendous trout stream, runs right next to the cabins. It's stocked three times per year."
Also located within the park's cabin colony are two small bridges of stone and mortar constructed by CCC workers.
"Everything is in the same area, which made moving supplies and material much easier," Snyder said of the Linn Run CCC projects.
'Roosevelt's tree army'
While working on projects, CCC crews stayed at park-based camps. Pennsylvania had 151 of those camps, second only to California among U.S. states.
Three of those camps remain available at Laurel Hill State Park in Somerset County, to be reserved by groups during the warm-weather season. With about 200 structures, Laurel Hill boasts the largest collection of intact CCC architecture in the state park system.
"They're pretty rustic," Kimberly Peck, environmental education specialist at the park, said of the camps, which each feature central dining and recreation halls and accommodations for 100 or more, either in cabins or barracks-style buildings.
"People that have rented them get the opportunity to rent them again," she said, pointing out park guests must provide their own sleeping gear.
"We do have to do some things to renovate them," she said of the CCC buildings. "There are new roofs on a lot of them."
Another of the park's camp structures, adorned with images of the CCC era, was transformed into a space for educational programs and special events. It's name, Camp Tree Army, reveals a CCC influence.
"The CCC was known as Roosevelt's tree army," Peck explained.
Laurel Hill, covering 4,062 acres, was one of five Recreational Demonstration Areas in Pennsylvania that received attention from CCC crews and were transformed into state parks. About 400 young men arrived in July 1935 and constructed such features as picnic areas, stone drinking fountains, roads, Laurel Hill Lake and the beach house.
The park offices at Laurel Hill and nearby Kooser State Park are both wood-and-stone CCC constructions that have gained more modern additions.
'A pretty special place'
Kooser, situated on 250 acres, is home to nine CCC-created cabins that can be rented by visitors.
"Some are log, and some are wood-sided structures," Peck said. "Each is different."
"Jones Mill Run Dam is the most famous piece of CCC architecture we have," Peck said. Originally constructed to provide a water supply for the CCC workers at Laurel Hill, it now is noted for its photogenic waterfall and for the wildlife it supports.
"It's become a pretty special place for the habitat it provides," she said.
In addition to the photos at Camp Tree Army, Laurel Hill pays tribute to its CCC roots with a blue-and-gold historic marker, recently installed at the park entrance by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Near the park's visitor center, a keystone-shaped plaza surrounds a monument featuring a bronze statue that represents a CCC worker.
"You will find that monument nationwide," Peck said."We're honored to be one of the locations that have it."
Remains of other CCC camps are in evidence in portions of Forbes State Forest, which is spread across 59,000 acres in Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties.
One of the camps was located in the forest's Blue Hole Division, off Fall Run Road in Middlecreek, Somerset County.
Rachael Mahony, environmental education specialist with Forbes State Forest, noted one building stands that has been used by Scouting groups.
"Everything else was demolished in the 1970s," she said. "It wasn't being maintained."
Other CCC remnants are in Forbes' Mt. Davis Division, in southern Somerset County.
"There's a picnic pavilion that was constructed by the CCC," Mahony said.
One CCC building had been occupied by a wood shop but now is used for storage.
"We installed some interpretive panels a few years ago," she said.
Visit dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/History for more information about the history of Pennsylvania's state parks and CCC projects in the state. Cabins can be reserved by visiting visitPAparks.com or by calling 888-727-2757.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .