12 November 2011

Civilian Conservation Corps stonework at Devil's Lake State Park

This is the second installment in what I plan as a long-term survey of stonework created by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  In October my wife and I drove up to Devil's Lake State Park (the one in Wisconsin) to enjoy the foliage and to hike some of the trails.  After getting back, I eventually obtained from the library an excellent book entitled Devil's Lake Wisconsin and the Civilian Conservation Corps, by Robert J. Moore.  The embedded quotes below are from this book.

My first photos are of the administrative building (where a plaque embedded in bicolored stone notes the park's 100-year anniversary).  The stonework is typical of what I have seen at other state and national park buildings in that the stones are not squared off into regular rectangles, but rather kept near their original shape, chiseled just enough to allow them to be fitted together.  The color of the stone reflects the local geology.
"In accordance with National Park Service master plans, the new building... was designed to fit with the natural surroundings as closely as possible.  Crucial to fulfilling that idea was the search for construction materials that were native to the Baraboo Hills.  At the top of the construction list was attractive building stone... The stone would come mostly from the previously abandoned quartzite works...

The most practical challenge for the young men was to safely remove the stone from the quarry.  Next, they used chisels to shape and bring out the brilliance and color hues of the stone.  Quartzite is beautiful but also a hard type of tightly compacted sandstone, so considerable work was necessary to shape the pieces after they were taken from the quarry pit... [stone of other colors was obtained from other quarries]... Winter made the use of sleds to move stone blocks from the quarry a very practical option...
Stone masonry, even using the rustic standards of the NPS, was a challenging job... At the quarry, enrollees would use picks, chains and winches (but no explosives) to break off and select just the right size boulders... Once the rocks made their way to the job site, they would be individually placed on benches at single workstations.  Dozens of CCC boys spent many hours standing at the benches and shaping quartzite blocks using a hammer and chisel.  Their work required long hours of standing, sweating and sculpting flat surfaces so the stone could be dropped into a prearranged yet natural-looking slot in the building wall...

While long rectangular blocks were meticulously measured and shaped for use in windowsills and door thresholds, the rustic style allowed for deliberate imperfections elsewhere.  The color nuances of the rock used in construction at the park were both a pleasant coincidence and an opportunity for creative expression... Shades of medium brown, gray and especially the distinctive pink and deep lavender of the quartzite at Devil's Lake are all present in the building walls... 
Here's another administrative building which I passed on our way out of the park.  Couldn't get over for close-up photos, but it is impressive just re the size of the building and the amount of stonework required for its completion.
As attractive as the building exteriors are, you can see some evidence from the masonry that these were amateurs and trainees, not experienced stonemasons.  The CCC did hire "local experienced men" (LEMs) to supervise masonry and construction work and to train the boys in the skills.  (Their hiring also helped quell fear in local communities that crews of CCC boys would steal jobs from local people during these recession years).  On arrival at the CCC camps, the boys typically had no relevant job skills.  By the time they left the CCC they could get work in the private sector doing stonework, or carpentry, or auto mechanics or cooks or whatever.

But re the stonework itself, compare the width of the mortar in the second photo above (perhaps an inch thick in many places) with that of this column which I found along a hiking trail:
It's an attractive piece of work which presumably held some sort of light or lantern when it was built.  It now sits unused and ignored along a back trail, but to my eyes it gives testament to the craftsmanship of some of the workers.  Note the very tight fit of the stones, plus the fact that about half of them are corner stones requiring shaping on multiple sides.  These were meticulously fitted together, either by experienced stonemasons, or boys at the end of their training, or just a crew with a lot of time to devote to this feature.

I want to move on now to the trail work, which at most parks just involves landscaping, but at Devil's Lake required some truly impressive stonework.

The park is characterized by some geologic features somewhat unusual for Wisconsin, including steep cliffs with a slope of talus (French etymology) (or "scree" if you prefer a word derived from Old Norse) beneath. 
It was hard for me to get a proper photo because I couldn't back off enough, but any reader who has visited mountains will understand the setting.  It's basically an enormous jumble of immense irregular boulders.  We looked at it and thought about these crews of young boys being told their task and probably wondering "They want up to put a trail through THAT?"
They did exactly that.  When you get to the edge where the woods meets the talus slope, a series of stepping stones leads you upward.  This is the beginning of the Balanced Rock Trail.
In keeping with NPS guidelines and approval by the State of Wisconsin, trail work in the park using heavy machinery or motorized equipment was prohibited... The way it usually worked was that a crew of about six would be assigned a section of trail.  A LEM went along at first to make sure proper safety procedures were followed.  Enrollees were allowed to use winches, steel leverage rods and chains to get the job done...

The Balanced Rock Trail is a good place to see remnants of CCC work.  Beginning near the southeast shore, it switch-backed up the south face of the bluff, first through a small stand of timber and then sharply up through the pink quartzite talus field with its enormous boulders... Chipping was sometimes necessary to create a flat surface before a stone could be placed.  They wielded huge boulders of quartzite, requiring lifting by two or more men, and carefully placed them on the trail, making sure they were aligned with the previous stones so hikers could more easily step up... 
There are places during the switchbacks where the trail levels off:
Some type of fill has been added here; I thought the CCC did it, but it may be a later addition:
The steps themselves are universally, and by necessity uneven in width and height from one to the next and in places are often only wide enough for one person at a time to pass.  The NPS master plan suggested stone placement without mortar, although some segments were cemented in later years by state park workers as a safety measure.  
On behalf of thousand of older folks still trying to navigate rustic trails, I'd like to express my appreciation to the National Park Service for the later improvements.  But after a while the path switches back and climbs again:
The CCC boys built no handrails, nor did they install ropes lines or put in trailside benches... The primitive trail construction features were deliberate in an effort to create a minimal impact on the land... A person standing on the southeast shore of the lake looking directly at the south talus rock field a few hundred feet away will not see a trail - only a tumbled mass of boulders frozen in place on the cliff side. 
On the day we visited, fallen leaves and pine needles combined with a light rain (and the absence of railings) made the rocks a little too slippery for us, so I don't have photos continuing on to the top.  But I think the quality of the stonework is apparent.
We turned back to enjoy the woodland trails and the autumn foliage.  Perhaps next summer I can return to photograph some of the culverts, bridges, and other stonework produced by the CCC,


  1. One of my favorite places to hike in central Wisconsin. It is particularly lovely in the fall.

    Interesting to learn how the trails were created. They are very impressive in any circumstance, but even more so with the information it was done by hand.

  2. Wyalusing next? Great "parkatecture" there too.

  3. My paternal grandfather was in the civilian conservation corps. He was from Ohio, but ended up in Wyoming working on reforestation projects. He was in his early 20's, and I know that he always remembered his time with the CCC fondly. Once when I was on a family vacation in the early 90's, my parents saw a book on the CCC at a National Park gift shop, and later regretted not buying it, so they called up the park and ordered a copy to be shipped to my grandpa for Christmas. Grandpa had tears in his eyes that Christmas when he opened it. I think it was this book: http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Army-Pictorial-Conservation-1933-1942/dp/0933126115/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1321136836&sr=8-3 .

  4. Anonymous, if you'd like some additional insight into your grandfather's life, the PBS "American Experience" program on the CCC is excellent -


  5. Very impressive, M'Stan. It's a shame the artistry of those CCC guys isn't better known. Thanks for letting us in on it.

    --Swift Loris

  6. Two things re: the CCC. First there is a park in Madison that was improved by the CCC. Secondly is the fact that today we have no way of knowing what lies covered by the cement, and so that the inch thick concrete you mentioned may be covering rough cut stones touching or nearly touching each other to save time.

    Who knows.

  7. DaBris, the work that I know about here in Dane County is that which was done at the UW Arboretum. The most visible accomplishment was the creation of Curtis Prairie (a native tallgrass prairie) by transplanting sections of sod from around the state. The story of the project is here -


    - but I haven't blogged it because of the absence of stonework.

    Re the second point, I may have misled you by talking about "cement." I should have used the word "mortar," which would be more appropriate for masonry applications. I doubt the mortar has been changed in the building walls. Text fixed. Tx.

  8. Looking an the stone base with the very closely fitting stones I can tell you that the origional master mason who taught the mason who taught the CCCs was probably French and from the North east part of France.

  9. Every CCC project I find across the country has this same amazing craftsmanship and connectedness to location with the selection of materials. I often wish we had a new CCC for America to continue the work that our grandfathers and grandmothers have given us.

  10. I too marvel at the craftsmanship and beauty of what the CCC accomplished and what still remains in our state and national parks. Thank you for posting these pictures of the CCC stonework and artistic touches.
    I am researching another aspect of the CCC which is the artists who were commissioned by the government to make a pictorial record of the CCC - their work and activities within the camps. Artists were sent to some of Wisc and Minn camps you blogged about earlier.
    Frank J. Unger, CCC artist, was at the Devils Lake CCC camp in 1935and was inspired by the scenic beauty of the lake and "the three towering bluffs that surround it". He was also moved by what he described as: "the unlimited opportunity both for the rehabilitation for land and forest but also for the development of a firm and, sturdy youth". What became of his oils and sketches of Devils Lake is a mystery.


  11. The craftsmenship that will continue to treat generations. THAT is how you invest in the unemployed masses. The beauty depicted here only makes me more sick to think what we will have to show the future generations that ask, 'Please show me what you spent all of that money on'.
    then again, I won't have to answer - I probably won't know the language har har

  12. Nice post, good blog. thanks.


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