04 July 2012

Civilian Conservation Corps stonework at Gooseberry Falls State Park (Minnesota)

As part of my ongoing project to blog the variety of stonework created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression,  I recently made a quick daytrip to the North Shore of Lake Superior to visit Gooseberry Falls State Park.  About halfway between the towns of Two Harbors and Silver Bay, the park is located where the Gooseberry River tumbles down to Lake Superior via a series of cascades. 

The photo above shows the "Upper Falls" just north and west of the highway.  I have visited the park many times, but most often in the dryness of midsummer; recent rains before this visit had swollen the river to an impressive degree.

When the Roosevelt administration set up the CCC, its prime directive was (as the name implies) conservation of farmland, water, and wildlife.  A secondary goal was to create recreational facilities nationwide (in part so that the non-farming citizenry could see a practical and enjoyable return for the government's expenditures).  Gooseberry Falls State Park provides a good example of recreational development.

In the 1930s, the very scenic North Shore of Lake Superior was just becoming accessible to the general public.  It had previously been used by industry (fur trade, iron ore, timber), but the completion of Highway 61 from Duluth to the Canadian border now gave the public access and kick-started the tourist industry in this region.

The highway crosses the river between the Upper Falls and the Middle Falls, shown here (modern bridge visible top left).  In 1933 the CCC was tasked with enhancing the tourist experience.
With the rise of North Shore tourism in the 1920s, there was a concern that the highly scenic North Shore would be accessible only to the rich. As a result the Legislature authorized preservation of the area around Gooseberry Falls in 1933. The following year, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began to develop the park. CCC crews built the park's stone and log buildings and the 300-foot long "Castle in the Park" stone retaining wall. They also laid out the original campground, picnic grounds and trails.
The largest project (and the one I'm focusing on today) is a feature variously referred to as "the wall" or "the castle."  Adjacent to the highway where it crosses the river, a "scenic overlook" was constructed, with a parking concourse for tourists' cars, including a stone retaining wall with a walking promenade.  Vehicle parking was later moved away from the highway into the park itself, but the wall remains.  Here's the southern end:

From this vantage point it's not any more remarkable than the thousands of other walls created by CCC stonemasons around the country.  At intervals the continuity of the wall is interrupted; I don't know why the holes are blocked with iron bars - presumably to keep rugrats from traversing the gap (?).

As you walk along the parapet, signage explains local geology and some details of the construction.  The wall was built between 1936 and 1940 and is 300 feet long, 15-25 feet high, and 12 feet wide at the base.  Stone was quarried locally, and the CCC enrollees were supervised by two Italian stonemasons.

I think the professionalism of the work is best exemplified by how tightly fitted the stones are.  After they were cut at the quarry and transported to the site, they were hand-cut to shape, and are not boringly-repetitive rectangular blocs; they are cut into a variety of polygons and sealed with comparatively modest amounts of cement:

After the 1930s-1950s visitor parked the car on the concourse, access to the Middle Falls was via this immense staircase:

After you reach the bottom of the stairs, the immense size of the wall can be better appreciated.  Again, what impresses me is the paucity of "small" blocks to fill the spaces between the large ones.  I suspect the stonemasons who supervised the city kids in the CCC had decades of experience building dry stone walls that would remain stable even without mortar.

Some of the blocks weigh over 7 tons apiece, and had to be lowered from the road above by a derrick (which had to be constructed by the camp blacksmith).

One final view, as I backed away from the wall, shows more of the fitted blocks, and why the wall is often likened to a "castle."

As one continues down the park trails toward the Middle and Lower Falls (and eventually down to Agate Beach), there is a modern statue honoring the young men who did the work:

These kids and young men (and some old men) were harvested from the unemployment lines of the cities, transported to barracks in farm and wilderness areas, fed and clothed, and spent every day building the infrastructure that we still enjoy.  I have immense respect for this program; in my view it was public relief ("welfare") done correctly.

Some final observations not related to the CCC.  A park employee snapped this photo of the Lower Falls on June 12, five days before I arrived.  By the time I arrived on the 18th, the river was considerably higher.  I spent a day at the park (and rockhounding on some nearby beaches) and would have spent another day, but the weather turned worse, with predictions of rain, so I headed back to Wisconsin. 

The day I left was the start of a historic deluge that many of you may have seen on the national news.  Duluth received 8" of rain (two months' worth) in that one storm, and the Two Harbors area by the park received about 10".  Here's how that rainfall affected the river.

Many roads and hiking trails in the area were obliterated by the floodwaters.  More photos of the North Shore flooding here.

I'll be back - hopefully later this summer, because there's lots more CCC stonework at the park to blog, including some spectacular buildings.  Further information is available in the Gooseberry Falls CCC Legacy self-guided tour.


  1. Great post, thanks for this. I really wish the powers that be still had the will to make beautiful and useful things to enrich the lives of the non-rich general public.

  2. Wow, that is truly beautiful stonework. I too wish that we had more programs like that right now, especially while our national parks are suffering for lack of attention.

    I wonder if the bars in the gaps were there to meet code about gap sizes in railings. When a railing has enough bars to prevent a kidlet from getting through, my guesstimate is that they're usually no further apart than six inches on center. From the photos it doesn't look like anything bigger than a purse dog could realistically get through those spots, but regulations may have called for an extra bar anyway.

  3. This series is great. I don't know the history of who built it, but parts of this look very much like the work done at Taughnock Falls State park near Trumansburg, NY where I grew up. Particularly the observation deck overlooking the Falls. Which, by the way is the highest straight drop falls east of the Rockies.I presume it is also a CCC project.

    1. Apparently you presumed correctly:

      "Legend tells us the falls were named for the chief of an invading Delaware tribe. Taughannock, the story goes, was killed by the resident Cayuga Indians and his body tossed over the falls.

      The state park was created in 1925 and the Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the infrastructure in the 1930s."

  4. Absolutely lovely pictures.

    Creating that wall, parapet, etc must have been a mammoth task.

  5. I believe that my grandfather mentioned that my great-grandfather worked for the CCC here in Alabama. I'm going to investigate and see, but I believe he worked on some projects here in Noccalula Falls Park.

  6. This is my first visit to your blog, and I find that you have answered a question that nagged me all week: what has the recent flood/rain done to Gooseberry Falls? On a Scout trip in the 1980s we spent an afternoon climbing those rocky outcroppings in the middle of the falls, and I have been fond of them ever since. And I didn't even know about that beautiful stonework! Keep up the good work.

  7. Some of the CCC projects were continued by conscientious objectors during WWII under Civilian Public Service (CPS). Good historical overview and searchable databases of camps, projects, and people can be found here: http://civilianpublicservice.org/.

  8. http://vimeo.com/44517911

    This link is to a video of The Swinging Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park. It was built by the CCC in the late 30s.

    That storm was pretty amazing and there are still two pickup trucks stuck inside of the park since it is still cut off due to the flooding.

  9. If only our current leaders were so forward thinking. These kinds of projects (but more basic infrastructure related, roads/schools etc.) should have been started as soon as the economy tanked, lots of workers, but no jobs, and the cheapest rates ever. Sigh.

  10. Beautiful stonework. The falls aren't bad, either.

  11. these projects gave me endless hours of joy as a child, growing up with many CCC projects in New England as i had. Even then as a child the craftsmanship was totally apparent amd seemed to just suit the environment of course given the source of materials..

  12. What a construction! Looks fabulous. It is likely the steel bars are inserted for reinforcement.

  13. It's amazing how many CCC projects surround us. Most people have no idea who built the many parts of our national, state, and local parks.
    I wish the legislature of today could see fit to employ those who are our of work, and at the same time provide for our well being and enjoyment for many years to come.


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