The Great Depression & the great outdoors.

While travelling along the very scenic highway 12 in south-west Utah we stopped for lunch at the small town of Escalante. In the restaurant was an unattributed list of the 15 best drives in the world. US highway 12 between Panguitch and Torrey was ranked as the second best drive scenic drive in the world but guess what was ranked number one? The Milford road in New Zealand. After pausing for a moment to feel a pulse of pride I realised that both of these roads had been built by work schemes during the Great Depression and wondered how much tourism and public access in both countries owes to the Great Depression? In the US it appears that it is quite a lot.


Water tower at Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada, built by the CCC.

During the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a public work relief programme. To sign-up men had to be between the ages of 17 & 28, be unmarried and from families receiving government relief. They fought forest fires, planted trees and built roads, trails and recreation facilities on public lands. For this they were paid $30 a month and had to send $25 of that home to their families. Part of what is now US highway 12, connecting the then remote towns of Escalante and Boulder, was built by the CCC between 1935 and 1940. The road travels through an amazing landscape of mostly solid rock and required enormous effort, ingenuity and ‘tons of dynamite.’ The men who worked on it nick-named it the ‘Million Dollar Road.’


Eddie at a scenic overlook on highway 12 - the road snakes away into the distance

Esclante’s economy was initially based on farming but by 1910 the native grasses were ‘gone forever’ due to overgrazing. Interest then turned to mining and logging but these industries came to a close with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (the country’s largest outside of Alaska) in 1996. Locals were furious and public ‘hangings’ of Clinton were carried out but the town seems to have settled into providing services for visitors. We were a little startled to see a ranger fully armed and wearing a flak jacket at the Monument visitor centre so perhaps things are not quite as calm as they seem?


A viewpoint built by CCC along the North Rim of Grand Canyon - no doubt without today's safety measures


A view from the North Rim of Grand Canyon

At many of the state parks, national monuments and national parks that we’ve gone to we’ve seen some amazing work done by these men under what must have been pretty tough working conditions. Although they probably wouldn’t be built today, given that we tend not to dynamite and concrete things in national parks, the tunnels and switchbacks at Bryce Canyon National Park, for example, give access to the wonderland of hoodoos and spires below the rim and really enhanced our experience of the park.


A tunnel on the Peekaboo Trail at Bryce Canyon


One of the two switchbacks that provide access down the near vertical descent below the rim.

At the wonderful Colorado National Monument, which really is a park that you drive around, the road which affords tourists such fantastic views was built by the CCC. The road climbs up from the plains below via switchbacks and tunnels and then hugs the edge of cliffs until it descends again at the other end of the park.

The work was not done without significant human cost though and this is acknowledged at Colorado National Monument with a panel (shown below) detailing the deaths of nine men in a single accident. Again, this has echoes of the Milford Road.


It is hard not to be impressed with what has been achieved and be glad, that although this work probably wouldn’t be undertaken today, that it was done. Mostly the work as been done sympathetically using local materials and has provided access to many scenic wonders. The ease of access has created its own problems though and I think it is a good thing that no more roads and structures are being built. There is still wilderness here for people who are willing to make the effort to get to it.

About Julia Bradshaw

Historian and writer living in Hokitika, New Zealand. Special interests are the goldrushes, the West Coast of New Zealand, crime and the stories of women and Chinese on the goldfields. Also keen on tramping (hiking) and involved in the Mt Brown Hut Community Project.
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