The legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps members who enabled access to West Virginia’s most treasured natural resources can still be seen across the state.

West Virginia is a state blessed with raw beauty and numerous opportunities to get outdoors, and it’s easy to take this access to natural abundance for granted. But it was less than a century ago that thousands of young men established the precedent of conservation that has allowed future generations to enjoy the state’s natural resources. Nicknamed The Tree Army, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted millions of trees in blighted and timbered forests, creating many of the lush landscapes viewed from overlooks today. They built roads, footbridges, and trails and erected buildings that still welcome visitors to state parks, forests, and 4-H camps.

For many who grew up visiting these places, the classic chestnut-sheathed buildings accented with towering sandstone chimneys are an accepted feature of the state’s most notable landscapes, as natural as thickets of rhododendron or craggy outcroppings. “I’ve associated those log cabins with state parks all my life,” says Watoga State Park Superintendent Mark Wylie. “As a small kid, we always went to state parks and I remember that everything was always brown.”

Few records of CCC plans have been collected, but the quality of CCC structures can be seen across the state’s many outdoor recreation areas like Cabwaylingo State Forest and Hawks Nest State Park.

Wylie, who served as superintendent of Babcock State Park before his tenure at Watoga, has a deep appreciation for the style and stories behind the network of trails and buildings constructed by the CCC. Created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a solution to sky-high unemployment rates during the Great Depression, CCC enrollees in West Virginia were tasked with projects in newly acquired land protected by the state. “They did all kinds of marvelous work. It’s more than just cabins. They built rock walls, the roads, all of the trails. They basically started the parks system,” Wylie says.

With one of the largest collections of CCC buildings in the state, plus a museum commemorating the corps’ efforts, Watoga is a prime example of the legacy of conservation and recreation created by the federal work relief program. Between 1933 and 1937, hundreds of CCC enrollees assigned to three camps scattered across more than 10,000 acres in Pocahontas County were tasked with transforming the wild Appalachian forest into Watoga State Park. Under the oversight of the U.S. military and the National Park Service, the young men laid miles of trails and roads and erected park administration buildings and 24 cabins before the park officially opened to the public in July 1937. But when the first enrollees arrived at Camp Watoga in June 1933, the only thing greeting them was a sea of tents.

The young men, between the ages of 18 and 25 and all essentially unskilled, built their own barracks while they trained under a crew of experienced carpenters, blacksmiths, and stonemasons.

Once the men were ready to practice their newly learned trades, the National Park Service provided a template for construction. Specially designed for each location while incorporating the rustic characteristics of vernacular architecture, the template was disseminated in national parks across the country. The men were directed to avoid hard, straight lines and modern, sophisticated silhouettes in favor of colors, materials, and proportions that complemented the surrounding landscape.

The buildings harken to the rugged settlement-era cabins that once dotted the West Virginia frontier and, like the early mountaineers who established homes in the untamed environment, CCC enrollees relied on nearby sources of material. Three quarries located throughout the park offered an abundance of sandstone, while recently blighted stands of some of Appalachia’s last American chestnuts supplied hard, straight, rot-resistant lumber. “The quality of workmanship is so much higher than it is in some of the newer buildings you see today,” Wylie says of the cabins, which stand solid more than 75 years later.

That caliber of craftsmanship is evident today in the overlooks, shelters, cabins, and lodges still standing at Babcock, Cacapon Resort, Droop Mountain Battlefield, Hawks Nest, Holly River, and Lost River state parks as well as Cabwaylingo, Coopers Rock, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Kumbabrow, and Seneca state forests. Robert Beanblossom, district administrator for the parks and recreation section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, attributes the longevity of the work to the local men who trained and supervised the enrollees. He notes the influence of skilled Italian stonemasons, originally drawn across the Atlantic Ocean by coal companies developing camps and communities in the 1910s and 1920s, in the intricate stonework seen in CCC work around the stateโ€”like the superintendent’s residence at Cabwaylingo buttressed by stacks of sandstone and the round, tower-esque restroom facility at the top of Hawks Nest’s sloping hills.

The next time you visit a state recreation area search for the little details like stacked stone chimneys that mark structures as CCC.

Quality is only one of the hallmarks of the work completed by CCC enrollees. The structures may blend into the natural environment, but their aesthetic appeal stands on its own. “These kids had an eye for beauty,” Beanblossom says. The National Park Service drew detailed, place-specific plans for all projects, taking into account the character and topography of each location, but Beanblossom has a theory that enrollees took some creative liberties. The picnic shelter at Hawks Nest, a onestory, open-faced structure featuring an arched fireplace decorated with fan and flower designs, is an example. “I’ve looked at the shelter at Hawks Nest numerous times, and I’m convinced they just improvised and built as they went along,” Beanblossom says. “The work is still outstanding, but I think they just said, รขโ‚ฌหœHey, this looks good. Let’s try this.'” Only a few surviving blueprints and plans used by the CCC are housed at the state archives, leaving Beanblossom’s theory one of history’s mysteries.

The beauty of the buildings, improvised or not, and the role they played in developing the state’s burgeoning parks system motivated the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to pursue formal protection and recognition of the sites. Hawks Nest, Holly River, Lost River, and Watoga state parks were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 for their outstanding examples of CCC construction. “It’s something our office recognized as a treasure for our state,” says Susan Pierce, SHPO director. “The emphasis on horizontal form, the harmonious combination of colors that evoked the colors in landscape, the hand-crafted elements: It’s art. It’s beautiful and it’s worthy of preservation.”

Like the SHPO, the West Virginia State CCC Museum Association, operating out of Harrison County, shines a spotlight on the significance of the structures and the stories of the men who built them. Richard Bailey, secretary of the association, views the buildings as a testament to a program with long-lasting benefits within and beyond the state’s borders. “You see their evidence everywhere. It’s just amazing what they did,” he says. The organization hosts reunions twice a year, at the museum in Quiet Dell near Mount Clare and at various state parks, where the last living enrollees, now in their 90s, are honored with recognition and awards.

Bailey says he is motivated by a concern that many people don’t realize the significance or scope of the contribution of the young men who served in the CCC. The program groomed a generation who came of age during the worst economic depression the country has known, providing them with an income and skills. They developed park infrastructure across the country and in West Virginia. The approaches used today to conserve and provide recreational access to the state’s natural resources are informed by the work they did decades ago. “It’s so important, and a lot of people don’t even know what it is,” Bailey says. “Everywhere you go across the country, you’ll see what they did. They saved the United States.”

This story was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.