Colorado still enjoys fruit of bleak era
Rocky Mountain News
Nature gave us Red Rocks.
But more than 70 years ago, it was the hard-working young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the New Deal laborers of the Works Progress Administration who transformed an edge of the Rockies into a performance stage known around the world.
They blasted the boulders, smoothed the slope, installed the seats and gave Colorado its keynote New Deal public works project ” a jewel that flourishes to this day.
Past is prologue, particularly in these difficult times. Against the backdrop of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, President-elect Barack Obama is pushing for an $800 billion economic stimulus package that includes a huge chunk of funding for public works.
While Obama’s plan could dwarf the New Deal in actual dollars, it may never equal the scope of what Depression-era workers, artists and engineers bequeathed to America ” and in particular, Colorado.
The legacy left to all Coloradans from that massive push seven decades ago survives not only in the imposing presence of Red Rocks Amphitheater but in hundreds of lesser-known, even overlooked, facilities that have woven themselves unobtrusively into the fabric of 21st-century life.
Any time you …
… unpack your picnic lunch in the sturdy stone pavilion of Genesee Park;
… mail a letter under the painting in the South Denver branch post office;
… attend an IMAX film in the Phipps Auditorium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science;
… drink the tap water in the high eastern plains town of Yuma;
… take your kids to watch the bighorns climb Sheep Mountain at the Denver Zoo …
… walk over the arched bridge at the lake in Pueblo’s Mineral Palace Park;
… use the warming hut at Evergreen Lake;
…watch kids play basketball on the hardwood floor of the Holly Gymnasium in far southeastern Colorado;
… take in the view at the Coke Ovens Overlook in the Colorado National Monument …
… eat produce from the farms of Weld County;
… tee off at Pueblo’s Elmwood Golf Course;
… gaze at the colorful mural in the Littleton City Council chambers;
… thumb through the file cards at the Denver Public Library indexing the names mentioned in the first 75 years of the Rocky Mountain News.
Each time you’ve done any of these things you are a beneficiary of projects, big and small, left to the state by the hardy workers of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s myriad “alphabet agencies” of the New Deal.
“I was always amazed when I was going traveling around the state as governor when I kept seeing how much they did and how permanent the structures appeared to be,” said Roy Romer, who served three terms as governor from 1987 to 1999.
Romer, 80, grew up in Holly and remembers well the yellow stone walls and hardwood floor of the town gym. The 1938 WPA building is still used by townfolk. The old Holly City Hall, built by the WPA in 1936, is being renovated into a museum, said Candy Plummer, a town administrative assistant.
“I just remember the Holly gym so well as a child,” Romer said. “I used to wrastle and play basketball in that gym. It was bare-bones with no frills.”
The New Deal’s imprint on Colorado wasn’t just felt above ground. Sewer systems, disposal plants and water filtration plants were built in places as large as Denver and as small as Cheyenne Wells.
“There was just an immeasurable impact on public health,” said Stephen Leonard, a history professor at Metro State College and author of Trials and Triumphs: A Colorado Portrait of the Great Depression.
The raw sewage of a quarter million people dumped into the South Platte River in Denver was sickening men, women and children downstream in Greeley and beyond. Death rates from diarrhea and enteritis dropped after Denver’s Northside Treatment Plant opened in 1939.
WPA work at Lowry Field made it the training base through which countless soldiers and fliers passed during World War II. Many of those same troops fed Colorado’s boom when they returned to live in the state they’d come to love.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s ambitious Colorado-Big Thompson project, born and funded in the Depression, brought together north Front Range and Colorado Basin interests to build water storage on the Western Slope at Green Mountain Reservoir while diverting California- bound water to Larimer, Weld and other eastern plains farming communities.
Water flowed through dozens of canals to irrigate the farms along the South Platte.
At the same time, road building ratcheted up to help get that produce to market.
The Works Progress Administration ” renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939 ” built or improved 9,400 miles of roads, 3,400 bridges and viaducts and 21,000 culverts.
Entering the 1930s with only 500 miles of paved roads, Colorado ended the decade with more than 4,000.
For 97-year-old Leroy Lewis, of Grand Junction, the Roosevelt approach to stimulating the nation’s economy out of the Depression did more than provide work for this son of a foreclosed Rogers Mesa rancher.
“It changed my life,” said Lewis.
At 21, he signed on to the CCC in the first group assigned to the Colorado National Monument, where the breathtaking 23-mile Rim Rock Drive was under construction along the cliffsides winding through sandstone canyons.
Lewis, whose parents lost most of their 120-acre ranch in the economic collapse that began in late 1929, worked a few weeks on a survey crew ” hammering stakes into solid rock, before a supervisor noticed him typing out paperwork on a homestead claim and immediately put him on clerical duties.
Lewis was there the day one of the greatest tragedies struck the entire program.
On Dec. 12, 1933, shortly after a blast had been set off to loosen rock where Rim Rock Drive was being chiseled into the face of a cliff, a slab of rock broke off.
Nine WPA workers were in its path. Three jumped to their deaths off the sheer 300-foot cliff in an attempt to escape while the other six were crushed to death.
Lewis was at the CCC camp office when word came in.
“They called up and said the cliff had slipped off,” he recalled.
“We had an ambulance, but the driver was out, so they asked me to drive the ambulance over,” he said.
He couldn’t get to the site because of the rockfall.
Eight of the workers were from the Glade Park Community west of the monument, the other from Fruita.
Joan Anzelmo, the National Park Services’ superintendent at the monument today, said a plaque at the visitors’ center commemorates those men.
“There are still families in the valley who had loved ones lost in that accident,” she said.
“All of us who know Rim Rock Drive believe it is nearly a near miracle that it was ever built,” said Anzelmo.
“The CCC worked against all those odds, with hand tools ” it’s incredible. A road like this would never be built today. It would be too costly, too impactful to the environment and too unsafe.
“I find Rim Rock Drive darn death-defying,” he said.
But the workmanship, such as that at Red Rocks, the Holly Gym, the Sedgwick County Courthouse and Genesee Park, was sturdy and strong.
Strong enough to far outlast the Great Depression.