The CCC steps in

by Tom Johnson


In 1928, Myron Avery’s band of wilderness warriors pushed into what would soon become a national park, less than a year after PATC had been officially established.  Their trails generally consisted simply of selecting a route, lopping branches, painting blazes, and moving on.  There was no time to do tread work. 

Although Shenandoah National Park was not formally opened by President Roosevelt until 1935, the federal government was tentatively moving into the territory that Congress had designated for the new Shenandoah National Park as early as 1932.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the first acts by the new President in 1933, and the first two CCC camps in the nation were established for the park, outside of Edinburg, Virginia, and at Big Meadows, in what would become the central district.

With Avery’s encouragement, the CCC began building a new Appalachian Trail through the Park.  The construction of Skyline Drive forced the movement of Avery’s route in many places, and in other cases, it was simply done as a new, and better, route.  The new trail was loudly praised by Avery and his lieutenants.   The type of trail they built would be very familiar to PATC volunteers today.


CCC boys work on trail
The CCC boys build the new trail


With the resource of hundreds of able-bodied young men, well fed (often for the first time) by the government, they built a trail that PATC could only have dreamed of.  The photo below shows the trail from US 211 (Thornton Gap) to Mary’s Rock.  Notice the crib walls supporting a route on very steep terrain.  That section, which is still in place today (documenting the durability of CCC trails), is characterized by crib walls.  You can still see those same crib walls today.


Mary’s Rock section of the Appalachian Trail

On flatter stretches, the CCC trails were easily hiked.  Not all sections were this easy, but this construction was typical of CCC trails in Shenandoah National Park.


The AT south of Thornton Gap, 1939


The new trail, which was then termed a “graded trail,” was originated by a New Englander, Rayner Edmands.  At the time, trails in New England were steep and rocky, and very difficult to hike (as they tend to be even today).  The founders of AMC (the Appalachian Mountain Club, the nation’s first trail club) were mostly Harvard and MIT professors, who prided themselves on their ability to hike difficult trails.  But Edmands pioneered the concept of a trail built down to mineral soil, gradually switchbacked up mountains to ease the difficulty of climbing.  AMC never acceded to the graded trail, but the CCC did.  Avery’s lieutenant,,Laurance Schmeckebier, praised the new trail.  “Perhaps we are getting old, but we do not consider it essential to a true trail to have to step from rock to rock over every fallen log, or to scramble down a talus slope, watching the ground all the while to avoid falls, or a sprained ankle or broken leg.”  PATC today would say Amen.

About this Article

This is another in an occasional series of glimpses at PATC history by club archivist and former president, Tom Johnson. Tom is currently working on a book about the history of the Appalachian Trail. The photos on this page come from a recent club acquisition.