On the Trail of the New Deal in Yosemite National Park

Tuolumne Meadows Mess Hall, 1934

Tuolumne Meadows Mess Hall, 1934
An example of the “parkarchitecture” of the 1930s, the CCC used native materials to blend with the surrounding environment.
Photo Credit: The Living New Deal

Beginning in 1942, when I was a year-and-a-half old, and for years thereafter, I would spend all summer with my parents in Tuolumne Meadows in the upper reaches of Yosemite National Park. I didn’t know until four decades later that not far from our campground, hidden among the trees, was a mess hall built in 1934 by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). There, CCC workers would relax and refuel between shifts on New Deal projects that made the park’s High Country hospitable to families such as ours.

Upon taking office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order expanding and consolidating the nation’s disparate portfolio of parks under a single agency, the National Park Service. He singled out Yosemite as the New Deal’s “showcase for national park values.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt at Yosemite

Eleanor Roosevelt at Yosemite
The First Lady poses with CCC boys at the Wawona Hotel.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Yosemite Research Library

Park officials jumped at the opportunities that designation implied. Resources flowed. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes visited Yosemite. So did Eleanor Roosevelt, in a parade of Studebakers. FDR himself arrived in July 1938, touring in the back seat of an open convertible. Watch a newsreel clip of FDR’s 1938 visit to Yosemite

Today’s visitors to Yosemite who know what to look for can spot the New Deal’s legacy almost everywhere.

The 45-mile-long Tioga Road was the first project in Yosemite that put New Deal relief programs to work. Crews from the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Bureau of Public Roads took on the reconstruction and realignment of the highest mountain highway in California. A particular challenge involved constructing a bridge over the Tuolumne River. It took until 1961 to finish the Tioga Road project.

Setting cables on Half Dome.

Setting cables on Half Dome.
The climbing cables, originally installed in 1920 by the Sierra Club, were replaced and strengthened by CCC workers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Yosemite Research Library

The 15.7-mile road to the park’s most famous and popular overlook, Glacier Point, was completed in 1940. Along the winding route, the CCC developed one of the first downhill skiing areas in California, Badger Pass. The resort, together with the more distant Ostrander Ski Hut, a hand-hewn stone structure for long-distance cross-country skiers, established Yosemite as a destination for winter sports.

Projects continually sprang to life. One of the CCC’s most impressive achievements was rebuilding the cable system up Half Dome. New Deal agencies improved the 27-mile Wawona Road from the park’s south entrance to Yosemite Valley and paved the route to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. New entrance stations, campgrounds, vista points, parking areas, lookout towers, and picnic sites also materialized.

CCC Ostrander Ski Hut

CCC Ostrander Ski Hut
The 2-story shelter was intended to be part of a larger system of winter trails and huts along the Sierra crest that never were developed.
Photo Credit: The Living New Deal

The CCC’s signature rockwork masonry is a staple throughout the park. Today’s hiker encounters old jackhammer grooves and remnants of asphalt paving along many well-worn trails. The rock garden around the Valley’s Fern Spring is also recognizable as the Corps’ handiwork. One can even spot where the Works Progress Administration expanded the Wawona Airport—now extinct—whose runway consisted of 3,000 square feet of sod.  

Many of the CCC’s efforts, including reforestation and the removal of invasive species, blend into the park’s natural scenery. Firefighting protected it. One former enrollee recalls that during his hitch in the CCC his crew went more than a hundred hours without sleep battling a forest fire in Yosemite.

Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center

Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
The former CCC mess hall now serves as Tuolumne Meadow Visitor Center, a High Country hub.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Andrew Laverdiere

The CCC mess hall that I overlooked for so many years now serves as the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, its conversion completed in 1980. The building, with its steeply pitched roof, craggy exterior, and stone chimney retains the rustic architecture and handcrafted techniques that are unmistakably the work of the New Deal in Yosemite.

Learn more about major New Deal projects in Yosemite: https://livingnewdeal.org/us/ca/yosemite-national-park/ and https://livingnewdeal.org/us/ca/wawona/

John Broesamle is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Northridge, and the author of books on American political history. A lifelong visitor to Yosemite, he is working to restore the memory of the New Deal in the park. For assistance with this article and with the broader project, he gratefully thanks Susan Ives; Tom Bopp; Virginia Sanchez, librarian of the Yosemite Research Library; and Paul Rogers and his staff at the Yosemite Archives.

4 comments on “On the Trail of the New Deal in Yosemite National Park

  1. Avatar Craig Banks

    Thanks this is always interesting. I do have a question for someone. In 1934 the CCC built a shelter in Farmington CT. for the Shade Swamp Sanctuary. I believe they also worked on the trails. The camp name I have is Camp Roberts in Thomaston. Can anyone give me details on the work done? It will be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks and happy holidays to all.

  2. Avatar Owen Hoffman

    I wish Dr. Carol W. Sharsmith were still with us to read and comment on these wonderful
    Posts of Yosemite History.

  3. Avatar Owen Hoffman

    I wish Dr. Carl W. Sharsmith were still with us to read and comment on these wonderful
    Posts of Yosemite History.

  4. Avatar Carolyn Vondriska

    Owen, I fully agree with you. I got to go on a backpacking trip with him to Ostrander Lake and it is one of my finest memories. What a special naturalist he was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New Deal Map — Washington, DC

New-Deal-DC-map-cover

Check out our new map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.