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.”
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.
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.
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.
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/