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Civilian Conservation Corp. camps from the '30s dot the Valley


CCC men built roads, hiking & ski trails, picnic shelters, campgrounds and more



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A relaxed John Kuliga, second from left, poses with his CCC friends, Ralph Hutchinson, Francis Lessviak, and Walter Platek, at the Swift River Camp around 1937. Courtesy John Kuliga. (click for larger version)
September 10, 2009
The chimney is the lone reminder that the 1177th Company Civilian Conservation Corp, based by the Swift River across from the Albany Covered Bridge, also had a Passaconaway outpost. The camp is dot No. 12 on the map of White Mountain National Forest CCC camps on display at the Androscoggin District Ranger Station in Gorham. In all, there are 19 dots representing 17 Forest Service camps and two for State of New Hampshire camps.

It's dot #10, the 1177th Company's Swift River Camp, that 91-year-old John Kuliga remembers. On Aug. 14 he and his wife, Renee, drove up from Hooksett for the 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Kancamagus Highway. He wanted to make sure that others remembered that decades before the state contracted work out to complete the Conway to Lincoln road, others worked hard and long on what was then the Swift River Road, or Forest Service Road #8. He knows they worked hard, because for two-and-a-half years in the 1930s, he worked hard with them.

John was 18 when he joined the CCC, leaving Manchester, "a city boy," but quickly acclimating to camp life. The food was good, the air fresh and the $25 of his monthly $30 pay check that the government mandated the young men send home was appreciated by his family.

"It perked me right up," he says. "I enjoyed it, I didn't mind the work." The CCC camps were a joint venture of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Forest Service. One of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's work programs during the Great Depression designed to put idle workers, in this case unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25, to work for the public good, the Army was in charge of the logistics, planning, building and administrating of the camps, and the Forest Service was in charge of putting the men to work on conservation and construction

projects.

The program, signed into law in 1933, created 250,000 jobs for young men. By the time the program was disbanded in 1942, FDR's "Tree Army" had planted more than three billion trees, built more than 3,700 fire towers, and put in more than 97,000 miles of fire roads.

The Swift River Camp, located at what is now Blackberry Crossing Campground, was built in 1935. The camp had four barracks that slept 50 men each, a mess hall and kitchen, infirmary and recreation hall. The rec hall also served as a classroom and study hall for those interested in furthering their education, though mostly it was used for more relaxing activities.

The young men in the White Mountain camps built roads, hiking and ski trails, picnic shelters, pavilions and campgrounds. Among the roads they worked on were Bear Notch Road, Wild River Road and Tripoli Road. The pavilions at White Ledge Campground, the Lower Falls, Passaconaway Campground and at Dolly Copp Campground were all built by the CCC men. They manned fire towers, did timber stand improvement and worked on flood control projects.

John Kuliga helped build the wooden bridge across Rocky Gorge, helped level the gravel road with a hand grader towed by a tractor. He made good friends, keeping up with some through the years through regular gatherings of CCC alumni at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown.

John Kuliga remembers the fun times as well as the work. He remembers Saturday night dances at a hall down on the Dugway Road in Albany. There was a small band, a violin, piano, trumpet and bass fiddle. It's where, he says, "I started to learn how to dance."

He remembers having driving duty for the run into Conway for movie night. There was a beer joint, he says, across from the theater. He and others played baseball for Conway. He was a pitcher for the town's baseball team. They played other local teams like North Conway and Fryeburg. Several of his friends married local girls, he says, reaching back seven decades to retrieve their names. John Sisk, he recalls, married a Conway girl.

And he remembers the flood. In March of 1936 a warm front stalled over New England, the heavy rain and warmth coupling with heavy snowpack and ice to produce flooding throughout the region. Seven inches of rain were recorded in the White Mountains between March 11 and 13, another 10 inches on March 18 and 19.

John says they had to blast an ice dam built up near Bear Notch Road, warning the town first that high waters would be coming down. He was also part of a team that rescued two caretakers from the rooftop of the Passaconaway site. The river, he says, was 20 feet above normal, and back at the Swift River camp you had to stand in waist deep water to take a shower.

At the Saco District Ranger Station in Conway there's an exhibit on the CCC Camps, just as there is at the Androscoggin District Ranger Station. At Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown there's an entire museum devoted to the CCC in New Hampshire. CCC Alumni Dick Violette, who was at the Blackberry Campground on Aug. 14, is one of the leaders in the state making sure that no one forgets the contribution of the young men of the CCC. More than 10,000 New Hampshire men served, with another 10,000 plus from out of state serving in New Hampshire.

At Blackberry Crossing there's a fireplace and chimney that used to serve a camp site. Now the front is blocked off by metal grilling, an interpretive panel detailing the layout of the camp. Other interpretive panels mark the spots of buildings, detailing the history of the CCC camp.

The 1930s was not a good decade for the world. The severe economic conditions tested the souls of so-called "civilized" nations. Adolph Hitler was gaining complete control of Germany, fascism was on the rise in Italy and Spain. When John finished his time with the CCC in 1937, he moved to Concord to go to school for landscaping. There he met his future wife, proposing to her on her birthday in November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor. They would have been married for longer than the 61 years, except their engagement was lengthened by United States' declaration of war. By March of 1942 John was in the U.S. Army Air Corp. During World War II he served his county in England, Germany, Belgium and France. Despite all that's happened in the years between now and his CCC service, he still remembers swimming at Lower Falls and pitching for Conway.

At the Saco District Ranger Station there's a long black and white photo of the men of the 1177th CCC Company, Swift River, the names of the men on the wall above. The Androscoggin Ranger District Station has a notebook for people to write their memories, or their fathers' or grandfathers' memories, of serving with the CCC. There's also a model of the layout of the camps and a camp cot and woodstove.

Besides his memories, John Kuliga brought with him to the Aug. 14 event three items: a picture of himself and three friends in the 1930s; a motor vehicle operator's license issued in July 1937 by the United States Dept. of Agriculture; and a letter of recommendation from F.R. Macomber, superintendent of the Civilian Conservation Corp's Swift River Camp.

The chimney hidden in the woods up in the Albany will someday crumble,

unnoticed and unmaintained. But the roads the CCC built, the picnic grounds and sturdy wooden pavilions, will stand, maintained and used by generations to come.

At the Saco District Ranger Station, Forest Service employee Janice Palombo greatly appreciates all that the CCC men contributed.

"Up until about three or four years ago," she says, "we'd get older gentlemen in here who would say, 'I worked in the CCC camp' and I'd say, 'Thank you, because you did a great deal of good work!'"

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