Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Remembering Some of the Dead at Blackwater Creek

August is a bastard.  Hot.  Dry.  Blazing.  Deadly.  If you’re lucky, August will break your will, steal what little hope you have left and leave you dejected, hoping and praying for September or, better yet, October.  If you’re unlucky, perhaps a bit too slow, a bit too tired, a bit too inexperienced or careless, or wearing the wrong kind of boots, that bastard August will kill you.  If you’re really unlucky, August will wipe out any vestige that you even existed.

August 21, 2013 marks the 76th anniversary of the blow up in Blackwater Creek, a fiery August conflagration that took the lives of 15 firefighters, most of them young Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees who battled wildfire on a rugged mountain slope hundreds of miles from their Texas homes.  I have posted more than one article related to the events that occurred in the Shoshone National Forest that blazing hot August afternoon and yet thoughts of that hot, smoky, fire-filled afternoon always come back to me when this bastard month rolls around and I begin to feel it’s too hot for my own good and then just as quickly, I remember that it isn’t likely ever going to be too hot where I am, compared to some panicky boys on a steep mountainside far from home in 1937.

Particularly heartbreaking is the fact that, while we know very little about the men who died fighting the Blackwater Fire, we know virtually nothing whatsoever of the CCC enrollees whose names filled the bulk of that tragic headcount in 1937.  Of the dead men who were variously in charge of the fire suppression work at Blackwater we know that one (Alfred G. Clayton) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1892 and that he was considered to be a ranger of the “old school” and that he was an accomplished artist and writer.  We know that another (21-year-old Rex A. Hale) was originally from Afton, Wyoming, that he worked his way of from CCC enrollee to a full-time Forest Service position as Junior Assistant to Technician and that he left behind a wife and infant daughter.  We know that another of the leaders who perished on the Blackwater Fire (Paul E. Tyrrell) was a graduate of the University of California’s school of forestry, that he became a Junior Forester in February 1937 and that he died as a result of burns he suffered while trying to protect others during the fire.  Finally we know that one of those in charge of firefighting crews that day at Blackwater Creek (James T. Saban) had struggled with personal demons that had, in the past, forced him to leave work in forestry for a time and that he had only been back working in the woods professionally for about 3 weeks when the Blackwater blow up took his life.

Ranger Clayton and the men who were trapped in the gulch probably didn’t have a good deal of time in which to consider their impending fate.  A mortally injured enrollee, Roy Bevens, was found within 60 feet of Ranger Clayton, Foreman Saban, Junior Assistant to Technician Hale and enrollees Gerdes, Griffith, Mayabb and Rogers.  Bevens pointed out the location of the fatality site in the gulch and reportedly expressed his thanks to God for having survived, but he would later die from his burns.

As for the group of men with Ranger Post, the fire and the terrain provided time to weigh options, to take action, to pray and to panic, but there wasn’t evidently much time.  In the end, a rocky point was their last refuge as smoke enveloped them and flames surrounded them on all sides.  The group shifted from one side of the clearing to another to avoid the heat and flames.  Foremen and members of the technical services struggled to keep order in the chaos and in some cases, literally fought with the panicked men in order to keep them from bolting from the rocky clearing and its scant prospects for safety from the inferno all around.  Among the men trapped on the ridge with Ranger Post that blazing, smoking fearful August afternoon were CCC enrollees Earnest Seelke, Rubin Sherry, Clyde Allen and Herman Patzke.  Seelke, Sherry, Allen and Patzke made a break for it, along with Bureau of Public Roads employee Billy Lea.  Only one would survive the effort. 

The men were told to lie down, but according to Ranger Post’s account after the tragedy, many insisted on sitting up or even standing in order to say prayers.  Ranger Post noted later:

“Nearly all the boys grew panicky and instead of lying down as instructed, a good many of them stood up and ran to the edge of the park, turned and came back.  Some of the boys did not listen to any orders, instructions or cautioning and were insistent upon standing up and saying their prayers.”

Foreman Paul Tyrrell restrained panicked enrollees at the expense of his own safety; as he lay atop the panic stricken lads his body created a shield that protected the boys from the heat.  After the flames subsided, Foreman Paul Tyrrell would be helped from the burn area only to succumb to pneumonia a few days later.

For others trapped on what would later be named Post Point, death came a bit more quickly, but only just a bit and certainly in no less a traumatic fashion.  Sam Van Arsdale, a worker with the Bureau of Public Roads made a break for it at one point only to retreat back into the clearing but not before seeing others make a similar less successful break for safety.  Van Arsdale survived with burns but he recounted seeing other runners lie down in the flames, seemingly resigned to their fate.  Van Arsdale later recounted his ordeal:

“I tried to get away from that terrible heat…I remember there were other fellows running with me down the hill the first time.  But they didn’t turn around.  I guess they tried to run on through.  I saw some of them just lay down in there and let the fire burn over them.” (The Helena (Montana) Independent, August 24, 1937.)

In all likelihood, Sam Van Arsdale was witness to the death of some who chose to make a break for it:  Bureau of Public Roads employee Billy Lea or CCC enrollees Earnest Seelke, Rubin Sherry, Clyde Allen.  History records that only Herman Patzke survived his dash through the flames.
So here, for the first time that I am aware, are images of the four CCC enrollees who chose to make a run though the flames that blazing hot afternoon on a Wyoming mountainside 76 years ago.  History seems to have forgotten them, but not quite.

CCC enrollee Clyde Allen, killed at Blackwater Creek, Wyoming.

CCC enrollee Rubin Sherry, killed at Blackwater Creek, Wyoming

CCC enrollee Earnest Seelke, killed at Blackwater Creek, Wyoming.
CCC enrollee Patzke, Blackwater Creek Survivor.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A New Online Resource: Forest Outings, 1940

This post will be brief, but I felt it important to share an online resource that has some good references to the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Better still, this is a primary source document published before the abolishment of the CCC.  The publication is Forest Outings, edited by Russell Lord and published by the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service in 1940.  You can access the entire text of this book here.

Though it is a study of our forests and their uses, there are numerous references to the CCC and to CCC work in Forest Outings.  Perhaps more importantly, Forest Outings is a snapshot of forester’s attitudes about forestry and land management in the late 1930s.  I don’t recall ever seeing more than one copy of Forest Outings in my travels so I’m very excited to find that the book has been made available online so that anyone with an interest may access it and use it as a research or reference tool.  I hope that some of you will find it useful, too.

Monday, August 5, 2013

State-By-State: Kentucky

1938 Camp Map for Kentucky
If you are looking for detailed information on the work of the CCC in Kentucky, you’re really in luck because there is at least one book devoted to CCC work in that state.  Kentucky’s Civilian Conservation Corps by Connie M. Huddleston will be a boon to anyone researching Kentucky’s CCC work; the photos and illustrations alone make it a real treasure.  I am especially drawn to Huddleston’s text and photos related to the work of the CCC at Cumberland Falls State Park.  A few years ago, the annual Civilian Conservation Corps reunion was held at Cumberland Falls State Park so in the case of Kentucky, I have some photos of my own to share.  To access an article about the reunion that I posted at the Forest Army blog back in 2007, click here.

Huddleston notes that the first CCC camps established in Kentucky were those at Cumberland Falls and Mammoth Cave and that by October 1935 a total of 35 camps had been opened in the Bluegrass State.  More to the point, Perry Merrill provides a snapshot of camp totals in his book Roosevelt’s Forest Army.  According to Merrill, there were 44 CCC camps in Kentucky in June 1937.  This total is likely taken from the annual reports published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C.  The Annual Report of the Director of Emergency Conservation Work for fiscal year ended June 30 1937 gives the breakdown of camps by types in Kentucky exactly as reported by Merrill, specifically:
CCC-built bench and steps, Cumberland Falls, KY
National Forest Camp: 8
State Forest Camps: 1
Private Forest Camps: 8
Agricultural Engineering Camps: 2
Soil Conservation Camps: 14
National Parks Camps: 4
State Park Camps: 6
Military Reservation Camps: 1

The total monthly enrolled strength for enrollees entering the CCC from Kentucky in fiscal year 1937 was reported as follows:

July 1936:  11,272
August 1936:  10,750
September 1936:  8,907
Ft Knox CCC Conditioning Camp, 1934
(Click to enlarge.)
October 1936:  13,289
November 1936:  12,779
December 1936:  12,158
January 1937:  12,901
February 1937:  12,342
March 1937:  8,392
April 1937:  12,641
May 1937:  12,014
June 1927:  10,956

The Annual Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps for fiscal year ended June 30, 1939 reported that the total number of camps in Kentucky was down to 28, broken down as follows:

National Monument Camps:  3
State Park Camps: 3
National Forest Camps: 4
State Forest Camps: 1
Private Forest Camps: 5

Agricultural Engineering Camps: 2

Soil Conservation Service Camps: 10

It is worth noting that along with the lower number of camps in Kentucky in fiscal year 1939 compared to fiscal year 1937, the number of enrollees joining the CCC from Kentucky each month was also significantly lower in 1939; just 7,631 in July 1938, 7,271 in November 1938, 7,111 in January 1939 and 4,169 in March of 1939.  One might speculate as to the reason behind such a drop in enrollment numbers from 1937 to 1939 (the enrollment count for Kentucky in March 1939 was only about half of what it was compared to March 1937).  Perhaps the economy was improving, perhaps there were more agricultural jobs available for seasonal workers.  Perhaps Kentucky’s quota of enrollees had been reduced.  We do know that by 1939 enrollees from eastern states, including Kentucky, were being shipped out to the western United States where there was a greater need for their labor.

In his book The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, John Salmond points to an even more compelling reason for a decline in enrollment numbers between 1937 and 1939.  After some four years of priming the nation’s economic pump, the Roosevelt administration was desperate to rein in spending and to balance its budget.  Consequently, in late 1937 CCC Director Robert Fechner was told that estimates for the 1938-1939 fiscal year had been reduced by $125 million.  Fechner pointed out that this would mean closing just over 400 CCC camps nationwide by July of 1938 but his protests fell on deaf ears.  The reductions were made as a budget balancing measure and this is likely one major reason for the reduction in the number of camps in Kentucky between fiscal year 1937 and fiscal year 1939.

Even with a reduction in the total number of camps, the CCC accomplished great things in Kentucky during fiscal year 1939.  Here are some examples from that year alone, taken from the Annual Report for 1939:

Vehicle Bridges:  14
Pipeline:  11,654 linear feet
Permanent Check Dams:  73
Temporary Check Dams:  3,305
Seed Collection, Conifers:  79 bushels
Seed Collection, Hardwoods:  10,536 bushels
Collection of Tree Seedlings:  9,270 seedlings
Firefighting, Forest Fires:  10,515 man days

Remember that these figures are for a single year (1938-1939).  Multiply this effort over the 9 year lifespan of the CCC and you truly have a noteworthy list of accomplishments in Kentucky alone.  Naturally, this effort was not accomplished without some sacrifice, and the cost was occasionally documented in the pages of Happy Days, the official newspaper of the CCC.  Likely the first incidence of a CCC fatality in Kentucky to be documented in Happy Days was the death of Jack Stafford, which was reported in the April 14, 1934 issue.  Jack was killed in a truck accident during a trip home and it would seem that enrollees in Kentucky were especially prone to accidents during their free time.  The March 3, 1940 issue of Happy Days reported that Daniel Miller, an enrollee with Company 512 at Chappell, Kentucky, was accidently shot and killed by his nephew while on leave.  The August 3, 1940 issue reported the death of enrollee John Elliot, also from Company 512 at Chappell.  Elliot was killed in an auto accident en route back to camp while on leave.   W.P. Harris, an enrollee with Company 1562 at Madisonville, Kentucky was killed in a work related truck accident (Happy Days, August 4, 1934) and Carl F. Snyder of Company 563, Corbin, Kentucky, was killed in a logging accident (Happy Days, May 25, 1935).

By and large, CCC camps were welcomed by residents of nearby communities.  It is estimated that the establishment of a CCC camp meant an additional $5,000 in expenditures in the local community so it makes sense that local towns would welcome the CCC simply from a monetary standpoint.  But CCC enrollees often endeared themselves to residents of nearby cities and towns as a result of their work and often as a result of their behavior.  In The CCC Chronicles, Alfred Cornebise notes that the local librarian in Henderson, Kentucky was moved to write an editorial about the local CCC camp, her words of praise appeared in the Company 1540 camp newspaper, the Cromwell Cardinal.  The librarian wrote that “rarely does a detachment of men, stationed near a town, make the good impression on the community that the CCC Camp has made on Henderson…  This most satisfactory condition is due, of course, not only to the boys but to the institution of the camp, to its discipline, its educational system, to its general conditions.”
CCC-built stone steps and retaining wall, Cumberland Falls, Kentucky



Cornebise, Alfred Emile, The CCC Chronicles: Camp Newspapers of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Macfarland and Co., Jefferson, North Carolina, 2004.

Huddleston, Connie, M., Kentucky’s Civilian Conservation Corps.  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 2009.

Merrill, Perry H, Roosevelt’s Forest Army, 1981, Perry H. Merrill, Publisher.

Salmond, John A., The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:  A New Deal Case Study.  Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1967

U.S. Government Printing Office, Annual Report of the Director of Emergency Conservation Work, Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1937.

U.S. Government Printing Office, Annual Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1939.

Copyright, 2013, Michael I. Smith