"Too bad Leroy Lewis isn’t around to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Colorado National Monument. He’d have loved to share the limelight with other old-timers who remembered what it was like to bust their tails on the Monument’s road-building crew. Leroy died last year at 98, but not before he took the time to reminisce.
He grew up on a ranch near Hotchkiss in the early 20th Century, a skinny kid whose work ethic made him succeed beyond his wildest dreams. Of course, he knew plenty of others with the same story. It began like a fairy tale, “Once upon a time, millions of rawboned young men without any prospects or grub in their bellies ended up shoveling dirt for the Civilian Conservation Corps…”
But their CCC story was real, he said in 2008. Leroy was 96 and had the clearest blue eyes, and a boyish laugh that lit up the small study in his home.
“It had a helluva impact on my life,” Lewis remembered. “It was hot and hard.”
The Great Depression hit his family hard as it did millions of other Americans. He decided to leave the ranch in order to help his destitute parents survive. So in 1933, Leroy enrolled in the CCC. He was provided with food and clothing (WW I uniforms) and assigned to a camp at the Monument. A road project was underway because there was no Rim Rock Drive back then, and the local business community knew a Monument road would boost tourism.
CCC enrollees earned $25 a month. They were allowed to keep $5 and sent the rest home to their families. Leroy said they bunked together, ate “a big meat and potatoes diet,” played sports, studied math and went dancing with young women from nearby communities on weekends.
Labor for the historic Rim Rock Drive construction project drew heavily from the CCC, Works Project Administration and Public Works Administration, all part of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created to help Americans dig themselves out of the Depression, and to fortify America’s public lands.
Within a regimented setting of long barracks and military discipline, Leroy sharpened new skills – even hammering away on a typewriter as a clerk when he wasn’t smashing rocks with a pickaxe on the road project.
The mission to build a 23-mile road up and over the Monument took many years and also human lives with it. With hundreds of young men exploding dynamite on the edge of 400-foot-high canyons, this ambitious enterprise carried inherent risks.
This massive workforce of sinew and muscle worked year-round, pulverizing untold tons of Entrada sandstone. How? By drilling 12-foot-deep holes in rock, tamping them with dynamite and blasting a safe route along the canyon rims to make way for motorists and cyclists of the future.
On a chilly December day in 1933, a gigantic rockslide killed nine laborers, called Local Experienced Men. They were charged with mentoring young CCCers like Leroy. He recalled the tragedy vividly.
“Lots of broken bones,” he said. “And lots of blood.” Today’s 23-mile ribbon of smooth blacktop stretches from the east entrance of the monument near Grand Junction to the west entrance near Fruita. Most of Rim Rock Drive was completed when World War II began and the CCC
was disbanded. The National Park Service finished the job in 1950.
Sixty-one years later, Rim Rock Drive offers spellbinding vistas to more than half a million visitors annually. As for the road-builders, their legacy endures even today.
The CCC changed the lives of untold numbers of young men like Leroy Lewis. He enjoyed an illustrious career in the Army, and was awarded the Bronze Medal for valor in World War II, and the Oak Leaf cluster for valor in the Korean Conflict.
Two years before his death, Leroy stated, “In these times, I think they should bring the CCC back. It’s what we need.” (from (visit link
"The Colorado National Monument, a few miles west of Grand Junction, is comprised of 20,000 acres of steep-walled red rock canyons on the Colorado Plateau. One of its main attractions is the beautiful Rim Rock Drive. In 1930, the National Park Service sent engineers to the area to develop a plan for a 23-mile scenic drive. Work began in 1931 on what they named "Rim Rock Drive," but progress was slow due to the grim economy.
With the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, work on Rim Rock Drive was able to continue. CCC crews came to Colorado National Monument in May 1933. The first to arrive were what were called Local Experienced Men (LEMs), who were skilled in specialized trades such as carpentry and masonry. These men trained and supervised the CCC recruits who soon followed. By June 1933, the CCC company was at its full strength of 200 men and began road construction.
CCC crews worked on all aspects of constructing Rim Rock Drive from grading and dynamiting to smoothing down the aftermath of the dynamite and drilling holes in the rock walls to give them a more natural appearance. The paved, two-lane highway included such features as scenic overlooks, retaining walls and guard rails.
CCC crews also built campgrounds and picnic areas, a custodian's residence and developed water projects through the Colorado National Monument. Another project they took on was building seven miles of steel fence to contain the Monument's bison herd." (from (visit link
) ). Also see (visit link
) to listen to an interview from a CCC worker.
This drive is just stunning in its beauty and possibility for disaster if one does not pay attention to the road. This 23-mile road was built primarily with manual labor, climbing ropes and hand-drilled holes for blasting powder.
There is a $10 per car entry fee (as of 2011), which is good for seven days. Many bicyclists ride from the east entrance (they are not allowed on the west side). Drivers in Colorado are required, if it can be safely done so, to allow 3' to pas riders. There is NO SHOULDER for the cyclists, so please slow down and be careful when passing.
The Saddlehorn Visitor's Center has several displays about the men of the CCC as well as a brief interview that you access by pressing down the handle of a blasting trigger. The Visitor Center is closed each year only on December 25th. The above coordinates are taken from the east entrance (where work first began by the CCC) of the Monument.