Laurel Hill State Park conserves Civilian Conservation Corps
By Laura Szepesi
Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Civilian Conservation Corps, which began in 1933, constructed parks, planted billions of trees and completed many public works projects. Eighty years later, the CCC's achievements still stand, sturdy against the ravages of time. Locally, two state parks were constructed by CCC workers: Laurel Hill and Kooser, both in Somerset County.
Laurel Hill State Park proudly conserves the memory of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal program that put 2.5 million young men to work during the Great Depression.
“We have a lot of architecture that was built by the CCC. Actually, Laurel Hill has the largest collection of CCC buildings in Pennsylvania,” said Kimberly Peck, environmental education specialist in charge of park programs at Laurel Hill as well as Kooser and Laurel Ridge state parks.
Laurel Hill and Kooser may never have been constructed if the region hadn't been logged out by sawmills. “The area was suffering from erosion. That's why the CCC came here in the first place,” Peck said. “Back then, they were called the tree army.”
CCC helped the needy
CCC workers — ages 18 to 25 — planted billions of trees to reforest America. They built parks, lakes, dams, roads and many other public works projects. Most importantly, $25 of their $30 monthly pay was sent home to help feed their impoverished families.
The CCC was a youthful version of the Works Progress Administration, which put 8 million adults — mostly men — to work during the economic hard times of the 1930s. Both were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal project which strived to pull the United States out of the Great Depression.
The CCC's legacy lives on at Laurel Hill and Kooser parks, which are located off and along Route 31 in Somerset County. Laurel Ridge State Park, which features a 70-mile hiking trail between Ohiopyle, Fayette County, and Johnstown, Cambria County, was not CCC-constructed. “However, architecture at Laurel Ridge mimics the CCC's work,” Peck said.
Kooser State Park can be seen along Route 31, between Jones Mills and Bakersville. Laurel Hill, located a few miles north of Kooser, can't be glimpsed. Visitors must turn off Route 31 onto Trout Road — which explains why so many Southwestern Pennsylvanians refer to Laurel Hill as “Trout State Park.”
CCC work evident
The CCC's influence begins with Laurel Hill's stone sign, which was built by CCC crews. Turning off Trout Road into Laurel Hill, drivers pass the park office, parts of which were made by the CCC, and enter a shady lane that winds for several miles through a forest planted by the CCC 80 years ago.
Leaving the forest, visitors enter the main park area, a green vista highlighted by the 64-acre Laurel Hill Lake, which was made with CCC labor.
An earthen dam came first, followed by stone. A second stone dam — Jones Mill dam — contains a waterfall that is one of the most photographed sites at Laurel Hill, according to Peck. “All of the CCC's work was done without modern equipment — even the dams' rocks were hand-hewn. I think that's incredible,” she said.
Close to the lake is Laurel Hill's statue of a CCC worker, a monument that was dedicated in 2007. Across the road is the park's visitors center. Inside is a small museum with artifacts donated by families whose relatives were CCC workers. There are videos featuring the park's construction and the personal memories of four CCC workers who helped build Laurel Hill. Three of the four men are still living and will be honored at the park's annual Bluebird Celebration on Saturday.
Laurel Hill maintains two group camps that originally served as CCC barracks. “We try to preserve the buildings as best we can, using modern materials,” Peck explained. The group camps can be rented by groups such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, church organizations and civic clubs. Nine CCC cabins are available to the public for rent at Kooser State Park.
Laurel Hill was constructed between 1934 and 1938. It is a destination park that now features a huge campground, a lodge and cottages, 12 miles of hiking trails, many picnic areas and a sandy beach next to Laurel Hill Lake. In the winter, the trails are available to snowmobilers. “Fishing is big here,” including ice fishing in winter, Peck said.
As throngs of modern sightseers and campers descend on Laurel Hill and Kooser parks this season, many won't realize that what they are enjoying was built with the brawn of poor young men who relished the chance to better themselves and the environment.
“The (CCC) men who will be at Laurel Hill's Bluebird Festival on July 6 are still proud of what they accomplished so long ago,” Peck said. “We want to honor them for the work they did and we're grateful that we have continued to use the park for how it was intended.”
For more information about Laurel Hill, Kooser and Laurel Ridge State Parks, visit www.laurelhighlands.org.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
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