Monday, June 7, 2010

Overlooked Story of the Blue Ridge Parkway

When stories are told of the building and development of the Blue Ridge Parkway the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is often cited for their contributions. Another group who also had a part in the construction and development of recreation areas throughout the park was Conscientious Objectors (also known as CO’s) during World War II. The draft laws of World War II allowed for “those by reason of religious training and belief" opposed the war to be exempt from military service.

During the war 25,000 CO’s served in non-combat roles in all branches of the military. Some worked in understaffed mental institutions.  Other volunteered to be subjects for medical experiments on hunger. Another 20,000 fought forest fires and worked on conservation projects in rural areas through the Civilian Public Service agency. This later group was placed in camps which had been previously used by the Civilian Conservation Corps that was disbanded in 1942 as most of the 18 to 24 year old men in that program were taken into the military.

The CCC participants were unskilled labor recruited from areas with low employment due to The Depression. The Conscientious Objectors were made up of men who were from a variety of backgrounds including successful farmers, craftsmen, and intellectuals. CO’s came with a variety of skills that were put to work on many rural improvement and park projects.

One CO Camp was located at Sherando Lake in Virginia. This was a former CCC Camp on US Forest Service property. Out of this camp men worked on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the area of Humpback Rocks on trails and construction of stone walls such as those found at the Humpback Rocks Parking Area (MP 6) and Reeds Gap (MP 13). The military started to accumulate prisoners of war from mainly naval engagements. They needed facilities to accommodate these growing populations and consequently the Sherando Camp was transferred to the military and the CO’s moved to Camp #121 in Bedford, Virginia. There the men began work in the Peaks of Otter area of the Parkway. Once again they constructed trails placing stone steps and what were called fire lanes to help contain forest fires. Stone work was also done on walls and around buildings. Today if you visit the Peaks of Otter Nature Center you will walk on a stone patio that goes across the front of the building, through the breezeway, and to the rear of the building where you will find picnic tables. At the front of the building there is a flat stone with the letters “CO” carved. This is one of the few signs left by this group of men who served their country in an alternative way during World War II.

Thanks to Dave Benavitch, USFS Ret. who first told me the story of the CO’ of WWII
Photos From Wikipedia

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