CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Palo Duro Canyon is a wonder here on the High Plains, with its natural rock formations and vast history covering thousands of years. But a piece of that history is how Palo Duro Canyon became a state park and how the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC helped with that.
According to Peter L. Petersen, in the book “The Story of Palo Duro Canyon” by Duane Guy, the journey of Palo Duro Canyon to become a state or even national park starts as far back as 1906.
With thoughts of tourist dollars pouring into the local economy, residents of the Panhandle continued to press for a park, and by 1929, an organization called the Palo Duro Park Association, comprised of representatives from 15 Panhandle counties was holding regular strategy sessions, but considerable confusion remained over how best to proceed.
Some suggestions, according to Petersen, included the acquisition of canyon land by individual counties; the creation of a park “district” with all Panhandle counties contributing to the effort; the construction of a scenic drive through much of the canyon; circumvention of the US Congress by getting the President to declare Palo Duro a “national monument”; and another appeal to the Texas Legislature for assistance. Although no apparent consensus was made.
Palo Duro Canyon at the time was also still private property, with area ranchers complaining frequently of strangers tearing down fences, frightening, and even killing livestock. Eventually, most ranchers closed their pastures making the canyon virtually inaccessiable.
Members of the Canyon Chamber of Commerce, along with the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, finally secured permission from several ranchers for an automobile excursion by the public to the west rim on July 30, 1930. Nearly 8,000 people turned out for the excursion which led to a similar event in November, with over 10,000 people attending. These excursions showed the Canyon Chamber of Commerce they could wait on longer and showed the public’s great interest in the canyon. The excursions also drew the attention of Fred A. Emery, a resident of Chicago and an officer of the Byers Brothers Livestock Commission Company of Kansas City, who was interested in 25 sections of the canyon.
Emery was eager to see a park created on the land and helped arrange an agreement with the Canyon Chamber of Commerce for the free use of what is now the entrance of Palo Duro Canyon for two years, beginning in 1931. The Randall County Commissioners then constructed a three-mile stretch of dirt road linking this land with the existing highway running east of Canyon. The grand opening of “Palo Duro Park” was on May 17, 1931. In those two years, Emery had acquired title to more than 15,000 acres in Randall and Armstrong County, commonly known as “B.S. Arnold Ranch.” Working closely with Emery, State Park Board Chairman D.E. Colp determined that 14,466.14 acres of that land, almost all of it in Palo Duro Canyon, would answer the calls for a park in the region. In early 1933, Emery agreed to transfer most of the almost 15,000 acres of land he owned in what we now know as the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, to the Texas State Parks Board with the use of a proposed loan from the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Park operation income would be used to repay the loan and also purchase the park.
However, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, officials of the National Park Service saw Palo Duro Canyon as a likely site for one of the anticipated 1,300 initial CCC projects.
Herbert Evision of the Park Service requested that Colp and Emery hold their RFC loan in abeyance until it could be determined whether the desired park could be built by the CCC.
Soon estimates were circulating that as many as 4,000 men could be put to work building a scenic highway through the canyon, and within a few weeks a massive campaign to persuade the federal government to locate several CCC camps in the canyon. On June 1, President Roosevelt signed a document allocating four CCC companies of 200 men each to Palo Duro Canyon.
Petersen adds, however, that both the National Park Service and the Texas Relief Commission continued to express concern about the actual ownership of the proposed park. Neither wanted to become involved in building improvements on what turned out to be private land and demanded clear proof that the Texas State Park Board did indeed own the land. The Texas State Park Board agreed to purchase the 14,466.14 acres from Emery along with the original 637 acres consisting of the site of the original “Palo Duro Park.” This increased to 15,103.85 acres and the total purchase price was $377,586.25 ($9,128,251.65 in 2023 when calculated for inflation) with $263,887.96 ($6,379,564.16 in 2023 when calculated for inflation) of that amount owned to Emery.
The Texas Relief Commission remained skeptical; only after a petition was signed by many of the Panhandle area’s leading citizens saying they approved of the purchase, did the Commissioners finally give their authorization on June 29, with the following day being the deadline for authorities to approve CCC projects in Texas, according to Petersen.
“You see the tremendous expansion of the Texas Parks System during this time, so CCC workers employed to go out and build cabins and lodges and build roads and so forth, even at Palo Duro State Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Amarillo that’s one of the main New Deal state parks. So you see this tremendous creation of infrastructure providing access to those natural resources,” said Texas Historical Commission National Register Historian Alyssa Gerszewski.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, the first three companies of CCC enrollees, made up of World War I veterans, would arrive in July of 1933 and after setting up their camp, their first task was to construct the road from the rim of the canyon to its floor.
Starting in early August of 1933, the CCC started the construction of a one-and-a-half-mile road from the rim of the canyon to its floor. While dynamite was used, a vast majority was done by hand using shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows. In less than six months, they had succeeded in creating the first vehicle access to the canyon floor, and on November 26, 1933, the formal opening of the road was held by the Canyon Chamber of Commerce, according to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
According to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, each man who worked for the CCC received $30 per month with $25 returning home to his family. While the work was usually manual labor, many received valuable training and education from “locally experienced men” or LEM. Each recruit was enrolled for a six-month period and was required to work 40 hours a week and follow all camp rules. The camps were monitored by the US Army and each camp was commanded by a lieutenant and captain.
|CCC Camp Daily Routine|
|6:00 AM||Rise with Reveille with 30 minutes to dress|
|6:30 AM||15 minutes of calisthenics|
|6:45 AM||Breakfast/prepare for inspection/clean barracks/make beds/clean campgrounds|
|8:00 AM||On to work location|
|12:00 PM||One-hour lunch (hot meal or sandwiches, if out in the field)|
|4:00 PM||End of 8 hr. work day/ 40 hours per week|
|5:00 PM||Into dress uniforms for dinner|
|6:00 PM||Education classes (voluntary) and free time|
|9:45 PM||Prepare for bed|
|10:00 PM||Lights out|
|11:00 PM||Bed check conducted by camp commander|
|AM||Make up for lost days during weeks. Cleaning and improving the campsite|
|PM||Free time/ recreational activities, occasional trips to town for dances and movies.|
|Holidays||New Year’s Day/ Washington’s Birthday/ Memorial Day/ Independence Day/ Labor Day/ Thanksgiving/ Christmas|
From April 1933 until December 1937, six companies were stationed at Palo Duro Canyon. Companies 1821, 1824, and 1828 were comprised entirely of military veterans while Company 894 was a Junior Company with men between 17 and 25. Companies 2875 and 2876 were comprised of African-American men.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, the CCC project at Palo Duro Canyon State Park was one of the few to include workers from each of the three special groups. Veterans, African Americans, and juveniles.
From 1933 until 1937, 1,200 men worked at Palo Duro Canyon with the CCC, and according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, built Portal House, Park Road 5, vehicle bridges, stone and metal culverts, stone low water crossings, the headquarters building, Spring House, which is currently used for storage, El Coronado Lodge Visitor Center (only partially completed by the CCC), Well House, which is no longer in use, Cow Camp (four overnight cabins containing no bathrooms), three rim cabins, which have been adapted as staff residences, and picnic and camp unit groups which included a table, seats, fireplace, and garbage receptacle.
“The first thing you are going to notice about our CCC structures here is sort of that cobblestone-esque architecture that you can see behind us here. Whether that is on the roadway, on some of our trails, like the CCC trail, that sort of cobblestone-esque architecture, that is all made out of Trujillo sandstone here from the canyon,” said Bradley Kliemann, Palo Duro Canyon State Park interpreter.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park would formally open on July 4th, 1934.
According to Petersen, the National Park Service announced that all CCC work at the Palo Duro Canyon would cease on December 15, 1937, and Company 894 would be assigned to a soil conversation camp north of Amarillo.
Many of the CCC structures that were built are still standing or still in use at Palo Duro Canyon.
“It’s super important that we have these faculties, these CCC structures are still intact because it shows the ingenuity, if you will of the men who came here to build up our state park. Their perseverance because this would have been really hard work for them to carry all of that heavy stone, to not only build the structures that we see here but the roadway as well. So it really is a testament to their enduring spirit here and what they built here,” said Kliemann.
If you want to learn more about the CCC and what they did at Palo Duro Canyon, the park has an exhibit located at the El Coronado Lodge Visitor Center, which was built in 1934 due to the CCC.
Along with working on the Palo Duro Canyon, CCC workers also worked on The Buffalo Lake compound, once located in Randall County. The lake attracted fishermen, swimmers, boaters, campers, and others until 1978 when a flood damaged the area causing officials to close the place as a recreation spot.