GRAND JUNCTION — Following in the nearly 100-year-old footsteps of Depression-era laborers, a group of National Park Service masons are assiduously repairing and stabilizing stone barriers along Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument.
The masons, mostly young men sporting trendy beards and polarized sunglasses, are using archaic tools for their deliberate work — trowels, brushes, chisels and damp, gritty mortar — plus patience and care.
Why take such an old-world approach to the monument's highway repairs?
"This road is living history," said Arlene Jackson, chief of interpretation for the monument. "We want to honor the people who built this."
The people she spoke of are the Civilian Conservation Corps, a group of impoverished men who were put to work as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal initiative, intended to chip the country out of the vise of the Great Depression.
Each member of the corps — called the CCC — earned $30 per month, Jackson said, $25 of which they were required to send home to their families. The corps operated from the 1930s until the onset of World War II, when the men of the CCC were called to fight.
Jackson referred to the days of the CCC as a "pivotal" time in the nation's history, one that brought together people in order to work toward a common goal and better the plights of everyone.
For example, Jackson said, Grand Valley locals in the masonry trade were brought into the monument in order to teach corps members their skills, skills that could be taken home by the laborers after their CCC work and applied in their own communities.
One of the many jobs with which the CCC was tasked was building sandstone guardrails for Rim Rock Drive, cut through the monument in the early 1930s, Jackson said. Corps members set up camps throughout the monument and spent their days cutting, moving, chiseling and placing the huge rock blocks.
Because of the historical memory carried in the guardrail sandstone blocks — many of which show old drill-holes from quarrying and chisel-tracks from shaping — the National Park Service is trying to reinforce the guardrails while saving as much of the original stones and design as possible.
The modern masons are currently working on the sixth stone wall of about 20 that need repair, said Dan Hallett, the monument's chief of facility management. All that work is set to take four years, of which they're currently in their second, he said.
Hallett said gingerly rehabilitating the old rock walls takes a thoughtful and deliberate approach.
"Each wall is a little bit different," he said, noting that different corps crews built each one, adding their own special artisanship to the construction.
Such unique CCC stamps on each wall, each stone, puts even more value on the original work, Hallett said.
"Once these stones are lost, they're gone forever," he said.
On a recent Monday, park masons were patching a stone rail that borders Rim Rock Drive as it passes the "kissing couple" rock formation, near mile marker 7, with Monument Canyon opening below.
The masons were mostly adding mortar to the back side of the wall, away from the road, in order to mitigate uneven wear that had been occurring between the sandstone and the original mortar.
Anders Schulte, who has been working at the monument since 2009, said he learned masonry skills on the job.
"Each type of sandstone is very different," Schulte said, exemplifying the Wingate and Kayenta formations and saying that some types are harder and some are softer. They also wear down and break apart differently, he said.
"You kind of get a feel for the stone," he said.
Schulte said he and his colleagues have been working on that stretch of wall for about three weeks, mostly cutting out old patches of mortar that were cracking and crumbling and replacing it with a fresh layer — being sure all the while not to damage the original rock with their chisels and hammers.
Schulte, who got started with the National Park Service after joining the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, said he enjoys preserving the past for the future.
"I like working at a job that I feel good about," he said.
Another mason, Scott Banjac, worked to fill in worn-away rivets in the historic sandstone in order to try and preserve the integrity of the rock and stave off potential crumbling.
Banjac mentioned an extra benefit of spending weeks at the top of the monument's canyons, out in the elements: wildlife sightings.
Last year, the masons caught a look at a bobcat family, Banjac said, and they routinely see peregrine falcons and a herd of bighorn sheep — one male with several females.
"The ram actually came eye-to-eye with one of our flaggers last week," Banjac said.
Once the workers have completed their roadside efforts, there are other projects in the park that require the stewardship of a troupe of masons, Hallett said. He said there are more than 200 places where a drainage tunnel passes under the road, some with historic stone headwalls and curbing that will need to be likewise preserved.