Prince William Forest Park
Administrative History
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In the fall of 1934 Miss Annie Williams, a trusted black midwife and mother of four children, harvested her apples and peaches from her small orchard on Hickory Ridge Road in Joplin, Virginia. She would sell them to passers-by following a pattern well established over the past 20 years. As she was selling her fruits to help "get by," little could she have known of the radical changes planned for her and her land by unseen benefactors in the Roosevelt Administration. [1]

In his fight to end the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was prepared to spend federal money to directly aid the poor. Roosevelt had entered the White House in 1933 with a mandate to end the Great Depression. Self-liquidating projects employing the jobless were a major component of his recovery program. [2] Responsibility for distributing more than $500 million allocated to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) fell to Administrator Harry L. Hopkins. [3] His creative programming fostered the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These and several other federal work programs were made available for the development of national, state, and metropolitan parks. [4]

Prince William Forest Park, originally called the Chopawamsic Recreational Development Area at its inception in 1934, would be one of the beneficiaries of this federal relief effort. [5] The Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program was one of the really successful New Deal programs supervised by the National Park Service. [6]

Unlike other park development plans, the RDA program had funds for land acquisition. [7] This funding stemmed from the RDA's place in President Roosevelt's overall conservation program. While governor of New York, Roosevelt made conservation a governmental responsibility. His concern for the problem of land utilization became a national issue in 1934 when he created the Land Planning Committee consisting of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, WPA administrator Harry L. Hopkins, and the governor of the Farm Credit Administration W. I. Meyers. The committee worked through coordinators appointed by the cooperating agencies. Conrad L. Wirth was designated Interior Department coordinator and Matt Huppuch of the National Park Service (NPS) his alternate.

Studies of recreational needs conducted by the Land Planning Committee revealed an urgent need for natural areas relatively close to population centers and available to large numbers of people for weekend and every day use. Useful recreational facilities consisted of group campsites, hiking trails, swimming, and picnic facilities. Studies also revealed many private groups, especially those serving the urban poor, which could not afford to build their own facilities for group camping but could provide effective operational leadership and maintenance. [8]

In the case of the Chopawamsic RDA, charitable organizations in nearby Washington, D. C. were desperate for adequate group camping facilities. Those in Rock Creek Park were no longer viable for "long-period camping" as it was increasingly being used for "intensified day use and recreational purposes." [9] Because of the utter absence of alternate facilities groups like the Twelfth Street YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Boys' Clubs of Washington were pressing the National Park Service for relief. As a result, the construction of group camping facilities took top priority at the Chopawamsic RDA, with other day-use facilities considered of lesser importance.

The RDA program, one of four development projects devised by the Land Planning Committee, was intended to address these needs. The inspiration for the RDA program came from Matt Huppuch of the NPS. While traveling in Switzerland, Huppuch had observed that all school children had opportunities to spend time in a nature camp. His wholehearted endorsement of the practice was taken up by the Land Planning Committee. In response, the FERA organized the Land Program, headed by John S. Lansill. Using part of a $25 million allocation from the Board of Public Works, 46 RDAs in 24 states were planned and developed between 1933 and 1942. [10]

The RDA program was a new concept in outdoor recreation which fully reflected Roosevelt's vision of a progressive government working through a federal system to enhance the public good. As it combined the goals of conservation and social welfare, the RDA concept received the unanimous approval and support of the National Park Service and the Land Planning Committee of the FERA. [11]

The general objective was to provide quality outdoor recreation facilities at the lowest possible cost for the benefit of people of lower and middle incomes. On these areas major emphasis was to be placed on building campsites for group camping. Provisions for year-round camping facilities for week-end and day use were also to be constructed. [12]

In hard fact the RDA program meant that the land of Miss Annie and 150 other families was to be purchased by the Federal government in order to construct a park in Prince William County. Miss Annie's home in Joplin had been targeted by the site selection team of the Land Planning Committee: Conrad Wirth and Matt Huppuch. [13] Once an area had been identified the Land Program of the FERA would provide funds for land acquisition, the NPS would plan and supervise construction of all recreational facilities, and the WPA, CCC, and PWA programs would provide the necessary labor.

Site Selection

Conrad Wirth and Matt Huppuch made the RDA program's twofold mission of conservation and social welfare the basis for site selection. Before an area could be considered, Wirth had to demonstrate that "a reasonable part of the land we purchased was submarginal from an agricultural standpoint." [14] Consequently, the Land Program of the FERA targeted blighted rural areas located within 35 miles of major urban centers. Cooperation between federal, state, and local agencies was initiated to reclaim the submarginal lands and assist in relocating the rural poor. In a few instances, displaced residents were offered help in finding other occupations. RDAs were purposefully located where they would be accessible to large numbers of people thereby fulfilling their designation as demonstrations in the use of lands well adapted to recreation. [15

Other criteria in site selection considered necessary by Wirth to insure the recreational value of each RDA included an "abundance of good water, available building materials, and an interesting environment. We felt water recreation was important and wanted to be sure to have a location where we could build small lakes if a lake was not already there." [16]

Cost was another factor. Wirth was to "get land that could be purchased for five dollars an acre, though later that was extended to an average price of ten dollars an acre." [17] Wirth was proud to have been involved in a land planning effort of such national significance. In his view the Land Program coordinated "the best knowledge and experience in agriculture, rural economics, rehabilitation and recreation to effect the orderly planning of land use in America." [18]


The original intent of the RDA program was to turn the RDAs over to the states. Consequently, all plans for land acquisition and development carried both NPS and state or county park authority approval. [19] Before this transfer occurred, the RDA program experienced several administrative changes. By executive order on May 1, 1935, the entire Land Program was transferred to the newly established Resettlement Administration under Rexford Tugwell, although by then the program was well underway. Again on November 14, 1936, Executive Order 7496 turned the entire RDA program over to the National Park Service. Only requests for funds were submitted to the Resettlement Administration. [20] Finally, on August 13, 1940, Congress passed legislation granting the Secretary of the Interior authority to "either deed or lease to the states any lands purchased under the RDA program together with improvements, subject to an agreement that they would be used for public park and recreation purposes for at least twenty-five years." [21]

Part of Catoctin RDA in Maryland and the Chopawamsic RDA (Prince William Forest Park) were never placed under state control. Catoctin Mountain Park surrounds Camp David, the presidential retreat. Prince William Forest Park has remained a part of the National Park System serving residents of and visitors to the national capital area. It was retained in 1939 in recognition of its value as "an ideal recreational and camping area needed for organized camping facilities for various social service agencies and other organizations" in the Washington area. [22] Indeed, early in the planning process C. Marshall Finnan, Superintendent of the National Capital Parks had warned of the possible "discontinuance of the use of existing sites" by the urban population of the District of Columbia in the absence of NPS control over the Chopawamsic RDA. [23]

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Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003