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Farming and timber harvesting and jobs associated with the iron industry were the primary occupations of people living in the Catoctin Mountains during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Several sawmills operated in the area, and wood—especially the abundant American Chestnut—was used for fuel, railroad ties, barrel staves, and mine supports. Thousands of additional acres were clear-cut to make charcoal for the Catoctin Iron Furnace. Other residents found work in the range of manufacturing industries that prospered in Mechanics Town, now known as Thurmont.
At the end of the 19th century the area’s economy began to decline. In the 1880s many local workers became unemployed when the furnace stopped using charcoal; those who survived this cutback lost their jobs later when the entire operation closed in 1903. Sawmills used up the remaining large timber by 1911; the last barrel stave factory closed in 1926, after the Chestnut blight, a fungus originally from Asia, had killed virtually all of that species. Years of poor farming practices and many fires from logging operations also had damaged the natural resources of the region.
Conditions in the area deteriorated as the 1930s continued. During the early part of the Great Depression, rural Maryland fared better than much of the country. While many urban residents found themselves without work, farms managed to provide an adequate living for their occupants. As a result many city dwellers returned to the country, which for a short time supported them as well. Several years of drought, however, combined with the increased population to overtax the local economy. Limited state aid was insufficient to ease these economic problems, and so in 1933 Maryland applied to participate in federal relief programs.
Maryland’s struggle coincided with a growing back-to-nature movement. Many influential people, including members of the Roosevelt administration, believed that Americans needed to move back to, or at least spend their leisure time in, a natural environment. A National Park Service study of the time illustrated these ideas:
Man’s loss of intimate contact with nature has had debilitating effects on him as a being which can be alleviated only by making it possible for him to escape at frequent intervals from his urban habitat to the open country....He must again learn how to enjoy himself in the out-of-doors by reacquiring the environmental knowledge and skills he has lost during his exile from his natural environment.¹
President Roosevelt’s New Deal contained programs that attempted to meet these goals and at the same time offer relief from the Great Depression. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, for example, spent $5 million to acquire submarginal land—that is, agricultural property that did not provide its owners reasonable incomes—that would create new sites for public recreation. A series of federal agencies subsequently created 46 "Recreational Demonstration Areas" (RDA) across the country; these spots were either waysides along important highways, extensions to national parks, additions to state scenic areas, or camping areas. In addition to providing recreation, RDAs also contributed to efforts to conserve water, soil, and wildlife resources.
The federal and state governments soon identified the Catoctin Mountains of Frederick and Washington Counties, Maryland, as a potential camping area. The guidelines for that type of RDA called for 2,000 to 10,000 acres deemed submarginal, a metropolitan area of at least 300,000 people within a day’s round trip (considered at that time to be 50 miles), an abundance of water and building materials, and a generally interesting environment. Around the Catoctins much of the land was submarginal: of the 50 families relying on agricultural production, 8 were making a subsistence living from the land, 26 were cutting timber, and 16 were living on relief. The area was just under 50 miles from Baltimore and Washington, each of which far exceeded 300,000 people. Though most of the forest was gone, many large, dead trees remained; the area also had ample water. As a result, starting in 1934 the Federal Government sent letters to landowners in the area explaining the program and offering to purchase their land at a fair price. Enough landowners sold their property that the project began the next year.
The Catoctin RDA was scheduled to include four public recreation group camps and two picnic areas. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of men: the number of workers at a given time averaged 250, but in one case rose as high as 595. In 1939, after the completion of the building program, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—another Depression-era relief program—occupied a camp and constructed waterlines, set stone walls, and trimmed trees. Each young man (ages 18-25) received $1.00 per day in wages, room, board, and the opportunity for some education. The men enrolled for six months and could reenlist. These federal relief programs ended abruptly with the onset of World War II. As the nation geared up for the coming battles, both industry and the military provided jobs for all who could be recruited.
Questions for Reading 1
1. How did the original settlers make a living?
2. What factors caused the collapse of the economy of the region?
3. What do you think the National Park Service meant when it referred to the "debilitating effects" caused by "man’s loss of contact with nature"?
4. What were the criteria for selection of RDA vacation sites? Why did they have to be close to cities? How might modern transportation methods have affected the criteria?
5. How did the 18th- and 19th-century industries on Catoctin Mountain contribute to the site’s eligibility for the Recreational Demonstration Area program?
6. What were the WPA and CCC? How did workers in those programs contribute to meeting the goals of the RDAs?
Compiled from Sara Amy Leach, "Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) Architecture at Catoctin Mountain Park" (Frederick County, Maryland) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988.
¹ U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1941), 4.