1936-1948 Summer Camps
After the resettlement phase of the Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) boys began their work, and Chopawamsic RDA debuted as a summer camp for the children of Washington, DC. Social groups in the nation’s capital worked alongside the National Park Service (NPS) by sponsoring the camps. The goal was to give the underprivileged a chance to leave the city for a few weeks. Through crafts, nature walks, swimming, and other activities, the children who camped at Chopawamsic had opportunities they would likely never have the confines of the nation’s capital.
Listen to oral histories from the campers and counselors.
It should be noted that segregation had a serious impact in the park’s development. Chopawamsic was under the jurisdiction of Region I of the NPS, headquartered in Richmond. Though NPS Associate Director Conrad Wirth did not want Chopawamsic camps segregated, the Region I office, in adherence to local custom, trumped Wirth’s wishes. Furthermore, many of the organizations interested in the camps were segregated.
Throughout Washington, DC, there were separate chapters of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The Twelfth Street YMCA, which camped at Chopawamsic, was the oldest African American YMCA in the country. The Family Services Association (FSA) operated two camps since the early 1900s, prior to their use of Chopawamsic. Despite the separate entrances, Chopawamsic was one of the only camps in Region I to operate camps for both whites and African Americans. Many opted to provide recreation only to whites. Cabin Camps 1 and 4 operated for African Americans while Camps 2, 3, and 5 served white campers. For more information on the segregation of the cabin camps, visit our African American history page.
Each camp had a different story because of the variety of organizations that used these cabins. This social and recreational project reached out to children and families of a number of backgrounds. The following descriptions only outline some of the many organizations that used Chopawamsic’s cabins.
Cabin Camp 1
National Park Service
The Jewish Community Center and the Arlington Girl Scouts were the largest groups to use Cabin Camp 2. The Jewish Community Center opened its camp in 1936. Due to a lack of funding, the Community Center’s camp only lasted a couple years. The Arlington Girl Scouts started their summer camp in 1940. The Arlington Council had only formed two years before. Their camps lasted for two weeks and they accepted girls from age 7 to 18. Activities included swimming instruction, canoeing or boating, hiking, dramatics, music, folk dancing, cooking, handicraft, and pioneering.
Cabin Camps 3 and 4
In 1939, Camp Goodwill hosted an open house that received a lot of publicity. It allowed locals and administrators in Washington, DC to see what Chopawamsic’s camps provided for children and families. As the reports after the event explain, the camps allowed the children to forget about their circumstances and embrace the outdoors. In short, this open house proved that the RDA program was already successful only a few years after it began.
Cabin Camp 5
The RDA program left an important social and recreational legacy. The program created new parkland, which was available to all. Less fortunate residents in or near major cities had something similar to national parks, most of which were in the West. The social agencies that rented the cabins had greater opportunity for outreach. The experiences of a summer camp were far beyond the means of many of the children who stayed here. Not only did they get fresh air, but many of the camp programs gave children the opportunity for success later in life. Its legacy continues as visitors continue to use Prince William Forest Park and other former RDAs for their original purpose of recreation.