Catoctin Mountain Park
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Six:
War and Politics Shape the Park


World War II forever changed the destiny of Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area. The establishment of the presidential retreat known as Shangri-La turned the park into an area of international significance. Few having lived in the area before the war could have ever imagined the important developments that consumed the park during the war years. Not only was it a meeting place for Churchill and Roosevelt, but it was also a training ground for soldiers and secret agents. After the war, despite the protests of the state of Maryland, it was clear that Catoctin would never again be just another park. Still, local protests and lobbying shaped the destiny of the area as well—and resulted in the division of park in the early 1950s.

The Winds of War

By 1941, the growing international crisis was having an unmistakable impact on the nascent park. In the summer before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the army established a temporary training camp at the Catoctin RDA. Soldiers put up tents next to the CCC barracks and trained as part of America's response to the crisis in Europe. [1] Alongside their other work, Company 1374 of the CCC began practicing military drills. In September 1941 company members began attending a "national defense training program" in Hagerstown, which included courses in electric and acetylene welding. [2]

As the war in Europe heated up and the United States developed a closer relationship with Great Britain, over 21,000 British sailors enjoyed brief respites in the U.S., many at the recently constructed Recreational Demonstration Areas, which offered "the play and active recreation" facilities desirable for exhausted crewmen. [3] In the summer of 1941, the Catoctin RDA hosted 74 British sailors, who arrived in mid-June. At first, Superintendent Williams hoped to house the group at Mount Lent, Bessie Darling's former boarding house now converted into a lodge. But when word arrived that the group could include over 100 sailors, Williams hastily arranged to shift the British to Greentop, where they would be near swimming and other sport facilities. [4] In the end, seventy-four sailors arrived. The seamen, who stayed through August, appear to have enjoyed their brief stay on land, which included visits from CCC company members and a Fourth of July celebration. [5]

While the British sailors enjoyed a Catoctin summer, the National Park Service was discovering that the improving economy (the result of war mobilization) had dried up the once large labor pool that had constructed the park. Once scarce, good jobs now were readily available in the defense industry. Before it closed down in November 1941, several members of the Catoctin Company 1374 corps members left for jobs in the burgeoning airplane plants of Hagerstown. Apparently informed that the Catoctin CCC company would soon be disbanded, Williams searched for new sources of labor. In the summer of 1941, the NPS applied to the Maryland WPA requesting workers for projects yet to be complete. These projects probably included a long-planned fourth camp for the park (see Map 6). At one point, the NPS regional director considered seeking out military funding for several of the Catoctin projects. [6] Despite the growing labor scarcity, WPA officials approved a new project at Catoctin "to continue work of the type previously carried on" by the CCC. [7] When Company 1374 disbanded in November 1941, 30 WPA workers continued at the park. Whereas the new labor contingency was a far cry from the large numbers who had contributed to the early construction of the park, the new workers did allow Williams to continue work on park roads and some smaller construction projects. [8]


The attack on Pearl Harbor launched the already significant American military mobilization into hyper speed. The war took precedent over everything. In desperate need of training facilities, the branches of the armed forces turned to the National Park Service. The Recreation Demonstration Areas, constructed near large urban areas, generally featuring organized camp sites, and containing, "within them little that can be permanently damaged by heavy visitation and intensive use" clearly lent themselves to military use. [9] In the spring of 1942, the NPS announced that henceforth the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area would be closed to civilian use and "taken over for use in the present war effort." The NPS extended permits to the War Department, and the in spring of 1942, the military surveyed the park to plan their use of the grounds. [10]

With the military takeover, the NPS summarily informed groups that had enjoyed use of the organized camp sites that "the war program of the nation has rendered impossible the normal utilization of organized camp facilities." [11] In order to facilitate the new park occupants, the NPS also asked the Maryland League for Crippled Children (MLCC) and the Salvation Army to remove all special equipment that had been stored at the camps. [12] The MLCC then moved its operations temporarily to the French Creek Recreational Demonstration Area at the Hopewell Village National Historic Site. [13] For the next several years recreational use of the park area was limited to a few picnickers using what was known as the West Picnic Area and a few fishermen

making use of Hunting Creek (see Appendix 20). [14]

By the summer of 1942, the army had established a temporary camp at the former CCC camp (Round Meadow). Meanwhile, a short distance away from the army campsite, a group of spies-in-training was learning the rudimentaries of espionage. President Roosevelt had authorized the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942 as an independent agency to coordinate overseas intelligence and espionage. In the fall of 1942, the OSS took over Camp Greentop, the former home of the camp for handicapped children (see Map 6). Recruits, both men and women, came from all over the country and all over the world (the largest non-American group was the French contingent) to be trained by the OSS. After preliminary training at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia, they shuttled between several sites including Greentop, which was known in OSS parlance as Area B. The Catoctin site specialized in hand-to-hand combat, infiltration training, marksmanship, and setting charges. At any given time, OSS instructors trained roughly one hundred recruits in groups of ten. Each recruiting class spent roughly two weeks in the Catoctin Mountains. During training, none of the recruits used their real names—even to those in their group. Instead alias allowed for a cloak of secrecy. Among the expert training staff was a colorful English colonel, formerly employed by the Shanghai police. The colonel was remembered as a particularly "notorious character in the OSS." [15]

Impressed by German expertise in unconventional warfare, OSS Director William "Wild Bill" Donovan sought to train operatives capable of working behind enemy lines. One of the

more unique features of the OSS training camp was the so-called "mystery" or "spook" house. Armed with a .45 caliber pistol with two clips of six rounds, agents would enter the darkened house, apparently built somewhere around the camp. Inside the house, Nazi cardboard cutouts would suddenly pop out, requiring the trainees to think fast. [16] Wild Bill Donovan, himself, came to the camp on several occasions to oversee the training. [17]

The military presence at Catoctin required a host of changes to the park. The camp later known as Misty Mount was winterized to facilitate year-round training. [18] And a number of new parcels of land (totaling nearly 275 acres) were added to the park. The family of Victor Brown on Foxville Road, who had long resisted selling to the government finally relented. By the spring of 1942, the War Department had acquired the Brown farm in addition to a number of other properties. [19]

While the military provided for much of the labor and materials needed to turn the park into a training ground, much work was still left for Williams and his skeleton crew who remained the official custodians of the park. For Williams, lack of labor hampered even routine maintenance efforts. Maryland State WPA Director Dryden, once awash in labor, now scrambled to find even a few workers for Catoctin. In the summer of 1942, the WPA could only assign twelve workers to Catoctin. [20] By the winter, the number had risen to thirty-five workers, but Williams worried that the WPA's "goodwill" would soon run out. [21] Of particular concern to the Catoctin project supervisor was the condition of park roads--all of which remained stone surfaced and susceptible to serious problems in bad weather conditions. Williams hoped to pave over the main Thurmont-Foxville Road, but fears that it would damage Hunting Creek kept the project on hold. [22] He hoped that the war emergency might create the pressure needed to encourage serious work on the park roads. [23]


The story of the founding and early years of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Shangri-La retreat in the Catoctin mountains has been told in depth by Kathie Hogan, Barbara Kirkconnell, and most recently by W. Dale Nelson. [24] While little can be added their accounts, the story briefly can be recounted with some new information.

The mountains of central western Maryland had offered a retreat to government officials for over a half century by 1942. Diplomats from Washington DC's many foreign embassies vacationed at Pen Mar. Washington officials such as Lawrence Richey and attorney Kingman Brewster, later president of Yale University, kept vacation homes in the area. [25] President Hoover was a frequent guest at the Richey camp, and his visits continued even after his presidency. Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and leaders of the Maryland Republican party, for instance, enjoyed the opening of the 1935 fishing season at the Richey camp in April 1935. [26] Franklin Roosevelt, himself, appreciated the area's recreational potential. As assistant secretary of the Navy, he had vacationed at Braddock Heights during World War I. [27]

As president, Roosevelt had enjoyed escapes from the pressures of the White House at Warm Springs, Georgia and on the presidential yacht. In 1942 with the world war raging and U boats patrolling the Atlantic, the yacht was deemed too dangerous and Warm Springs deemed too far from Washington. Instead, White House officials sought a new retreat and assigned the National Park Service to find a suitable location near Washington, DC. The park service submitted potential locations, two of which were at the Catoctin RDA. One site was Camp Hi-Catoctin. The Federal Camp Council, which organized retreats for government employees, was among the prime users of the camp and had sponsored numerous outings to the scenic site (see Map 6). The Girl and Boy Scouts also made extensive use of Hi-Catoctin. The second site was the area slated for the construction of the fourth Catoctin Camp, a project which had been temporarily shelved. On April 15, 1942 Conrad Wirth of the NPS took White House officials on a tour of the Catoctin RDA. The group was particularly impressed by Hi-Catoctin and asked Williams to clear brush for automobiles should the president wish to visit. [28]

A week later, FDR did visit. Reports had the president "very much pleased with the area." [29] One story had him exclaiming upon seeing the site, "This is Shangri-La," a reference to James Hilton's famed novel The Lost Horizon. [30] The appeal of the site was clear. At an elevation of 1,800 feet, Hi-Catoctin offered seclusion and a spectacular view that included the Monocacy River. It offered cool breezes and temperatures five to ten degrees below steamy conditions in Washington DC. Best of all, the site already contained a number of cabins and other structures, including a swimming pool (see Appendix 21). The site could be reconstructed as a presidential retreat at a fraction of a brand new retreat. With Americans making enormous sacrifices for the war effort, the president could ill afford to appear extravagant. The revamping of existing buildings also could be done quickly, allowing the president use of his new retreat that summer. The overall location offered the appeal of a two hour drive from Washington, DC "over first-class roads" (until one arrived at the park where there existed only dirt roads). [31]

From there the project moved quickly. President Roosevelt returned to Catoctin on April 30 to give final approval to "preliminary sketches of the expanded lodge buildings (see Appendix 22). Within days the building had begun. WPA labor at various local projects was diverted to Catoctin to aid in reconverting the camp. Construction proceeded very much along the lines of Roosevelt's plan that the camp lodge, a structure roughly 17 by 28 feet, with a kitchen and open porch, be converted into the retreat's main building, with four bedrooms, two baths, a living room/dinning room, a screened-in porch, and a paved terrace. Builders then combined two cabins on the camp grounds to serve as guest quarters, while the camp craft shop became the servant's quarters. Crews also added a gate house, a communications building, three latrines, and an access drive, 1,060 feet in length." [32] In front of the lodge, workers built a cistern and fountain. Special features inside the lodge included French doors, crafted by a local Thurmont carpenter, that dropped down to allow Roosevelt's wheel chair easy access. [33] As Winston Churchill described Shangri-La, it was "in principle a log cabin with all modern improvements." [34]

With the presidential yacht out-of-commission during the war, the navy dispatched to Shangri-La a team of twelve Filipino stewards formerly assigned to the yacht. The crew, overseen by Sotero Abida, who remained in the Thurmont area long after his service to FDR, worked to put final touches on the retreat. [35]

By early July, Shangri-La was ready, and, on the weekend of July 18-20, Roosevelt and entourage arrived for their first weekend in the Catoctins (see Appendix 23 for listing of FDR visits to Shangri-La). The furnishings, courtesy of a naval warehouse, were austere: simple metal beds, a chair, and a dresser in each room. The floor covered by a worn rug. [36] Nevertheless, Roosevelt seemed to delight in the surroundings which offered him a needed respite from the pressures of the war. Among the president's favorite Catoctin diversions was tending to his stamp collection. [37]

But war frequently intruded on Roosevelt's hide-away. On his second trip to Shangri-La, the president spent much of his time in deep conversations with his military advisors over the situation at the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. Later, it was at Shangri-La where Roosevelt first heard of the successful invasion of North Africa on November 7, 1942. The next year, on June 25, 1943, Roosevelt was again at Shangri-La when he received word of Mussolini's resignation. [38] Over the next three years, the president made numerous trips to the retreat. Guests included Supreme Justice William O. Douglas, OSS Director William Donovan, and poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. Royal visitors, including Princess Martha of Norway and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, also made their way to the retreat.

The most famous visitor to Shangri-La (and the one still talked about in the local area) was Winston Churchill. The English prime minister had been a frequent visitor at the White House during the war years. One May 15, 1943 Churchill set out with the President, Mrs. Roosevelt, and Harry Hopkins bound for Shangri-La. Passing through the town of Frederick on their way to the retreat, Churchill impressed his guests by reciting John Greenleaf Whittier's famous poem "Barbara Fritchie." Roosevelt and Churchill later talked of the impact of the Civil War in the area. During their stay in the mountains, the president and prime minister took some time to tour the general area. According to Churchill, the two fished in Hunting Creek. Locals remember the entourage arriving at Catoctin Furnace to observe Fred Tresselt's gold fish ponds. Churchill, who kept a similar pond at his home in England, particularly admired the fish and talked at length with Tresselt. The Secret Service then swore Tresselt to secrecy about the meeting. [39] On their way home, while Roosevelt waited in the car, Churchill surprised Camp Cozy proprietor Wilbur Freeze by stopping into the Cozy Tavern for a beer and to play the jukebox. In fact, the prime minister had never seen a jukebox and Freeze had to explain its function. [40] On Monday, Churchill left the mountains, but left a lasting impression on all those who came into contact with him.

With such famed visitors, security was a major concern at Shangri-La. A barbed-wire fence surrounded the compound, and marines, stationed at Camp Misty Mount, patrolled the area (see Map 6). Likewise the very existence of the retreat was to be kept a secret. The most Roosevelt would say as he departed the White House was that he was on his way to "Shangri-La." Of course, local residents knew fully well when the president was coming. As Camp Cozy owner Wilbur Freeze explained the president "was proceeded by about three or four hours by secret service men, who sent ahead inspecting bridges and roads." One several occasions, Thurmont locals lined the streets to greet Roosevelt. [41] When Churchill arrived with the president, a traffic light on Church and Main brought their entourage to a dead stop. Secret Service men jumped from the car and stood on the running boards. To the delight of onlookers Churchill and Roosevelt flashed victory signs from their car windows. [42]

Although local residents certainly figured out the location of the secret retreat, the White House remained officially silent on the issue. Reporters likewise, even if they knew or suspected the location were expected to remain silent about the retreat. On October 15, 1943, the Chicago Daily News broke the silence on the presidential hide-away. The newspaper reported the location of Shangri-La in the Catoctin RDA and claimed that the National Park Service had "confirmed the fact that the President used Catoctin on several occasions in the past" (see Appendix 24). NPS officials quickly denied being the source of the leak. [43] The floodgates having been opened in Chicago, the local Catoctin Enterprise then reported the story of Churchill and the Cozy Tavern juke box. Other newspapers printed similar stories. [44] Louise McPherson, a descendent of the McPherson-furnace owning family then living in Auburn house, also wrote to Roosevelt to deny any local involvement in the disclosures. She also recounted some of the history of the area and welcomed the president to the area. [45]

The most serious threat to the president, however, came from the most unlikely of places. In planning his retreat, Roosevelt had made a special request for "an old wheel with lights coming out of it for the dining room." Wagon wheel chandeliers were fixtures of many rustic camps at the time. Conrad Wirth of the NPS Branch of Planning arranged to have such a chandelier made. To Wirth's horror, later, when Roosevelt was not at the camp, the wheel fell onto the maghongany table below. [46] Wirth could only be grateful that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had been present.

After making seventeen pilgrimages to Shangri-La in 1942 and 1943, Roosevelt found time for only four trips in 1944, a tough election year. There was also talk that with security broken the president might be safer elsewhere. His last trip to the Catoctin hideaway was on July 9, 1944 accompanied by his friend Lucy Mercer Rutherford. [47]

With Roosevelt's death in April 1945 and the end of the war that summer, the press began pushing for more information about the mountain retreat. In late September 1945, the White House finally decided to "take the lid off" Shangri-La. Reporters were allowed a tour of the facilities that included a special doghouse for Fala, the first dog. [48] As FDR had feared, the unveiling of the retreat immediately became a political issue. The decidedly-Republican Chicago Tribune, asserted that the costs of Shangri-La early ran over $100,000, with the lodge alone costing $60,000. The article also complained about a "swimming pool, which was built especially for the late president . . . quite pretentious." [49]

A few weeks after the revelations about Roosevelt's camp, on a Sunday morning, Catoctin superintendent, Mike Williams, rose and lit the fireplace in the Custodian's house, built by the CCC several years earlier, where he and his family lived. As he prepared breakfast, he smelled smoke and ran to the second story of the house. There he found the "entire overhead ceiling in flames." He immediately notified Camp One (Misty-Mount), where the Marines protecting Shangri-La remained stationed. They quickly arrived at the scene as did the Smithburg and Thurmont fire departments. The combined forces showered the residence with water and chemicals, but the house could not be saved. An official investigation revealed that structural timbers had been placed too close to the flue lining. [50]

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2003