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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
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National Park Service Camp David (Catoctin Mountain Park)
Camp Misty Mount Cabin
Catoctin Mountain Park

Frederick County, near the center of Catoctin Mountain Park, whose main entrance is about 3 miles west of Thurmont.

Since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when it was known as "Shangri-la," this isolated camp in the hills of western Maryland has served as an official Presidential retreat and has often been the site of conferences and decisions of national and international significance. Heavily guarded, it may not be visited by the public.

In March 1942 President Roosevelt directed the National Park Service to investigate locations reasonably close to the Washington area for use as a Presidential retreat. One of his reasons for desiring to establish it was the wartime necessity to remain close to the Capital at all times and to limit visits to his home at Hyde Park, N.Y. Also, for security reasons, naval officials had recommended that he discontinue weekend use of the Presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Potomac. Because of his aversion to air conditioning and the oppressive summer heat and humidity of Washington, his medical advisers recommended that he seek respite in a nearby region of high altitude.

oil painting Camp David cottage
Dwight D. Eisenhower's oil painting of one of the cottages at Camp David. (Oil, undated, by Dwight D. Eisenhower, David H. Marx, Shrewsbury, N.J.)

After studying several locations, the National Park Service selected three tentative sites: one in Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, and the other two in the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, in Maryland. The President chose one of the latter two sites, known as Camp Number Three or Camp Hi-Catoctin. By using the existing buildings there, the retreat could be completed in the shortest possible time and at minimum cost. The camp also occupied a perfect location, atop Catoctin Mountain at an altitude of about 1,700 feet above sea level; experienced a consistently lower temperature than Washington; and was only about 70 miles, or a 2-hour drive, from the White House. The camp was one of three units the Federal Government had constructed between 1936 and 1939 as part of an experiment to establish public recreation facilities out of industrially depleted and worn-out lands. Although portions of the area had been opened to the public in 1937, the events leading up to World War II had ended the project prematurely.

In April 1942 Roosevelt visited the camp and chose as its nucleus and his personal residence an existing cabin, a one-room frame structure with a huge stone fireplace, an open porch, and an outside kitchen. Rebuilt by local laborers and the crew of the U.S.S. Potomac, which was transferred to the retreat in June, the completed structure, or lodge, contained a living-dining room, probably the original room; an enlarged, screened-in porch; a bedroom wing to the south; and a kitchen wing to the north. The exterior was constructed of local stone and hardwood; the interior, mainly of commercially obtained materials. A special feature of the lodge was a hinged wall that could be used as an emergency exit ramp for the crippled President. Furnishings consisted of various items from the White House attic and Navy storage. Above the main entrance of the lodge, which looked out over a small, trout-stocked pond, workmen hung the Presidential seal.

Laborers also assembled a communications building out of three existing cabins; combined two others to form a guest lodge; altered another structure for use as servants' sleeping quarters; and constructed a log gatehouse to guard the access road. Landscaping included selective removal of trees and shrubbery to accommodate the eastward view; additional planting in the vicinity of the main lodge; some clearing to aid in construction; and the obliteration of old service roads. Labor in the swimming pool area involved landscaping, road improvement, and the erection of a frame platform and tent for use as a dressing room. Utility work included the installation of water, power, and telephone lines and an underground intercommunication system.

On July 5 the President inspected the retreat, which he had named "Shangri-la" in April. The secluded mountaintop setting of James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, it had also been the code name for the secret starting point of James Doolittle's raid over Tokyo on April 18. Among the names Roosevelt applied to individual buildings were "The Bear's Den" (the main lodge), "The Soap Dish" (the laundry), "The Baker Street Urchins" (Secret Service building), and "Little Luzon" (Philippine stewards' cabin). Before his death in April 1945, he visited "Shangri-la" 22 more times. The most distinguished guests he entertained there were Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain on two occasions and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

Roosevelt's successor, Harry S Truman, used the retreat only a few times. President Eisenhower, however, was a frequent visitor and renamed it Camp David in honor of his grandson. He also redesignated the main lodge as "Aspen." The Eisenhowers not only repaired, repainted, and refurnished most of the cabins, but they also added a large flagstone terrace and picnic and outdoor cooking facility in the area of the main lodge. The President also installed a golf green and several tees. Because they owned a farm near Gettysburg, Pa., only 20 miles to the north, the Eisenhowers found the retreat to be convenient, especially while they were erecting a residence at the farm. Their most famous guest, in 1959, was Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union.

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Presidents Kennedy and Johnson rarely utilized Camp David, though in 1965 the latter conferred there with Lester Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada. It was President Nixon's favorite retreat when he was in Washington, not only for relaxing and meeting with foreign dignitaries, but also for working. President Ford seldom visited the retreat.

Extensive modernization of the facilities at the camp has occurred since Roosevelt's time, including installation of a helicopter pad, new figure-eight swimming pool, bowling alley, and skeet shooting range. There are now 11 residence cabins, including the main lodge, which is presently called "Laurel." The President utilizes a three-room cottage, named "Birch," as an office.

In 1954 the Federal Government created Catoctin Mountain Park, which surrounds Camp David, out of almost 6,000 acres of the old Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area. The remainder of the area was transferred to the State of Maryland, which now operates it as Cunningham Falls State Park. Catoctin Mountain Park is primarily a wilderness and public recreational area that provides nature and hiking trails and picnicking and camping facilities.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004