Patapsco Camp (WWII Civilian Public Service Site)

Group photo of about fifty people, mostly men, standing outside in front of a building and trees.
A group photo of workers and staff at Camp Patapsco (CPS Camp No. 3) in Elkridge, MD.

Courtesy Swarthmore College Special Collections, SCPC, DG056_CPS_Camp3_GroupPhoto

Quick Facts
Elkridge, MD
site of first Civilian Public Service camp for WWII conscientious objectors

Patapsco Camp, located near Elkridge, Maryland, was the first worksite in the Civilian Public Service program. This World War II-era initiative provided an opportunity for meaningful wartime work for conscientious objectors who refused to enter the military because of religious commitments to peace.  

Conscientious Objectors in World War II  

Twenty-first-century Americans often think of World War II as “the Good War.” The phrase evokes nostalgia for a supposed era of national unity and for a conflict with clear heroes and villains. But while Americans of the 1940s broadly supported the war, public opinion was more complicated and ambivalent than the myths suggest. Tens of thousands of American pacifists, for example, did not believe that any war could be “good.”  

Most war resisters were members of “peace churches” like the Church of the Brethren, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), or Mennonites. These denominations teach the principles of Christian pacifism or nonresistance. They argue that any form of violence is incompatible with Christianity, and that taking up arms on behalf of an earthly government is wrong.  

Civilian Public Service 

During WWII, drafted pacifists were required to report to their local draft board and register as “conscientious objectors,” or “COs.” They then had one of three options. Most COs during World War II—about 25,000 men in total—joined the armed forces in noncombatant roles, such as medic or chaplain. About 6,000 others refused to participate in the war effort in any way and were imprisoned. Among this number was the future civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

Another 12,000 COs joined a new program known as Civilian Public Service (CPS). Authorized by the US government but funded and coordinated by the peace churches, the CPS program provided COs with an option for “work of national importance under civilian direction.” It allowed them to serve their country without betraying their principles. 

In Camp 

Patapsco Camp was the first CPS facility to open, in May 1941. Like many of the other early CPS sites, it was a former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) site located in Patapsco State Forest. Its opening attracted intense media scrutiny. Reporters flocked to document what one paper called “one of the strangest phases of national defense.”  

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) administered the camp, but the work at Patapsco benefited the National Park Service. The 154 workers who passed through it performed similar labor to the CCC—fighting fires, building trails, and maintaining the woodland area. In western areas like Glacier National Park, COs took on dangerous work as "smokejumpers," wildland firefighters who parachuted into remote regions to respond to fires at their sources. CPS workers built on the progress that the CCC had made in developing and expanding the National Park system. "There is big satisfaction in watching the men respond to the opportunity to help," wrote a camp director at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "Considering that none of the CCC units stationed in this area are left and that the present ranger and warden staff are only half as large as they should be, it can be seen that the camp is indispensable to the maintenance of the park."

When not working, CPS participants created a community via worship meetings, classes, athletics, and a camp government. Since women weren’t eligible to be drafted, by definition, COs were men. But there were a few women working at Patapsco and other CPS camps as nurses or dieticians. Some sites allowed participants’ wives to live onsite or nearby. Like most male COs, most CPS women belonged to peace churches. They had grown up in families and communities that valued pacifism, even when it diverged from the values of the broader society. 


Life in a CPS camp was not easy. While the sponsoring churches raised money to pay the expenses of running the camp and housing and feeding its residents, the men labored without pay. Those with families were not eligible for the benefits that soldiers received to support wives and children. In the later years of the war, some former CPS participants chose to enlist and serve in noncombatant roles to support themselves. 

Some CPS participants also faced hostility from neighbors who viewed them as freeloaders or cowards. One opponent of the program from Illinois called the men at a nearby CPS camp a “gang of traitors” who would make it to the end of the war safe and healthy while others gave up their lives. The participants also found themselves having to defend their principles on multiple fronts. At Patapsco, residents protested vociferously when they found out they would be asked to help build an air raid tower. They viewed the task as part of supporting the government’s war effort.  

Racial tension also shaped the contours of the program. In 1942, the authorities decided to move the Patapsco camp to Powellville, Maryland. Local residents there objected to the presence of the camp’s one Black CO. In support of him, the other COs at Patapsco refused to transfer. Ultimately, the African American CO asked to be transferred to a different camp. The move went ahead, and the Patapsco site closed at the end of 1942. 


Today, the site of the Patapsco CPS Camp is located within the Patapsco Valley State Heritage Area. Visitors to Patapsco State Park – Avalon Area will find the site by proceeding from the intersection of US 1 and South Street. It is located approximately 400 feet west of the Avalon Visitors Center parking lot. Remaining camp features include a stone fireplace, sidewalks, and concrete stairs. A historical marker details the CCC and CPS presence at the camp. 



“150 Objectors Will Use Camp Near Baltimore,” The Gettsyburg Times (Gettysburg, PA), Feb. 20, 1941, 11.
“The C.C.C. Builds Our Park: The Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy.” The Historical Marker Database, accessed July 13, 2022.  
“CPS Unit Number 003-01.” Living Peace in a Time of War: The Civilian Public Service Story, accessed July 13, 2022.  
Goossen, Rachel Waltner. Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 
Grange, Kevin. "In Good Conscience," National Parks (Winter 2011): 
“List of CPS Camps.” Swarthmore College Peace Collection, accessed July 13, 2022.
Martin, Kali. “Alternative Service: Conscientious Objectors and Civilian Public Service in World War II,” National World War II Museum, Oct. 16, 2020.  
Orser, Edward. “Involuntary Community: Conscientious Objectors at Patapsco State Park During World War II,” Maryland Historical Magazine 72 (1), (Spring 1977): 132-146.  

Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Last updated: August 14, 2023