Digging into the mountain

Park's history is colored by contentious times

Park's history is colored by contentious times

November 07, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

THURMONT, Md. - The area that is now Catoctin Mountain Park in the northwest corner of Frederick County, Md., boasts an industrious, illustrious - and sometimes contentious - history.

It was a hunting ground for American Indians and the homeplace of early settlers to Western Maryland; the site of bountiful resources for tanneries, sawmills, an iron furnace and other industries; a farming community in its high valleys; an early hot spot for tourists; a retreat for presidents; a training ground for spies; and a mecca for making moonshine. The 5,810-acre park remains the home of the Camp David presidential retreat and a natural tourist attraction that draws more than 700,000 hikers, campers and anglers annually.

The National Park Service assumed management of the park on Nov. 14, 1936.

The darker side of Catoctin's past includes the murder of a boarding house owner, a whiskey still raid that left a sheriff's deputy dead, depletion of natural resources, land ownership disputes between residents and the federal government, and tension between state and federal authorities.


Park officials invite the public to celebrate Catoctin's rich heritage during the park's 68th anniversary celebration from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14. Park staff members will outline the defining events in the park's history, illustrating the discussion with photographs and artifacts, Park Superintendent Mel Poole said. Visitors - especially individuals with personal connections to Catoctin - also are invited to share their park memories.

"We're all trying to recognize that there were people here before us, and we want to give them an opportunity to speak," said Poole, who has run the park for the past six years. "There are still people who feel very emotional about the fact that they lived on the mountain and no longer have land here."

He said most people, however, seem pleased with the park service's conservation efforts and the opportunity to use the park for recreation.

"We're probably a very good example of an eastern deciduous forest. We're also a good example of a place that was all cut down, burned, and abused, but that came back," Poole said. "We're sort of an environmental success story."

Between 700,000 and 750,000 visitors trek to Catoctin each year to camp, hike, fish, boat and picnic, he said. The park's payroll now includes about 43 full-time and seasonal employees who worked within a $2.4 million operating budget for fiscal 2004, and a "tremendous volunteer base" of more than 650 individuals helps to keep the park running smoothly by tackling such tasks as clearing hurricane debris from trails and manning the Visitor Center, Poole said.

Presidential park

The federal government in 1935 first started acquiring more than 10,000 mountainous acres for a recreational demonstration area, which laborers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) then worked for the better part of the next decade to develop.

"Catoctin Mountain Park: Historic Resource Study" by Dr. Edmund F. Wehrle, online at, details the park's past.

Work included clearing roads, removing thousands of blighted chestnuts, reforesting, and building the enduring structures still used today at Camp Misty Mount, Camp Round Meadow, Camp Greentop and elsewhere in the park, Poole said.

Recreational demonstration areas, part of a Depression-era program to find new uses for marginally productive lands, were early federal government attempts to give people who lived in urban areas access to rural areas, he said. In a nutshell, the government acquired land, hired workers for deconstruction and construction, then gave the park land back to the state to manage - usually. Catoctin is one of 10 original recreation demonstration areas nationwide over which the federal government maintained ownership, Poole said.

Credit President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His April 1942 visit to Camp Hi-Catoctin - with its spectacular views, cool climate and existing rustic structures and swimming pool - so impressed Roosevelt that he called the site "Shangri-La."

WPA workers quickly revamped existing buildings and built such structures as a gate house and communications building to make the camp fit for a presidential retreat; security measures were put into place; and Roosevelt and his entourage arrived for their first stay in July 1942. His famous visitors included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Shangri-La has since become known as Camp David, and, while the U.S. Secret Service oversees its security, Camp David's location within Catoctin Mountain Park's borders has required extensive training for the park law enforcement officers who run outer-perimeter security for the presidential retreat - especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole said.

"Needless to say, like the rest of the world, this place has changed considerably since 9/11," he said.

Conflict and cooperation

To the chagrin of some Marylanders, Roosevelt forbade the Department of the Interior from transferring ownership of Catoctin to the State of Maryland when in 1943 he signed legislation that turned the vast majority of recreational demonstration areas over to the states in which they were located. President Harry S. Truman in 1945 announced the park would remain in federal hands, and Catoctin was transferred to the National Capital Area Parks in 1949. A few years later, National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth moved to settle ongoing tensions with Maryland, arranging to have the southern portion of the park transferred to the state. The Maryland State Forest and Park Service in 1954 took over what is now the 4,440-acre Cunningham Falls State Park.

Federal and state park workers now have a cooperative relationship, Poole said.

"We tend to cover each other whenever and however we need to," he said.

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