Fort Ritchie has storied history


Editor's note: The following story about the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army Base is one in an occasional series of stories about some of the treasures of Washington County's past.

CASCADE - What was to become Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade started out as the Buena Vista Ice Co., became a National Guard camp and then was taken over by the U.S. Army to train soldiers in military intelligence and psychological warfare during World War II.

It wound up its military years as a command center for Site R, a government installation known locally as the Underground Pentagon, built under Raven Rock Mountain in neighboring Pennsylvania.

In 1998, Fort Ritchie ended long years of military service when it was closed on the recommendation of the BRAC commission, which was established by Congress to ensure the integrity of the base closure and realignment process.


The land in the northeastern corner of Washington County on the Pennsylvania border that was to become Fort Ritchie was first the home of an ice company.

Thaddeus Allen Wastler figured that a frozen man-made lake could be a profitable source for ice if it was near southern ice markets, according to a 1983 story in The Herald Mail. Construction began in 1901 on Lower Lake Royer.

As it turned out, a rail siding built to carry the ice to its markets for use in iceboxes was too close to the lake and cinders from trains blew onto the ice. Rather than move the siding, Wastler built a second lake, Upper Lake Royer.

Electrical refrigeration led to the downfall of Wastler's ice company but freed up the land for use as a military base.

A committee in charge of choosing a site for a Maryland National Guard training facility selected the property in the 1920s.

In 1926, the State of Maryland purchased 580 acres of land for $60,000 and began developing a brigade training area for the Maryland National Guard.

The area was named Camp Ritchie, in honor of the then-governor of Maryland, Albert C. Ritchie.

"In the mid-1920s, Capt. (Robert) Barrick of the National Guard was tasked with creating the camp facilities and buildings," said Bill Hofmann, the senior property and environmental services manager of Fort Ritchie Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT), the company that is developing the property.

In 1932, public works projects, like others around the country that provided jobs during the Depression years, were undertaken at the fort. The two main entrance gates and another regimental area were completed during that period, The Herald-Mail reported in 1983.

In 1942, the federal government ordered that the camp be turned into a War Department Military Intelligence Training Center.

The book "Maryland in World War II" describes Ritchie's mission then as "the training of interrogator, interpreter, translator, order of battle, photo interpreter and counter-intellegence teams."

An estimated 20,000 intelligence troops were housed and trained at the campsite over a four-year period during World War II.

Among the structures built to help in the training effort was a mock German village. The newspaper said the village did not survive, probably because it was built of burlap and plywood.

The Ritchie Boys

Rudolf "Rudy" Michaels, 91, was among those who trained at Camp Ritchie during that period.

"The training was the most intensive training ever," he said.

Michaels was trained to be a German prisoner-of-war interrogator.

"No day was like any other day," Michaels said in a recent phone interview from his home in Sacramento, Calif. "We did field exercises and trained very little in hand-to-hand combat."

Michaels and many of the troops stationed at Camp Ritchie were young Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi Germany and fled to the United States. This group became known as The Ritchie Boys, who were the basis of a documentary film of the same name.

In 2004, Christian Bauer filmed "The Ritchie Boys," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the life of the Jewish soldiers who fled Nazi Germany. The film outlines their experiences at Camp Ritchie.

"The term 'Ritchie Boys' was the name we gave ourselves and each other," Michaels said.

After The Ritchie Boys completed their training, they returned to Europe as American soldiers trained to fight Hitler's army.

Michaels said the fight against their native country was emotional for some, but not for him.

"I had no qualms," Michaels said. "I never felt any loyalty toward Germany after being forced to flee. I was happy to be an American soldier. I felt great, vengeance is mine."

Supporting Site R

From the mid-1940s to around 1948, the post once again was used as a training station for the Maryland National Guard.

During that period, a hospital built during the fort's days as a military training camp was used as the State Chronic Disease Hospital, the newspaper reported.

Then, "around 1948, the Army bought back the property," Hofmann said.

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