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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 33:  The Presidential Retreat (Camp David)

Located in the beautiful Catoctin Mountains just west of Thurmont, is Catoctin Mountain Park, established in 1935 by the Federal Government. The purpose of this park, known as the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area, was to show how submarginal farm lands and poorly managed forest lands could be converted into a valuable recreational resource. Organized camping facilities were built for low-cost use by accredited character-and-health-building groups. During the first few years the area was used almost exclusively by these groups.

Then came December 7, 1941, and with it the bombing of Pearl Harbor. America was at war. It was the feeling of Michael F. Reilly, wartime supervising agent of the White House Secret Service detail, that with a war on and enemy agents about, no steps taken to protect the life of the President would be too many. The danger of railroad travel to Hyde Park, plus Mr. Roosevelt's own desire for seclusion led to a search for a near-by hideaway. Mr. Roosevelt wanted it private and within two hours of Washington by way of automobile. The President's doctor, Ross McIntire, felt that he should have altitude a minimum of 2,000 feet, and coolness.

A circle was drawn around Washington and several locations were investigated, and the area chosen was the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area which had recently been developed by the National Park Service.

With the start of the war, one of the camp sites was turned over to the Marine Corps for use as a rest station. Another camp site was used by the Office of Strategic Services for training purposes. The third camp became the presidential retreat, known as "Shangri-La," President Roosevelt's favorite designation for anything secret.

"Shangri-La" remained a deep secret until after the death of Roosevelt in April of 1945. The citizens of Thurmont, however, knew of the goings-on, but could say nothing for security reasons. A number of local citizens helped with the work in making it into a very attractive site, which today is known the world over.

The President's own quarters, was made by moving three log cabins together. The result was a rather uninteresting cottage with a kitchen, butler's pantry, combination living room and dining room and four bedrooms. There were two baths one for the President and one for the other three bedrooms.

The general atmosphere of "Shangri-La" at the end of the war was that of a place hastily slapped together in an emergency. No attempt was made to beautify the grounds, but through the years many changes have been made.

To give you an idea of the important part that "Shangri-La" must have played during World War II, a government official once stated that this secluded little mountain retreat not only had the data on the fighting fronts, and the potential fighting fronts, but it was actively in touch with them all. It was nothing for the citizens of Thurmont to sec General George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King and General "Hap" Arnold come tearing up that twisting mountain road at 12 or 1 o'clock at night with their aides and secretaries. Then there would be a conference with the President lasting for about an hour or more and off they would go again. Just what historic decisions in the conduct of World War II were made at "Shangri-La" have thus far not been disclosed. However, as one official recently stated, "they were momentous."

Princess Martha of Norway and Princess Juliana of the Nether-lands were guests at "Shangri-La," coming once during the Roosevelt administration. French leader, Charles De Gaulle, has been a guest at the retreat on several occasions. During World War 11 Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the site a number of times and greeted the citizens of Thurmont with his famous Victory sign as he drove through the streets. On one of Churchill's visits to the mountain retreat, he could not resist making a trip into Thurmont. Being a very inquisitive man, he wanted to see all of the town, including Thurmont's one social attraction, Cozy Restaurant. Here he enjoyed a cold one and allegedly gave the waitress some coins to play the juke box.

At the end of one year in office, Mr. Truman had made only one or two visits to the retreat, but it was his intention to use it occasion-ally in the summers. Mrs. Truman visited the site during a rainy afternoon in the fall of 1945 and found it pretty dull. It is believed because she cared little for it, President Truman too, lost interest.

When Mr. Eisenhower became President, the citizens of Thurmont began to wonder if he would show an interest in the site, since he had purchased a farm near Gettysburg. In May 1953, President Eisenhower paid his first visit to "Shangri-La." He immediately expressed his desire to use it. He liked the location and its coolness during the hot summer months. However, he decided to change the name "Shangri-La" to "Camp David," naming it after his grand-son.

President Eisenhower made good use of the retreat during his administration, dividing his week-ends between his farm in nearby Gettysburg and Camp David in the beautiful Catoctin Mountains.

In 1955, while convalescing from his heart attack, President Eisenhower chose Camp David as the site for one of his cabinet meetings.

Most of the high-ranking Government officials who attended were flown up from Washington by helicopter. The members assembled in the living room of Laurel Lodge, the main building at Camp David.

The day before this Cabinet meeting, the President had been driven by car from his farm in Gettysburg to Camp David for a conference with the National Security Council, the nation's top strategy board.

In March, 1959, President Eisenhower invited the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan to Camp David to confer on ways to thaw out the Cold War between the East and West. It was here in this same mountain retreat that President Eisenhower entertained Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in September, 1959. Out of this meeting came the phrase "spirit of Camp David," to denote what was then thought to be a more amicable attitude toward world problems by the Soviet dictator.

President Kennedy was a frequent visitor to Camp David, but he preferred the seashore to the mountains. However, Mr. Kennedy made Camp David available to his Cabinet members and their families as well as to White House aides for week-end relaxation.

President Johnson and his family have spent many week-ends at Camp David, bringing with them many distinguished guests.

Just recently Mr. Johnson entertained the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt and Mrs. Holt. at Camp David for a week-end of talks and relaxation. On Sunday morning the President and his guests motored to Catoctin to attend church services at Harriet Chapel.

Over the years, the camp site has been expanded and modernized and transformed into a private summer retreat. There are two main lodges Laurel and Aspen each with its own modern kitchen. The view over the valley from this mountain retreat is quite spectacular.

Camp David is maintained and serviced by detachments from the United States Navy. The size of this detail is a well-guarded secret. Navy cooks and stewards look after the guests and a detachment of Seabees is on hand to keep the camp in trim.

Just as Thurmont today is known as the "Gateway To The Mountains," it may some day be referred to as the "Gateway to History." Many of the world's leaders have gathered at this little mountain retreat, just a few miles west of Thurmont in the Catoctin Mountains for discussions on national and international affairs. Just what historic decisions have been made at this presidential retreat have thus far not been disclosed, but it is an established fact that they have been momentous and have been important factors in shaping the history of this nation and of the world.

What the future holds for Camp David, no one knows, but one thing is certain, it will always be regarded by the citizens of Thurmont as a historic shrine, of which we are mighty proud to have at our back door.

Chapter Index | Chapter 34:  Bicentennial Celebration 1951

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