The Crown of Civilian Conservation Corps Parks – Our History, Our Heritage

By John W. Murphey, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Near sunset at Gambrill State Park in Frederick County, five teenagers in cars arrive at High Knob. Loaded with takeout food, they saunter down a pine-shrouded path to a stone viewing platform built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to watch the sunset. This experience came as the result of a popular New Deal work-relief program that employed thousands of young men to build the first phase of Maryland’s state park system. Their work is still a big part of Maryland’s state park experience.  

A tea room in the park

Encompassing 1,207 acres, Gambrill State Park began in 1936 as a CCC project making improvements to an earlier municipal park that had stalled. Since the 19th century, its geologic feature — High Knob — had attracted visitors with spectacular views across the Frederick and Middletown valleys. Park planners enhanced this asset, building three stone viewing platforms unique to Maryland’s catalog of state parks. Later the Department of Forests and Parks divided the park into High Knob (which was set aside for sightseeing and picnicking) and Rock Run (a lower area with camping areas nestled along a stream). Work began at High Knob, with CCC Camp S-57 building a recreation area maximizing its views. Between 1936 and 1942, the CCC erected the three overlooks, a stone tea room, a superintendent’s house, multiple rustic wood picnic shelters and dozens of tables, trails, and a loop road.

The park’s stone viewing platforms are one of its outstanding features. Graced with what newspapers called “magnificent panoramic views,” the area was naturally predisposed to exploit its scenery. Unlike other New Deal state parks which required the construction of observation towers, park planners at Gambrill could enhance the scenery by simply building platforms. With a plentitude of handsome stone in the area, the overlooks appear to be part of the landscape.

The most scenic of the three overlooks, Middletown platform, is situated at the southern extreme of the picnic area and reached by a stone path. It is perched on a ledge giving views across Middletown Valley and surrounding farms. Sourced from local sandstone, quartzite, conglomerate, and phyllite, the stones range in color from gray to pink to yellow. The overlook is popular at sunset, giving views as far away as to Short Hill Mountain in Loudoun County, Virginia. It was so popular at one time it became the subject of postcards.

Organized on June 8, 1933, CCC Company 2302 was initially assigned to the 8,100-acre Frederick watershed, where it worked for several years protecting the area by removing dead timber, reforesting, and constructing firebreaks. The company had a secondary task to develop a recreational spot in the watershed, which resulted in several picnic sites.

The company trained at the Holabird Quartermaster Depot, an army post outside of Baltimore, dubbed Camp Holabird. They signed a contract for a six-month enrollment period which paid $30 monthly. The boys could pocket $8, but the remaining $22 was sent home if dependents were involved.

The CCC boys basketball team, Courtesy of Gambrill State Park

The company set up an all-white work camp, with quarters near a dam across Fishing Creek, approximately 4.5 miles (as the crow flies) from the future park. It started with a force of 200 enrollees, all trained at Camp Holabird, under the direction of Commander F. B. Hayne, a captain of the 34th Infantry Division. Named Camp S-57, it remained a tent city until November 1933, when standard CCC barracks were erected. The camp cost $18,000 to construct and included the usual assortment of standard-plan structures, including an administration building, overnight barracks, recreation hall, office quarters, latrine, and infirmary. Later, the boys would build their own educational building. All that is gone except two small stone pillars.

Camp S-57 wasn’t tasked with developing the park until three years after its formation. Work began with blazing equestrian and hiking trails and constructing a picnic area at High Knob. At the same time, the camp was still actively involved with improving the watershed.

Example of a picnic shelter at the park

A work report from December 1938 gives a sense of their accomplishments at Gambrill State Park. In the six months between June and December, they had nearly completed superintendent’s house, a large picnic shelter, four combination picnic tables and benches, and cleared 15 acres for picnic grounds. Additional work included laying 3,700’ of pipeline and constructing nearly 1.5 miles of road, along with a 34,000-square-foot parking lot. The park opened in 1939 incomplete.

As CCC camps shuttered across Maryland (leaving many park projects unfinished), the State Department of Forestry kept the CCC working on Gambrill State Park through 1942. During the last period of work, they made further improvements to the superintendent’s house, erected two observation platforms, constructed 20 stone fireplaces, built 30 picnic tables and three drinking fountains. In the same period, the camp began building a third viewing platform and the Tea Room, which was completed in the summer of 1941. Most of these features remain.

Despite being incomplete, the park proved to be popular. In 1940, it received 42,175 visitors, many of whom crowded around the top of the knob. Between its two parking areas, High Knob could see as many as 500 automobiles on a summer Sunday afternoon.

The Great Depression resulted in New Deal programs — crowned by the CCC — that did much to advance Maryland’s state park system. These programs created the foundation for ten state parks and other recreation areas. The CCC architecture, as demonstrated at Gambrill, New Germany, Herrington Manor, Washington Monument, Patapsco Valley, and Fort Frederick state parks, represents the era.

The legacy of the CCC’s skilled work and the vision of New Deal planners is a significant factor in the experience of many of Maryland’s state parks. The High Knob area of Gambrill State Park and its CCC-built environment represent one of the most notable examples of this work. And sunset from the Middletown Overlook can’t be missed.

Background on Project

Developed in cooperation between the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the survey which recorded Gambrill State Park was funded through a MHT Historic Preservation Non-Capital Grant. It was created to continue the systematic inventory of New Deal resources across Maryland’s state park system. The survey additionally recorded the CCC’s work at Elk Neck, Patapsco Valley, and Washington Monument state parks.

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