Prince William Forest Park
An Administrative History
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In the fall of 1934 Miss Annie Williams, a trusted black midwife and mother of four children, harvested her apples and peaches from her small orchard on Hickory Ridge Road in Joplin, Virginia. She would sell them to passers-by following a pattern well established over the past 20 years. As she was selling her fruits to help "get by," little could she have known of the radical changes planned for her and her land by unseen benefactors in the Roosevelt Administration. [1]

In his fight to end the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was prepared to spend federal money to directly aid the poor. Roosevelt had entered the White House in 1933 with a mandate to end the Great Depression. Self-liquidating projects employing the jobless were a major component of his recovery program. [2] Responsibility for distributing more than $500 million allocated to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) fell to Administrator Harry L. Hopkins. [3] His creative programming fostered the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These and several other federal work programs were made available for the development of national, state, and metropolitan parks. [4]

Prince William Forest Park, originally called the Chopawamsic Recreational Development Area at its inception in 1934, would be one of the beneficiaries of this federal relief effort. [5] The Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program was one of the really successful New Deal programs supervised by the National Park Service. [6]

Unlike other park development plans, the RDA program had funds for land acquisition. [7] This funding stemmed from the RDA's place in President Roosevelt's overall conservation program. While governor of New York, Roosevelt made conservation a governmental responsibility. His concern for the problem of land utilization became a national issue in 1934 when he created the Land Planning Committee consisting of Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, WPA administrator Harry L. Hopkins, and the governor of the Farm Credit Administration W. I. Meyers. The committee worked through coordinators appointed by the cooperating agencies. Conrad L. Wirth was designated Interior Department coordinator and Matt Huppuch of the National Park Service (NPS) his alternate.

Studies of recreational needs conducted by the Land Planning Committee revealed an urgent need for natural areas relatively close to population centers and available to large numbers of people for weekend and every day use. Useful recreational facilities consisted of group campsites, hiking trails, swimming, and picnic facilities. Studies also revealed many private groups, especially those serving the urban poor, which could not afford to build their own facilities for group camping but could provide effective operational leadership and maintenance. [8]

In the case of the Chopawamsic RDA, charitable organizations in nearby Washington, D. C. were desperate for adequate group camping facilities. Those in Rock Creek Park were no longer viable for "long-period camping" as it was increasingly being used for "intensified day use and recreational purposes." [9] Because of the utter absence of alternate facilities groups like the Twelfth Street YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Boys' Clubs of Washington were pressing the National Park Service for relief. As a result, the construction of group camping facilities took top priority at the Chopawamsic RDA, with other day-use facilities considered of lesser importance.

The RDA program, one of four development projects devised by the Land Planning Committee, was intended to address these needs. The inspiration for the RDA program came from Matt Huppuch of the NPS. While traveling in Switzerland, Huppuch had observed that all school children had opportunities to spend time in a nature camp. His wholehearted endorsement of the practice was taken up by the Land Planning Committee. In response, the FERA organized the Land Program, headed by John S. Lansill. Using part of a $25 million allocation from the Board of Public Works, 46 RDAs in 24 states were planned and developed between 1933 and 1942. [10]

The RDA program was a new concept in outdoor recreation which fully reflected Roosevelt's vision of a progressive government working through a federal system to enhance the public good. As it combined the goals of conservation and social welfare, the RDA concept received the unanimous approval and support of the National Park Service and the Land Planning Committee of the FERA. [11]

The general objective was to provide quality outdoor recreation facilities at the lowest possible cost for the benefit of people of lower and middle incomes. On these areas major emphasis was to be placed on building campsites for group camping. Provisions for year-round camping facilities for week-end and day use were also to be constructed. [12]

In hard fact the RDA program meant that the land of Miss Annie and 150 other families was to be purchased by the Federal government in order to construct a park in Prince William County. Miss Annie's home in Joplin had been targeted by the site selection team of the Land Planning Committee: Conrad Wirth and Matt Huppuch. [13] Once an area had been identified the Land Program of the FERA would provide funds for land acquisition, the NPS would plan and supervise construction of all recreational facilities, and the WPA, CCC, and PWA programs would provide the necessary labor.

Site Selection

Conrad Wirth and Matt Huppuch made the RDA program's twofold mission of conservation and social welfare the basis for site selection. Before an area could be considered, Wirth had to demonstrate that "a reasonable part of the land we purchased was submarginal from an agricultural standpoint." [14] Consequently, the Land Program of the FERA targeted blighted rural areas located within 35 miles of major urban centers. Cooperation between federal, state, and local agencies was initiated to reclaim the submarginal lands and assist in relocating the rural poor. In a few instances, displaced residents were offered help in finding other occupations. RDAs were purposefully located where they would be accessible to large numbers of people thereby fulfilling their designation as demonstrations in the use of lands well adapted to recreation. [15

Other criteria in site selection considered necessary by Wirth to insure the recreational value of each RDA included an "abundance of good water, available building materials, and an interesting environment. We felt water recreation was important and wanted to be sure to have a location where we could build small lakes if a lake was not already there." [16]

Cost was another factor. Wirth was to "get land that could be purchased for five dollars an acre, though later that was extended to an average price of ten dollars an acre." [17] Wirth was proud to have been involved in a land planning effort of such national significance. In his view the Land Program coordinated "the best knowledge and experience in agriculture, rural economics, rehabilitation and recreation to effect the orderly planning of land use in America." [18]


The original intent of the RDA program was to turn the RDAs over to the states. Consequently, all plans for land acquisition and development carried both NPS and state or county park authority approval. [19] Before this transfer occurred, the RDA program experienced several administrative changes. By executive order on May 1, 1935, the entire Land Program was transferred to the newly established Resettlement Administration under Rexford Tugwell, although by then the program was well underway. Again on November 14, 1936, Executive Order 7496 turned the entire RDA program over to the National Park Service. Only requests for funds were submitted to the Resettlement Administration. [20] Finally, on August 13, 1940, Congress passed legislation granting the Secretary of the Interior authority to "either deed or lease to the states any lands purchased under the RDA program together with improvements, subject to an agreement that they would be used for public park and recreation purposes for at least twenty-five years." [21]

Part of Catoctin RDA in Maryland and the Chopawamsic RDA (Prince William Forest Park) were never placed under state control. Catoctin Mountain Park surrounds Camp David, the presidential retreat. Prince William Forest Park has remained a part of the National Park System serving residents of and visitors to the national capital area. It was retained in 1939 in recognition of its value as "an ideal recreational and camping area needed for organized camping facilities for various social service agencies and other organizations" in the Washington area. [22] Indeed, early in the planning process C. Marshall Finnan, Superintendent of the National Capital Parks had warned of the possible "discontinuance of the use of existing sites" by the urban population of the District of Columbia in the absence of NPS control over the Chopawamsic RDA. [23]

Justification for the Chopawamsic Site Selection

On February 19, 1935, John S. Lansill, director of the Land Program within the FERA, gave "Connie" Wirth, assistant director of the NPS, the go-ahead to begin accepting options to sell on the land for the Chopawamsic RDA. [24] Soon thereafter Miss Williams and her neighbors were asked to set a value on their land and offer it to the government for sale.

Located close to Washington, D. C., the Chopawamsic Demonstration Area provided Wirth with an "accessible experimental station" on which to build a model RDA. [25] Aware that this accessibility also meant the close scrutiny of FERA administrator Harry L. Hopkins, Chief Engineer Thomas Hibben, and Director Lansill of the Land Program, Wirth felt the success or failure of the Chopawamsic RDA could affect all Land Program projects. [26]

Consequently, particular attention was paid to the site selection to insure that the Chopawamsic RDA could be fully justified under the guidelines of the Land program. Mrs. Marion Lewis, Relief Director for Prince William County, Virginia, was contacted to provide an economic profile of the initial 8,081.12-acre site under consideration in Joplin. She reported that of the 150 families living in the target area, "only 40 had a regular income Seventy had part-time employment and 40 had irregular or no employment or cash income." Further evidence of the "essential" need for improvement lay in the fact that more than 30 farms were abandoned, 5 store keepers had gone out of business between 1925 and 1934, and tax delinquencies over 5 years had been 22 percent. [27] The pyrite mine was abandoned in 1925 leaving many families "stranded on this land." Attempts to "eke out a living through hill-side agricultural pursuits" left these people very poor with "50 to 60 percent on relief." [28] Through these statistics it could be concluded that the submarginal agricultural land was not providing a decent standard of living to its inhabitants. [29]

The Chopawamsic RDA project required the relocation of at least 40 of the most desperately poor families living in the target area. Plans called for assistance to be rendered to allow those "best suited to agriculture" to continue farming while allowing training for "those best suited to other occupations." [30] Charles Gerner, Chopawamsic project manager for the Resettlement Administration, cooperated with H. H. Gordon, director of the Rural Rehabilitation Corporation, a division of the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration, to identify and assist the most needy families. Records of their transactions were sent to James M. Gray, head of the land utilization division of the FERA in Raleigh, North Carolina. S. S. Teel of the Virginia Rural Rehabilitation Corporation performed the actual on-site survey of need. Locally, a Mr. Sizer did most of the rehabilitation work for Prince William County but he was excluded from assisting with the Chopawamsic RDA project as Assistant Manager William R. Hall wished to avoid complications inherent in dealings with "the Manassas ring" controlling Prince William County government. [31] Working with the input of Gordon and Teel, the FERA project staff in Raleigh determined the type of assistance required by the poorest families on the Chopawamsic RDA site. Through the assistance given to these poor families the Joplin site provided an opportunity for the RDA program to demonstrate its ability to serve the needs of the rural poor.

Cost was another factor which made the Joplin site attractive to FERA officials. The purpose of the Land Program as seen by Project Manager William R. Hall "was to buy a quantity of land at low prices." [32] The Joplin Site consisted of land badly depleted by poor farming practices. Land in the vicinity of the abandoned pyrite mine was badly scarred by soil erosion. Thus, FERA officials considered the Joplin site a good candidate for a "low initial investment" in an RDA. [33] The average price paid per option was $13.33 per acre which was considered by Land Program officials to be definitely fair and most likely one which "could not be duplicated" on the open market. [34]

As a future recreational facility, the most compelling attraction of Joplin was its forests and streams. [35] The area to be purchased was forested "except for relatively small clearings comprising less than a tenth of the tract." The second growth forest contained many fine old trees. Wildlife was abundant. [36] Early preliminary plans included lakes, wildlife sanctuaries, picnic areas, horseback riding and boating facilities in addition to cabins for organized camping. [37] All of these ideas were inspired by the natural beauty of the wilderness areas on the Joplin site. [38]

Endorsements for the Chopawamsic RDA were easily attained. A well documented need for recreational facilities existed in the Washington area. Rock Creek Park was no longer viable for "long-period camping" as it was increasingly used for intensified day use and recreational purposes. Because of the lack of alternate facilities for group camping near Washington, D. C., all of the charitable agencies with youth programs endorsed construction of a park in the Chopawamsic RDA. (See Appendix IV for a list of endorsing agencies.) The Board of County Supervisors of Prince William County endorsed the project as it would provide "material help and benefit" to the farmers involved and to "all the people residing in Prince William and Stafford counties." [39] In addition, public service organizations such as the Manassas Kiwanis and all area scouting programs lent their support to the project.

The Human Cost

Inevitably, however, the Land Program planners were forced to confront the need to displace those already living on the land. Here the ideals of the RDA concept came into sharp conflict with the reality of land use patterns in Joplin.

Unquestionably, much of the land had little value for commercial agriculture. But, the economy of Joplin was not based upon a cash income. Rather, the land was a tool for subsistence farming supplemented by outside pursuits. Most people had just a small home in the woods with two to five acres cleared around it. On this land they kept the mandatory hogs, chickens, and cattle as sources of meat and milk. Vegetable gardens, small orchards, and bee keeping provided an abundant and varied diet. According to lifelong resident John Taylor, "no one really thought they were poor." [40] As long as one was "able to set a good table" Miss Annie felt life was sweet. [41] Most of life's material needs could be obtained through barter. Essential goods such as material for clothing, wood stoves, and furniture were acquired this way. [42] Education was a luxury. Most considered themselves fortunate to have completed grade school. [43]

In this rural society, cash income was regarded as "outside money." The depression simply meant that there would be less money with which to purchase luxuries. The land provided a self-sufficient, stable life. [44] Outside money came from the sale of lumber, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. [45] Jobs at Fort Belvoir, Quantico Marine Corps Base, or the Washington Navy Yard provided cash for a lucky few. Others hoped to earn extra cash as day laborers on more prosperous farms. Triangle was graced by two grocery stores and a car dealership. [46]

No one spoke of but many profited from the lucrative trade in moonshine. Members of the Mountjoy family were renowned for their good moonshine. Their prosperity made possible many charitable donations which earned them the equally high accolade as good community people. [47]

Homes were functional structures. Few had inside plumbing, telephones, or electricity. [48] Rather than feel deprived, Miss Annie valued her "country house" as opposed to the "modern houses" city dwellers might enjoy. [49] This ready acceptance of a simple, rudimentary lifestyle led relief officials to conclude "if these people (have) needs, they bore their wants and privations through to exhaustion" and did not make their needs public. [50]

Most importantly, the majority of this land had been in the family for generations. Annie Williams' land could be traced back to her great-grandmother. Ownership of this land gave her a special dignity as few blacks in the area owned their own land. [51] For her and her neighbors, the land had an almost spiritual hold over their hearts. The land, and not their cash income, was the source of their self-respect.

It would be many years before these original landowners could understand how the construction of a Recreational Demonstration Area serving the underprivileged of Washington, D. C., constituted the "best use" of their land. Nevertheless, the government represented a formidable power in their lives and the majority of those who were not relocated did not resist the sale of their land. [52] Those few who fought condemnation proceedings found the court battles exhausted their life savings, thus inspiring few imitators. [53] Doubtless, the most desperate, "facing an empty belly and no job," regarded selling their land as the "smartest thing they could do." [54] After selling their land most fell back on relatives living nearby or purchased small tracts just outside the boundaries of the park. Today, many of the original landowners and their descendants still live in the surrounding community. [55]

Early Development of the Park

By November 1935, Project Manager William R. Hall was winding down the resettlement phase of his work. His efforts reflected his commitment to buying a "quantity of land at low prices." [56] He had accepted offers on 115 tracts or a total of 12,422.31 acres of land for an appraised value of $180,723.36. He had purchased this land for a total of $138,938.88. (See Appendix V for details on individual tracts.)

Careful planning for the recreational use of the Chopawamsic RDA proceeded concurrently with land acquisition. Equally challenging, this task gave the youthful Hall a ready outlet for his enthusiasm. [57] The U. S. Department of the Interior had already determined that "if in camps the under privileged, even the moderately circumstanced may not eat cake, in an aesthetic sense, it remains an obligation on planners to contrive a substitute that is no less palatable." [58] Even "the cheapest structures" were to possess "romantic appeal," be "painless to the eyes" and built of "appropriate materials." [59] In creating facilities for organized camping, the goal of producing a "human crop" of "sturdy citizens" from children who had been forced to live in the "artificial living conditions" imposed on them by life in "sprawling, overcrowded cities" was to dominate the creative effort. [60]

The Chopawamsic RDA was to be a model of the character building benefits of group camping. To insure its success, Hall was directed to "keep in close contact with the various social agencies of D. C. who will use these areas." [61] Using their design inputs, Hall had a free hand to direct the talents of "men employed under the Land Program, all reporting directly to him." [62] Labor costs for the Chopawamsic RDA were covered by CCC, WPA, and PWA funds. Indeed, land purchases for the Chopawamsic RDA purposefully spanned Prince William and Stafford Counties so that WPA workers could be recruited from both areas. At the height of construction about 200-300 CCC workers lived in the park. [63] (See Illustration One for details on CCC camps within the park.)



SP-22 Established:May 13, 1935
Superintendent:Mr. Paul Day
Location:Near current park headquarters
Occupied:May 7, 1935
Abandoned:April 24, 1939

SP-25 Established:July 29, 1935
Superintendent:Ernest G. Baldwin
Location:Near camp 2, site of old Randal home, off of Route 626
Occupied:October 10, 1935
Abandoned:May 25, 1938

SP-26 Established:August 12, 1935
Location:Near camp 3
Abandoned:September 30, 1937
Reestablished:March 25, 1938

(dated: Lykes to Gerner, October 3, 1941)
(sites: Land use map 1937)


Asst. Leader$35.00/month
(War Dept. Reg., 1934)


Permission sought:December 16, 1953
Permission granted:January 13, 1954
Bid accepted:October 29, 1959
($153.00 plus clean up work)

War-Time CCC Camps

NP-D-16 Near camp 3
Supt. John Gun
L. L. Long, CCC District Executive Officer
Dates of operation: June 1941 to February 1943

Community Liaison

Dances, movies & dinners (Thanksgiving, etc.)

With this huge work force behind him, Hall was in a position to mastermind the creation of an entirely new type of park. Under his direction the Chopawamsic RDA grew to include five cabin camps, each accommodating 150 campers, five lakes, three CCC camps, a temporary office, and a makeshift maintenance area.

Hall's enthusiasm was matched by all of the Washington social service agencies. Miss Mary Edith Coulson, secretary of the Washington Council of Social Agencies, affectionately referred to the National Park Service as "our fairy godfather." [64] Detailed suggestions flowed in. Most valued improvements included swimming areas, recreation halls, infirmaries, ice boxes, and telephones. [65] As can be seen from the Master Plan of 1939 in Appendix III, all of these ideas and more were incorporated into the overall design of the Chopawamsic RDA. Camps One and Two were opened in June of 1936. Camp One was known as the boys' area and Camp Two as the girls' area. Incomplete as of opening day, the cabin camps were nevertheless welcomed. (See Illustration Two for details on these initial cabin camps.)



Boy's Area
Girl's Area
15 camper cabins (4 ea.)10 camper cabins (4 ea.)
 3 leader cabins 2 leader cabins
 2 unit lodges 1 unit lodge
 2 latrines 1 latrine
 1 dining hall 1 dining hall
 1 infirmary 1 infirmary
 1 wash house 1 wash house
 1 water & sewage systems 1 water & sewage systems

(per progress report, July 1, 1936, Rg. 79, Box 121, #901)


All of the cabin camps were built from materials found in the park. The CCC used a portable sawmill to process the lumber used to build the cabins. Only flooring and interior woodwork was purchased locally (February 11, 1936, Paul Day, Sp. 22). Initial gravel roads were built with rocks processed on site with a 12-ton rock crusher with a screen and belt feeders. A five compartment bin was built to store the different sizes of stone. Sone was then gravity fed into waiting dump trucks without the need for hand labor (Day, February, 1936). When finished, the combined cost of the cabin camps was about $200,000. Today, they probably could not be duplicated for less than 2 million dolllars (Lykes).

Initially, there was substantial public confusion over who built the park. The Washington Star reported in 1936 that the FERA constructed the park. While celebrating the new park in a speech before the Washington Rotary Club, that same year, Charles Fyfe, director of the Boys' Club of Washington, incorrectly credited the Resettlement Administration with construction of the park. [66] This is not surprising when the large number of cooperating agencies is considered. Even the NPS Land Program director, Connie Wirth, had difficulty keeping track of the funding as responsibility for administration of the RDA program shifted from the FERA to the Resettlement Administration in 1935. The simultaneous use of PWA, WPA, and ECW funds further complicated the issue. [67] One fact remained clear, however, a long-sought place for organized camping in the Washington, D. C. area had been found.

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Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003