It was 1942 when President and Mrs. Roosevelt first began using Camp David (then called Shangri-La) as a presidential hide-away. Prior to that, the Roosevelt’s spent their precious little relaxation time either at sea aboard the presidential yacht Potomac or at their home in Hyde Park, New York. However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the secret service insisted that the yacht had no protection against an air attack, thus could no longer be used. Visits to Hyde Park were also curtailed because of the scarce fuel and the overnight journey it took to commute from Washington.

A location that offered security, cool air, privacy and a close proximity to the Capitol City was required, and soon the Park Service located the definitive setting: a summer camp high in the Catoctin Mountains just a two hours’ drive from Washington.

Nestled deep in the woods of the Cotoctin Mountains eighteen hundred feet high, the camp consists of several cabins connected by walk paths. Mature trees are everywhere, making it seem like the camp had been carefully hewn from and intertwined with the forest. Today, there is a swimming pool, President Eisenhower’s golf course, several flower gardens and the main house. The entire 143-acre compound is surrounded by a nine-foot high electric fence, topped with barbed wire, making it look more like a prison than a retreat. But once inside you are blissfully unaware of the security measures.

The rustic old cabins, scattered across the compound, each have a name above the front door (Dogwood, Maple, Hickory and so forth). It reminds you of summer camp, except for the complete and utter silence. The absolute isolation is essential for safety, of course, but it is also welcomed by the presidents and their families.

Each President and First Lady starting with the Roosevelts have added practical as well as personal touches to the retreat over the years. FDR had one entire wall of his bedroom at then-called Shangri-La hinged at the bottom so that it would fold down into a ramp allowing the wheelchair-bound man an easy egress in case of fire.
The Trumans winterized the buildings by adding steam heat. Mamie Eisenhower painted the bedroom her signature pink and green, while Ike had the golf course built. He also renamed the camp after his beloved father and grandson, David.

The Navy men built a pony ring for Caroline Kennedy. LBJ’s use of the camp for global negotiations during the Viet Nam war brought a telecommunications upgrade from the old switchboard. The Nixons moved the pool, and Gerald Ford went snowmobiling.

In order to accommodate the guests who attended his many summit meetings, Jimmy Carter had more sleeping quarters built. Reagan introduced the camp to the VCR and fax machine, while Nancy remodeled, of course. Barbara and George livened up the place by bringing their grandchildren to play. Hillary and Bill came here to heal.
And all the while, a secret was kept and passed from First Lady to First Lady.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt made their first trip to the camp on July 18, 1942.


Franklin and Eleanor  made their first trip to Shangri-La on July 18, 1942.

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