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Over 300 historic U.S. Forest Service photographs from California were recently added to our image database, thanks to a collaboration with USFS Region 5 (Pacific Southwest). Matthew Stever, a Region 5 Heritage Photo Project intern, organized and scanned a large number of previously uncataloged photographs from the region, and digital copies were added to the FHS online image database. The photos come mostly from the San Bernardino National Forest, range in date from the 1910s to the 1960s, and cover a broad array of topics including forest rangers at work, fire prevention, fire suppression, recreational activities, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The collection also highlights some lesser-known pieces of California history, such as the story of Camp Cajon.

Camp Cajon stone signAt a time when long-distance auto travel was still relatively new, Camp Cajon became a nationally known rest stop along an important route into southern California. For travelers during the 1920s and 1930s — long before the era of interstates, rest areas, and ubiquitous hotel chains and fast food restaurants — Camp Cajon provided a roadside stopping place, complete with facilities for eating, camping, and much more.

The camp was the brainchild of citrus grower William M. Bristol, who had a moment of inspiration while attending the dedication ceremony of the Pioneers Monument in December 1917. This monument to early settlers was erected along the National Old Trails Highway in Cajon Pass, at the junction of the Salt Lake and Santa Fe Trails (north of San Bernardino, along present-day Interstate 15). While at the dedication, Bristol came up with the idea of building a welcome station and rest area in Cajon Pass as a “gateway to southern California.”

Bristol returned to the area following World War I, pitching a tent in Cajon Pass during May of 1919 and intending just to stay a few months. Instead of building a few picnic tables and heading back to his orchards as originally planned, Bristol soon found himself immersed in a large-scale project which would continue on for years.

On land donated in part by the Santa Fe Railroad, Bristol began his work by building picnic tables. A master craftsman, Bristol designed and built a unique series of large round concrete tables, which would come to define the site even as it expanded.

The round concrete Camp Cajon picnic tables (0512_233).

The iconic round concrete Camp Cajon picnic tables (0512_233).

The initial dedication ceremony for Camp Cajon was held on July 4, 1919. A poem written especially for the event by Jennie Cook Davis was read, a quotation from which was set on a tablet in a stone sign marking the camp’s entrance:

“We have builded a shrine to friendship, good-fellowship and cheer,
That all who cross our threshold may find refreshment here.”

The camp quickly grew as sponsors provided funds for more picnic tables, large stone cooking stoves, massive barbeque pits, bath facilities, and more. The Elks Club built a stone lodge building, and a store and post office even sprung up. These facilities provided a place of much-needed comfort for motorists just emerging from miles of desert. The rest stop, picnic area, and free campground became well known nationwide as a can’t-miss stopping point along the route into southern California. A headline from a 1921 Los Angeles Times article summed this up: “Camp Cajon Takes Cake for Comfort, Gives Motor Travelers Great Welcome as They Come in from Desert.”

Camp Cajon travelers

Travelers making a stop at Camp Cajon (0512_118).

The legend only grew in 1926 when the National Old Trails Highway became part of Route 66, and the country’s iconic east-west highway ran right through Camp Cajon.

Unfortunately, Camp Cajon’s time was ultimately short-lived. Devastating floods during March of 1938 completely destroyed the camp, burying the facilities under piles of rocks and sand. Less than 20 years after Bristol began construction of the first picnic table, the camp was left in total ruin.

Three years later the Camp’s founder would end his own life. Bristol, a vocal proponent of euthanasia, took his life rather than continue suffering due to a debilitating illness. Ever a craftsman to the end, Bristol built his own wooden coffin by hand, got inside and shot himself.

No trace of Bristol’s once famous camp is left in the original Cajon Pass location today. The Camp Cajon site sits near a McDonalds on the edge of Interstate 15 just south of its intersection with Highway 138. While the camp was buried and built over, pieces of Bristol’s work still live on elsewhere. Several of the original concrete picnic tables from Camp Cajon were salvaged, and can be found in Lytle Creek and Perris Hill Parks in the city of San Bernardino.

Continue below to view Camp Cajon photos from the collection. To browse additional Region 5 photos, search all fields for: “0512_*” (which is the ID# prefix for the images added as part of this project).

Present day site of Camp Cajon

Present-day site of Camp Cajon, just off Interstate 15.

Camp Cajon

Stove and picnic tables at Camp Cajon (0512_235).

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On this date in 1922, the Agricultural Appropriations Act of May 11 made the first appropriation for the improvement of public campgrounds in national forests. The bill made special reference to the protection of public health and the prevention of forest fires. The U.S. Forest Service received $10,000. What’s most surprising about that amount is that’s what the agency actually suggested it needed in the chief’s annual report the year before—and then they actually received it!

The bill was passed during the first recreation boom. The automobile and a bit of leisure time were both widely available following World War I. With several national forests located not far from urban centers, the forests were attracting campers in increasingly larger numbers. A 1922 study of the 960 campgrounds in the national forests revealed that more than a million people used them annually. Those numbers were expected to keep increasing as the 1920s roared on.

Though the Forest Service had constructed and opened its first campground in Oregon in 1916, the sheer volume of visitors after the war forced agency leaders to recognize two things: facilities were needed to properly dispose of all the litter and human waste being generated, and an uneducated public represented a fire hazard. In developing new campgrounds and improving existing ones by adding “public-comfort stations” that made available “a few simple sanitary conveniences,” the Forest Service argued that neophyte campers would be less inclined to go “into more remote places and [build] dangerous camp fires, as inexperienced people are likely to do,” but rather would “stop at those improved spots and thus greatly decrease the danger of destructive fires.” According to testimony given in support of the 1922 bill, the agency “has been forced into the recreation business as a means of taking care of the public.” It was build facilities or “make it unlawful for the public to enter the national forests,” an alternative they didn’t desire. The money would be used “in part for the preparation of camp plans and the simple construction necessary for sanitation and fire protection,” i.e., clear parking spaces, construct outhouses and fire rings, and level tent sites.

The request for money came at an important time in the history of recreation on federal lands. The National Park Service had been established in 1916 over the objection of Forest Service leaders, who felt that the parks should fall under their jurisdiction because of their timber holdings. Critics of the Forest Service felt otherwise. They argued that, like in the case of Hetch Hetchy, the Forest Service didn’t want to preserve land but develop it. The debate over the mission of the two agencies can be seen throughout the testimony, with one congressman questioning why “the Forest Service is duplicating practically everything there is in the national parks and specializing in promoting competing projects.” Chief William Greeley had to explain that there was no competition between the two, with associate forester E.A. Sherman adding that most of the visitors were local travelers “of a kind that would not reach the national parks.”

At the same time that the Forest Service was struggling to meet demands for recreation it was also developing its position and policy on wilderness and primitive areas. Two years before, the agency had decided not to develop Trappers Lake in Colorado at the behest of Arthur Carhart, and in 1924 the Forest Service would declare the first wilderness area, the Gila in New Mexico. The debate over wilderness aside, recreation grew in importance during the 1920s as the recreation boom took off. In 1923, the Forest Service received $20,000 for improvements and then nearly double that amount the following year. That was the same year that the agency included it as a line item in its annual budget for the first time—a sign that the agency was fully committed to recreation as both policy and practice.

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The Forest History Society Photograph Collection features numerous images of recreation on national forests, including over 300 historic photos of camping and campgrounds. These photos and others can be accessed through our searchable online image database. A selection of recreation photos has also been highlighted on the FHS Flickr pages. Below you will find a few examples of photographs documenting national forest campgrounds through the years.

Camping at at Lolo Hot Springs.

Tourists camping at Lolo Hot Springs on Montana’s Lolo National Forest, 1920 (FHS973).

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