By C.V. Moore
Built in the 1940s as a summer camp for children of Electro Metallurgical Company (“EMCO”) workers in Alloy, Camp Brookside is transforming from a lost world to a place where youth can find themselves.
This 30-acre river island in the New River, dotted with solid oak bunkhouses, a mess hall, and other classic camp structures, will soon become the National Park Service’s premier East Coast residential work camp.
As soon as next summer, New River Gorge National River will join ranks with two of the country’s most renowned national parks — Yosemite and Yellowstone — to offer underserved youth from all over the country the opportunity to spend their summers working, learning, and playing outdoors.
A visit to Camp Brookside these days feels a bit like a journey back in time. A turn from Route 20 in Summers County brings you to an old, one-room C&O Railroad depot.
There, decades ago, campers from Upper Kanawha Valley towns like Boomer and Falls View got off the train and walked down a dirt road toward their small Shangri-La.
Crossing a wooden bridge over an old mill slough, they arrived finally at a small clearing where seven neat white bunkhouses with names like Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and General Custer nestled in the pines near Brooks Falls.
“The facilities didn’t change over the period of time it was in operation, and when they sold it to us, everything was still there. We talk about historical integrity, and everything at Camp Brookside is there and in good condition,” said Richard Segars, a historical architect with NPS.
Last summer’s derecho wiped out a lot of trees, opening the cabins up to the sky, but nearly all the other historic features are intact.
Graffiti from the bygone days of Camp Brookside still emblazons the interior walls of bunkhouses, which became home to thousands of EMCO boys and girls for a brief but busy period each summer.
One of those kids was Fred Buckley, 74, of Mount Hope. Born in Alloy, both of Buckle’s parents worked for EMCO, just as did he at one point. On a recent visit to Camp Brookside, memories of his summers there came flooding back.
All year, he saved up for the $25 registration fee by cutting grass, collecting pop bottles, and running errands for neighbors. Some years he couldn’t scrounge enough. But when he could manage it, his two weeks along the river were a break from otherwise busy summers of earning money for the family.
“It was a blast, the whole thing,” he said. “You could go horseback riding, swimming, shoot rifles. You had crafts to do; you played ball. They had nature study to teach you about the trees, set a snare. You looked forward to it every year.”
Kids were divided into “tribes” and attended council fires at night, where they played rowdy games like Johnny Ride the Pony, Chicken Fight, and Pop the Whip.
“It was just good, clean fun, having a competition by the firelight,” said Buckley. “When it was all over, of course, we had a nurse there that took care of the scratches and scrapes that boys is going to get.
“Some of the cooks at the mess hall, they were there, and as we went to our cabins at night, we’d sing ‘Goodnight Ladies’ to them.”
Buckley said he’s glad the camp is coming back to life. He donated the Junior NRA patch he earned at Camp Brookside to NPS when he learned of the project.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “It gets the kids away from electronics. You wasn’t even allowed to bring a radio with you up there. Nowadays, kids got strong thumbs but that’s about it. Get them out into nature and let them see something about what it’s really like.”
That’s exactly the idea that makes Robin Snyder’s eyes light up at the mention of Camp Brookside. She says this project was a big reason why she came to New River to work as the park’s chief of interpretation. Previously she served as NPS’s youth and volunteer coordinator for the Northeast region, where she likewise kindled her passion for youth programs.
“It’s hard for me to put into words the potential this place has,” said Snyder. “The sky is the limit.”
“People know Yosemite. We want people to know Brookside,” adds Marie Walker, director of development for the Citizens Conservation Corps of West Virginia.
Though NPS is preparing the site, it doesn’t have the capacity to operate it, says Snyder.
So the park turned to CCCWV, which has already been a partner on employment programs and other projects for over 10 years.
The plan is to raise funds through public and private sources and hand operations over to the CCC, which will hire a handful of local staff and recruit campers from Youth Conservation Corps and Public Land Corps across the country. These programs employ youth ages 15-25 to work on federally managed lands.
At least for its first season, the camp will target low-income, underserved, diverse youth from places like Baltimore, D.C., and Los Angeles.
The kids will work 40 hours per week for minimum wage and free room and board on trail building and maintenance, as well as other target projects related to sustainability — water monitoring or removal of invasive species, for example. An environmental education component is planned as well.
They’ll be free on weekends to explore the park.
“We want to get them away from the ’hood, the skyscrapers and the concrete. Often they’ve never gone outside of the city. They don’t know what it’s like to hear the birds and see the river. I think we kind of take that for granted because we see it every day,” said Walker.
A youth leader from the immediate area will be stationed at each cabin to provide oversight and share local knowledge with the visitors. Coordinators hope this will enable a cultural exchange between underserved rural and urban youths.
“They deal with the same types of issues in some cases, but no one ever talks about that,” said Walker.
Specific programming and format are still a work in progress. Project leaders are aiming to eventually operate the facility year-round.
Originally, Camp Brookside was the result of a 20th-century philosophy known as welfare capitalism or corporate paternalism — the idea that businesses, instead of government or unions, could provide stability and security in society.
The camp was a job benefit intended to build goodwill toward the company, reducing the need or desire for employees to unionize. It was cheaper than confronting labor strikes and union negotiations.
Union Carbide, which owned EMCO, ran seven other camps in the state, with names like Camelot, Camp Apache, and Cliffside. The company’s “family reputation” ran in strange contrast to another reputation for large-scale disasters — Bhopal, Oak Ridge, and the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster among them.
Original plans for the camp were drawn up in 1947. That July, an inaugural opening attracted 2,000 employees and their families to a picnic.
NPS bought the property in 1992, stabilizing the structures but putting off a full renovation. A ranger station there closed in 2005.
Enter the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who secured a $900,000 earmark in 2009 to pay for the construction end of things.
NPS opted to do all the labor in-house, respecting Byrd’s vision for providing employment opportunities for local workers in the southern end of the park.
Work began last June and will wrap up in September.
The goal of the project is to marry new with old, to both preserve the cultural landscape of the camp and also bring it up to modern standards.
The campers’ graffiti will be kept intact, for example, but it will be covered over with boards that will winterize the bunkhouses. Custom sliding windows preserve the look of glassless windows.
“The idea is to preserve the old and also put a clean slate up,” said Segars.
The entire complex includes six rustic cabins, a seventh “nurse’s cabin,” caretaker’s residence, central washhouse, water tower, playing fields, crafts building, rifle range, and other features.
But the “Admin Building,” with its vast wrap-around porch facing the river, its great room adorned with a river stone fireplace, and its soon-to-be modern commercial kitchen is clearly the centerpiece of the facility.
The buildings are being brought back to life by NPS’s Mike Hartsog and his team of six men, who mostly hail from a three-county area.
“These guys are craftsmen and they love it. You can’t hold them back,” Hartsog said of his team. “They’re very proud of what we’ve done here.”
Working on cabins built of solid oak boards that only become harder with time has also made Hartsog appreciate the strength and skill of the original builders.
“This was built when men were men. It’s incredible the strength of the oak on this framing,” he said. “We go home exhausted even with the benefit of electric tools.”
But when presents like banana cake show up at the work site — sent by a neighbor woman who used to work in the mess hall — it’s clear that all the hard work is noticed.
It’s also a reminder that memories of Camp Brookside are still very much alive in the local community.
From a corporate strategy to a youth outreach tool, the camp continues to evolve to meet local needs.
“And the possibilities are limitless,” said Snyder.
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of Camp Brookside?
If you or someone you know attended or were involved with activities at Camp Brookside, the National Park Service encourages you to get in touch. In an effort to better document the history of the camp, they are reaching out to locals who can share stories and recollections.
Contact Robin Snyder at 304-465-6523 or e-mail Robin_Snyder@nps.gov.