A crumbling fireplace and dirt paths to nowhere are the only visible remnants of the nation’s first government-approved camp for World War II conscientious objectors, a site that was carved out of the wilderness of Patapsco Valley State Park.
Yet the legacy of these men, who signed up to work for no pay to uphold their moral and religious convictions against killing — and to avoid being jailed for their anti-war beliefs — survives today.
The lasting impact of draftees who chose alternative service during wartime will be the topic of a talk and 1.5-mile hike from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, in the Avalon area of the park near Elkridge. The program will be repeated March 30.
The event is part of Patapsco Heritage Greenway’s inaugural Patapsco Days, a series of programs planned throughout March.
Patapsco Days is a reimagining of the nonprofit’s History Days, but the goal of encouraging residents to explore the histories and culture of the Patapsco River valley remains intact, said executive director Lindsey Baker.
“We decided to look beyond our programs on history and the environment — which are two big things PHG is known for — to include recreation, tourism and economic development because they are all so strongly intertwined,” said Baker, a Laurel resident who took the helm of the organization in December 2017.
The Patapsco Heritage Area, which was designated by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority in 2015, encompasses the towns of Daniels, Ellicott City and Elkridge in Howard County and Catonsville, Oella and Relay in Baltimore County.
Baker noted that at 24.6 square miles, it is one of the smaller heritage areas among the 13 across the state.
This year’s Patapsco Days theme, which focuses on activism, is “Creating Change in the 20th Century.”
The ability to focus on a new aspect of the river valley each year will permit more programming flexibility and allow Patapsco Heritage Greenway to share the work of hosting the event with its partners, such as the Howard County Library System, the Howard County Historical Society and Columbia Families in Nature, Baker said.
A dozen agencies and organizations in both counties will offer 18 programs that run the gamut from lectures and exhibits to guided tours and movie screenings.
Howard-based programs include a showing of “Fire Next Door,” a documentary on the 1965 fire in a black community on Fels Lane in Ellicott City; a tour of black history sites in Howard County; and a discussion of famous Maryland women.
Participants will be able to check off events they’ve attended in a passport and enter a prize raffle at the conclusion of Patapsco Days.
Jamie Petrucci, a park ranger who will lead the hike, is excited to share the story of the World War II conscientious objectors who, at times, doubted the value of their contributions.
“This was a big experiment in cooperative, pacifist living and service,” he said.
Patapsco Valley State Park was chosen as the site of the first camp for two main reasons, Petrucci said: its proximity to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia; and for the existing infrastructure left behind when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps abandoned its site there when war broke out.
The conscientious objectors serving under the newly created Civilian Public Service were condemned by some as unpatriotic while others supported their right to object to war even if they didn’t agree with that stance, he said.
Petrucci said the men clearly didn’t grasp the magnitude of their service at the time.
“The Civilian Conservation Corps got all the glory, while the Civilian Public Service was kind of forgotten,” he said. “They were doing something gigantic and they didn’t even realize it.”
This first wave of conscientious objectors locally grew from 24 men to 94 men between 1941 and 1947, and they continued to serve after World War II ended. They cleared pathways, surveyed properties and built pavilions, among other projects.
Their number would eventually rise to 12,000 in 150 camps across the country, Petrucci said.
The men grew frustrated by what they sometimes viewed as menial work, he said. Some decided to use their free time to take part in activities they viewed as more meaningful.
“Some wanted to do risky things to prove their worth, so they volunteered in firefighting units, took part in medical experiments and served in mental hospitals,” he said.
A website dedicated to the Civilian Public Service attributes changes in hospital policy and societal attitudes to the men’s work.
“Nearly 3,300 conscientious objectors served in state mental hospitals during their CPS experience,” notes a statement at cps.peaceworks.ca. It continues: “Their efforts contributed to change in patient treatment, public attitudes toward mental illness, public policy for state hospitals and transformation in care for the mentally ill.”
Petrucci wants to spread the word on the lasting impact of the men’s commitment to make the most of their time during their alternative nonmilitary service.
“I wish those men could’ve looked beyond what was in right in front of them to see the difference they were making,” he said. “I’d like to see the conscientious objectors remembered with the same esteem as the regular army.”
If you go
The Civilian Public Service and the nation’s first camp for World War II conscientious objectors will be the subjects of a talk at Patapsco Valley State Park from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday March 9, starting in the Avalon area at Shelter 1, 5120 South St., Baltimore. Afterward, attendees can take a 1.5-mile hike to explore the Ridge Trail and Valley View Trail. The hike is moderate in difficulty and requires sturdy boots or shoes.
For more information on other Patapsco Days events, go to patapsco.org. Program passports will be distributed at each event. Visit hclibrary.org for a “Choose Your Adventure” list of activities, readings, and historic sites that explore the history of community-driven change.