Patapsco Valley State Park
Dedication of the Plaque Honoring the Besley Campsite
The Baltimore Evening Sun of January 21, 1921 noted: “State Forester Besley is pushing the Patapsco Forest Reserve as a recreation and camping ground for Baltimore people … to get as close to Mother Nature as in the wild and unexplored regions of the North.” The Sun article waxed poetic about Patapsco camping and I quote: “On the slopes rising up from the river in thick virgin forest, traversed by springs and streams, ideal camp sites have been staked out. Some derive their beauty from the view, others from the proximity to the river and some because they are built right on the edge of a leaping mountain cascade.” Indeed it was this latter site that Fred Besley chose as the campsite for his own family and why we are here today. The Sun article noted: “Besley his wife, and two of their children were spending a month in a camp overlooking the uppermost rocky basin of one of these lovely cascades.” He added: ” To be entertained at the Besley camp is a pleasure to long be remembered. Not 10 feet away from the open air dining tent the water rushes over the rocks of the Upper Falls. One goes to bed in the big Army tent, with its double decker cot in the middle and its needle couches on the side, to the sound of the music of the water and wakes up with it again in the morning.”
Clearly the reporter enjoyed camping with the Besley family. One would wish that he was with us today, but we are even more privileged to have with us a member of the Besley family who had him as their guest. At my side is Helen Besley Overington, youngest daughter of Fred Besley. She was 16 years old at the time. She was 99 on her recent birthday in July. Her life has spanned the entire century that we celebrate.
A few weeks ago Aunt Holly shared with me some of her memories of camping here when she was a teenager. If I make a mistake in what I say now, she is here to correct me. Holly particularly remembers the steep climb up the hill to the campsite which she often made while carrying large quantities of groceries and supplies for family and the frequent hungry visitors. She commented that the food supplies seemed heavier with each step. She also shared with me her memories of helping here mother up the hill. She said: “Mother was a good sport about going places despite her arthritis, but she was worried about this climb. I said I will push you and she said OK.” After this ceremony some of you will make that same climb. Don’t be embarrassed if you need to give each other a push or a hand up.
What is the significance of this campsite that we honor today. Holly put her finger on it last year. She said: “My father was very much in favor of making recreational use one of the big things that forest reserves offered.” He shared the view of then Maryland Governor Ritchie who said: ‘’The closer you get to the people the better it is.” This event today is about people and their love of the out of doors. And it is about the vision of a man who believed that in promoting recreational use of forests he would give impetus to his efforts to conserve forests. And he wanted to demonstrate recreational use in a very practical way, by camping out with his own family and making his demonstration campsite open to the public. He was building a constituency. And today more than ever we realize how powerful that constituency has become. We can honestly say that recreational use of forest lands in Maryland began here at Patapsco. This is a very special place in our history and worthy of our celebration this day.
Let me conclude with another quote from the July article in Maryland Life. “Fred Besley, Maryland’s first State Forester helped to save our forests by promoting the recreational aspects within. The next time you’re sitting next to a campfire with your family, raise a smore in his honor.” And raise one to Aunt Holly too!
- Kirk P. Rodgers
Maryland Was the Third State in America
As a direct result of the Garrett brothers generous and farsighted gift of 2,000 acres of forest land as a State Forest if the State of Maryland would agree to take care of it, the legislature passed Maryland's first forestry law. Maryland became the third state in the union, preceded by Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to establish a statewide forestry program when Governor Edwin Warfield signed this law on April 5, 1906.
The original 1906 Forestry Act authorized the State Board of Forestry to accept donations of land and “to direct the protection and improvement of (1) state parks and (2) forest reserves.” Acting upon the board’s recommendation, Governor Warfield appointed an able young forester working for the U.S. Forest Service, Fred W. Besley, who would serve as Maryland’s first State Forester from 1906 until 1942. A Yale School of Forestry trained protégé of Gifford Pinchot, first U.S. Forester, Besley proved to be an able and energetic choice.
Besley Advocated Recreation on State Forest Lands
Besley realized almost immediately that one good way to promote the forestry agenda was to encourage the public to use forest reserves for recreational purposes. In 1907, John Glenn, a resident of Catonsville, donated the beginnings of a second forest reserve along the Patapsco River near Baltimore. Almost immediately, Besley saw the opportunity to entice Baltimore area residents to come recreate in the great out-of-doors, and by 1910 he was informally referring to the Patapsco Forest Reserve as “Patapsco Park.”
First "State Park"
CCC at Patapsco
Companies 336 and 356 of the Civilian Conservation Corps were encamped near Lost Lake at Camp Tydings in the Avalon Area. The CCC built the stone picnic shelters in Orange Grove and Glen Artney (not visible from the river). The CCC was also responsible for planting trees in the river valley to advance the reforestation efforts and reclaim the over-used and abused land.
This Civilian Conservation Corps Camp (Camp SP 2) was operational between 1933 and 1942. Following the start of World War II, the CCC Camp was converted to the nation's first Conscientious Objector Camp.
1941 - Maryland Department of State Forests
and Parks Emerges
To accommodate people with increased income and better access to transportation, the Maryland Department of Forests and Parks, later named the Department of Natural Resources, expanded the amount of forest and park land — not only to provide recreation, but also to protect the natural environment.
Starting in the post war, late 1940s and on into the 1950s, the demand for outdoor recreation grew at an astronomical rate, and the Avalon Area of Patapsco State Park was surveyed as the most densely used recreation site in Maryland. Now a 14,000 acre, 32-mile-long stretch of public land, Patapsco Valley State Park hosts over a half million visitors a year.
While it is hard assess the economic impact of these first picnickers and campers, we know that they pioneered outdoor recreation on Maryland public lands, and laid the foundation for those who enjoy Maryland’s public lands in this centennial year of our state's forest and park lands.
Maryland State Parks Today
For a century now, Maryland State Forests and Parks have played a key role in protecting the environment, providing the public with outdoor recreation opportunities, and adding to the economic prosperity of the State of Maryland.
Maryland State Parks in 2106
Photographs (top to bottom):
Acknowledgements: The editor of this article acknowledges the contributions of Ross Kimmel and Robert Bailey, as well as other anonymous authors who have contributed to the historical account of the Department of Natural Resources over the years. Where errors may occur, this editor and Maryland DNR would sincerely appreciate any corrections, clarification or additional comments from historians, former staff, and family and friends of DNR who may have a more accurate factual record or photographs to contribute to this Centennial Note project.
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