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The Woodpecker vs. Fort Ritchie

Sitting atop South Mountain, Fort Ritchie helped save the world from the Nazis during World War II. However, the camp didn’t fare as well against woodpeckers.

Fort Ritchie’s history dates back to 1889 when the Buena Vista Ice Company of Philadelphia purchased 400 acres on South Mountain. The company developed the land and built lakes where it planned to cut ice from to ship to the surrounding cities for use as the refrigeration source in ice boxes. The first lake was built in 1901 and named Lake Royer. Buena Vista shipped out the ice on the Western Maryland Railroad, which ran through the area.

Business continued until the demand for ice dropped off due to the development of electric refrigeration, and the Buena Vista Ice Company eventually closed.

In 1926, the Maryland National Guard was looking for a location for a summer training camp. It chose the Buena Vista Ice Company property. Not only was the location isolated enough for the National Guard’s training needs, it was located along the railroad, so it could be easily accessed and communications could be maintained using the telegraph line that already ran through the area.

The Maryland National Guard used the site from 1926 to 1942. On June 19, 1942, the U.S. Army took over the site for its Military Intelligence Training Center. During World War II, 19,600 intelligence troops trained at the camp.

Despite the vast knowledge and intelligence training of these soldiers, woodpeckers managed to sabotage the camp, even if the interference lasted a short time.

In 1948, newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania ran stories about how woodpeckers were frustrating Col. Leland T. Reckford, the fort commander, with their attacks on power line poles.

“One woodpecker was so diligent in his attack on a pole that the first hard gust of wind the other day sent it crashing to the ground,” the Hagerstown Morning Herald reported on November 9, 1948.

The 2,200-volt power line came down with the pole, causing outages in the area, including the camp.

“There are plenty of trees in the surrounding mountains, if the woodpeckers simply must release their emotions by pecking, camp officials point out,” according to the Morning Herald.

Woodpeckers peck for three reasons, according to It uncovers insects, insect eggs, and larvae, which the woodpeckers eat. They drill holes in dead or dying trees to create nests. The hammering also serves as a type of communication to mark territory.

“This is why you might see a flicker pounding on a metal power pole or your house siding–to make the loudest sound he can, not to look for food or drill a hole, but to make a statement,” according to the website.

Given the damage to the power line pole, it seems likely the woodpeckers used it create a nesting area, but instead, compromised the strength of the pole.

The newspapers don’t note how the camp solved its woodpecker problem, but it wasn’t mentioned again, nor were there any articles talking about additional falling power line poles.

Fort Ritchie closed in 1998 under the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

An old postcard view of Barrick Avenue at Fort Richie.

The new Ritchie History Museum at Fort Ritchie celebrated its grand opening earlier this month with much fanfare and a number of notable visitors. Yumi Hogan, wife of former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, was among the first to see the new museum; her interest particularly of the sizable Korean War exhibit, created by Commander Ron Twentey of KWVA Chapter 312.

In addition to Mrs. Hogan, the offices of Congressman David Trone, Senator Chris Van Hollen, State Senator Paul Corderman, Delegates William Wivell and William Valentine, and several Washington County Commissioners. Even more moving were the numbers of families who had a direct connection to the historic Army Post. Several children of Ritchie Boys were in attendance and other Ritchie Veterans, spanning from those who closed Ritchie in 1998 to Ritchie Boy, Gideon Kantor, the 99-year-old Veteran who trained there during WWII.

Director Landon Grove and various museum volunteers estimate that approximately 150 visitors came out to the grand opening, which was highlighted by the launching of the museum’s cannon at exactly 12:30 p.m. The museum has been in the works for many years, and thanks, in part, to a number of generous monetary and artifact donations as well as several grants, the museum is now open at no cost to visitors, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

Visitors to the museum can learn the history of the property, dating back to the Buena Vista Ice Company in the late 1800s to Fort Ritchie’s missions over a 70-year period. A substantial collection of WWII and Korean War memorabilia is on display. Grove is still seeking more Ritchie artifacts to continue to grow the exhibit, as there are many facets of the property that can be highlighted.

The new Ritchie History Museum’s grand opening in June.

Photo Courtesy of Fort Ritchie

The Mountain Seaside

by James Rada, Jr.

It was supposed to be a Maryland seashore on a mountaintop.

In 1889, the Buena Vista Ice Company bought 400 acres of land where Fort Ritchie would eventually be built, and set aside 20 acres for a lake.

“The business had counterparts on the East Coast below the Mason-Dixon Line,” according to the Hagerstown Morning Herald.

Perhaps forgetting that the purpose of the lake was to freeze in the winter, so the ice could be cut into blocks and sold, people were more interested in its summertime uses. They began picturing the area as the next Ocean City.

The Catoctin Clarion reported in August 1901, shortly after Lake Royer opened, “They now have a miniature ‘shore’ up on top of the mountain: by feeding at proper intervals, several barrels of fish salt into the stream that feeds the ‘lake,’ sea water may be imitated; by hiring a small boy to teeter a log in the water, modest breakers may be fashioned; high and low tides may be accomplished by lowering into and hoisting from the lake kegs of nails, twice in every twenty-four hours; the rattles taken from the rattlesnake skins that the mountain belles are wearing for belts, might be scattered about the beach to represent sea shells…”

The writer envisioned Blue Ridge Summit becoming the ultimate summer destination. Of course, Pen-Mar was already a popular summer getaway, and the lake would only cement its reputation.

“Lake Royer is a lovely sheet of water, covering about 21 acres, and is located near Buena Vista Station, and within easy reach of Pen-Mar, Blue Ridge, Monterey and Blue Mountain,” the Frederick News reported.

Col. John Mifflin Hood, president of the Western Maryland Railway, created Pen-Mar Park in August 1877 as a way to attract people to use the railroad to get out of the heat of the city during the summer. The park offered a view of over 2,000 square miles and two mountain ranges at an altitude of 1,400 feet. It is located on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, hence the name.

“From here on a clear day, one could see the town clock in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, at a distance of 24 miles—with binoculars, of course,” Frank and Suanne Woodring wrote in the book, Images of America: Pen-Mar.

Pen-Mar Park featured a dancing pavilion and a dining room that could seat 450 people. An observation tower was added in 1878. Lake Royer’s opening in 1901 allowed the park to offer one more attraction.

Trains heading to Blue Ridge Summit left Baltimore daily at 9:15 a.m. and advertised the new lake. Tickets cost $1, plus an extra 50 cents if you wanted to eat dinner at Pen-Mar.

“The popularity of Lake Royer is shown by the big supply of bathing costumes hanging up to dry every day. Last Sunday, nearly 100 were strung up at one time,” the Baltimore Sun reported in August 1901.

Pleasure boats were allowed on the water, and bathhouses had been erected allowing visitors to go swimming. They could even rent a bath “costume” for 25 cents.

The park quickly became a popular destination for tourists who traveled on the railroad from towns and cities all over the East Coast to the Maryland and Pennsylvania mountains. The peak single-day attendance at the park was 20,000 people.

Demand for natural ice declined over the years as refrigeration technology improved, and the Buena Vista Ice Company discontinued operations at the site in the mid-1920s.

In 1926, the State of Maryland purchased 580 acres to establish Camp Ritchie as a Maryland National Guard training area. Acquisition of additional property increased the camp to 638 acres by 1940.

“Camp Albert C. Ritchie was built and the last ice houses razed. One of them was still two-thirds full of ice,” according to the Hagerstown Morning Herald.

The new camp also ended the public use of Maryland’s mountain seashore.

(above) Historic postcard view of Lake Royer.

(below) Aerial view of Lake Royer.