22 6 / 2012
Camp Columbia is a double whammy for the CT A to Z. Not only is it a State Forest, but it’s also a Historical Park. And despite being listed as undeveloped, its a relatively recent acquisition by the State, and development is certainly underway. There is an interpretive trail in the works, some of the more dilapidated structures have been torn down, and the trails are actually remarkably well marked, once you get into the actual forest bit.
There’s a huge amount of the history behind the park on the DEP website, so we’ll do this quickly. In 1885 the Columbia Engineering School of Plane Surveying decided they enjoyed their summers in the bustling resort town of Morris so much, that they would build a summer camp there. As the camp was being established, students stayed at the north end of Bantam Lake, Connecticut’s largest natural lake and the main attraction in Morris. Morris seems pretty sleepy these days as we drove through it, although there was a tasty looking ice cream shop and deli. It’s a shame that by that point my daily ice cream quota had already been filled at the Canton Creamery (which was pretty decent ice cream but nowhere near the best CT has to offer, ice cream fans). As the early 20th century progressed, more land was purchased by the School, and more permanent lodgings built. During the first World War a more serious side to the camp emerged; Columbia students wishing to travel to the fronts in Western Europe were trained in trench warfare, drills and navigation, led by Captain Ralph Williams of the Canadian Light Infantry. In all, Columbia sent more than 2600 students, faculty and administrators to Europe between 1914 and 1918. The school of Engineering was responsible for sending a large number of servicemen, and one year only one student was present at graduation, as the rest were all fighting overseas. Before the USA officially joined the war, Columbia School of Nursing also sent almost fifty graduates to serve in medical teams, a significant contribution and statement of support from the University. A wealth more information about their role in the conflict can be found here.
After the war the Camp returned to its former use, and the wooden water tower was replaced by the stone tower which now forms the centrepiece of the historic park. While it’s no longer possible to climb up the tower to admire the view that other blogs tell me is lovely, it’s an odd piece of architecture surrounded by meadow, which makes the place unique. The DEP has fixed an imposing looking iron bar gate across the entrance for now though, so the heights remain inaccessible.
Attendance at the camp fell throughout the 60s and 70s, and by 1983 Columbia tried to sell the land. By 1989 they had had no luck, though the local Fire Department were kind enough to mark some of the sites as dangerously derelict as they used them for controlled fire training. The park was finally purchased by the state in 2000, and is being slowly developed. There’s now a paved parking lot on the south side of route 109, and the aforementioned hiking signs are pretty awesome.
We arrived at Camp Columbia in the hour before dark, and quickly headed through the open forest up the small hill to the meadow and tower.
It’s a short walk, past a derelict stone building, and when the tower pops out, it’s really quite cute.
The building you pass on the way looks pretty dodgy, the roof is caving and despite reports of spooky happenings and devil worship (it’s alright, the North West Connecticut Paranormal Society have officially declared the place ghost free!), the worst we saw was a few local teenagers sneaking in there with a few illicit beers.
The trails are in the forested section of the park are to the left of the tower, if you’re approaching it from the parking lot, and they look pretty overgrown as they exit the meadows. Don’t be fooled into taking the dirt road - we did for a bit and it doesn’t seem to go anywhere interesting. It clearly used to be the site of many an old building, but it’s now mostly overgrown with thick, pointy bushy things. The forest itself, once you punch through the overgrown edges, is pretty pleasant. Keep going until you see a trail map and the blazes start - there’s a couple of hundred metres where there’s not much there to help you. After that there’s some sections of forest that are relatively unusual for this part of Connecticut, perhaps because the land was so recently in use. There’s some thick coniferous growth housing grand old tree trunks, and grassy areas with shafts of sunlight poking through.
There’s some oaks, maples and beeches, and it’s a pretty cool place to be, a little more wild feeling than some of the other more manicured parks nearby. The tower is a pleasant picnic spot and worth a visit alone - hopefully one day people will be able to climb up it again and the park may return to some of it’s former glory. Until then, we can only guess at what used to occur here.