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Camp David (Or Truman’s Shangri-La) | February 16, 2021

Camp David (Or Truman’s Shangri-La)


Nestled in the Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, Maryland, is Camp David, a retreat for use by the President of the United States.

Officially a U.S. Navy installation, the facility was originally built by the Works Progress Administration as a camp for government employees, opening in 1938. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took it over and named it “Shangri-La,” for the mountain kingdom in Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton. It was later renamed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in honor of his then-five-year-old grandson, Dwight David Eisenhower II.

Over the years, American presidents and their families have used it for a variety of reasons. Some spent weekends there relaxing with their families. Others have used it to study, write, or confer with top advisers. A few have used it to conduct global diplomacy and forge historic peace agreements. During his first visit to Camp David, President Biden played Mario Kart with his granddaughter Naomi (and won!). 

President Truman didn’t find such amusements in the 1940s. In fact, during his first visit to the presidential retreat, Truman told the officer in charge, Lt Commander William M. Rigdon, his assistant naval aide, that he felt cooped up with all the underbrush that had grown up all around the camp.

A work party from the yacht USS Williamsburg went to work cutting down trees, removing stumps and clearing the foliage. While he told the crew they did a great job, he confided in others about the use of the place and how much improvement it needed. Ah, “one man’s treasure…”

Thanks to the photo archives at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, we can step back in time to experience the presidiential retreat as the Trumans found it in the 1940s. While it may not have been a perfect utopia, it certainly hits our mark for a beautiful, remote respite.

President Truman arriving at Shangri-La.


A wooden gateway sign welcomes visitors to Shangri-la, Maryland, where President Harry S. Truman enjoyed short vacations. Originally from the Naval Photo Center, this historic image (taken September 6, 1950) was later given to the Truman Library by the National Archives.


A sign posts the speed limit as 15 mph at the access road through Shangri-la, the Navy Rest Camp in the Catoctin Mountains, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Maryland. (September 6, 1950)


The black and white photo fails to capture what must have been spectacular fall color surrounding the main lodge known, also known as the “Big House” at the Shangri-La retreat in October 1945.


First Lady Bess Truman and three of her friends inspect an anchor outside the lodge at Shangri-La (now Camp David), Maryland. Left to right are: Bess Truman, Adelaide Twyman, Louise Duke and Mary Bostian. It is believed that the photo was taken in 1946, when the Bridge Club visited Mrs. Truman in Washington.


Bess relaxes on the Shangri-La patio with family and staff. Seated left to right are, Bess Truman, Reathel Odum (the First Lady’s social secretary), Mary Jane Truman, Natalie (Mrs. Frank) Wallace, and May (Mrs. George) Wallace. (ca. 1946)


Here’s the view of the Catoctin Mountains they would have enjoyed from their wicker chairs.
The interior views were less spectacular…







But the draw was the setting itself, and the extraordinary company. Eben Ayers visited Shangri-La in June 1949. He is caught in this photo scratching his head while seating with other unidentified guests. Ayers served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, 1945, he became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired at the end of the Truman administration.


Bess Truman stands outside the door to the lodge at Shangri-La (now Camp David) in Maryland. Next to her (left to right) are an unknown man (likely a member of the staff), and three friends, Mrs. William (Louise) Duke, Mrs. Tom (Adelaide) Twyman, and Mrs. Kenneth (Mary) Bostian. ca.April 1946



Unidentified guests play Backgammon on a picnic table next to the swimming pool at Shangri-La. (September 6, 1950)


A sketch of Shangri-La identifies its location as being “in that area between the Equator and the Arctic Circle.” In fact, it’s not far from Washington, D.C., and is a short drive from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Today, Camp David continues to be closed to the public, and a high level of security is maintained.




The photographs reproduced in these pages all come from the holdings of Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

Portions of this post were originally published in Prologue Magazine, a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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