This area is usually closed off. It begins on a busy side road, a tight winding gravel path up into the woods but just long enough to never reveal what is at the end of the road. Actually, it pretty much still looks like that postcard above only the thick lamp posts are gone and replaced with a gate.
So even though I once lived less than five minutes away for a couple years this place always kept its air of mystery. Even in winter when there were no trees on the leaves the camp still would not reveal its secrets (the winter is when I spot all the things hiding through the trees I will photograph in the warmer months!). The Camp made the news a few times recently after a few calamities but it’s a place, I learned, that must be experienced in person because most Camp Meetings I’ve read about can’t transport you back in time quite like this one.
After some further bad luck (which we’ll of course talk about towards the end) they reinstated their summer concert series and so I went to the last concert at the end of summer (it was bluegrass, maybe you saw it on my Instagram? That song stuck so deeply in my head it disrupted my sleep!), one of the few times this place is open to the public. Before the concert really started I wandered around as much as I could. It was my version of an amusement park. Something interesting and exciting found at every corner. Unfortunately there were quite a few places I just couldn’t make my way to but I think I found plenty of little gems to fill my camera roll up anyway!
THE ORIGIN STORY
This is what we would call a “Camp Meeting.” Originally held in frontier areas where folks (well, Protestant ones) without a permanent church could gather to camp out, listen to traveling preachers’ sermons, pray and sing hymns together. Since everyone was removed from their usual responsibilities, praying and sermons went on all day continuously. Camp Meetings especially gained popularity in America during the “Second Great Awakening” when everyone was really whipping themselves up into a fervor.
And while some people did come for the religion others came out of curiosity, for the social community or just to break up that tough frontier routine (an old joke was that the population always rose nine months after a Meeting ;).
There’s a particularly scandalous story about a Connecticut Camp Meeting and its minister in the 1830s. The brief notes are that a a young mill worker named Sarah confessed her sins with men to her minister…in a written letter. Soon after she left town for a new job prospect but eventually returned after a second chance at the mill opened up (she had been fired before for breaking a loom). At their local Camp Meeting, Sarah fatefully ran into her old minister again who refused to burn the scandalous letter unless she slept with him right there at Camp. If she didn’t he would destroy her reputation and have her fired. She acquiesced.
A few months later in September she realized she was pregnant and began to press the married minister for help. As you can imagine from his pervious character, he wanted nothing to do with her. By December he finally agreed to meet Sarah to discuss her options. The next day she was found dead hanging from a tree on a farm. Her body was so frozen that it was difficult to lay her flat on the ground once she had been cut down. As protection she had written a note warning that if anything happened to her to look at the minister.
Sarah was a poor working class girl with a stained reputation and the minister had the church paying his legal fees. After a month’s trial he was cleared of any wrongdoing. The townspeople believed this was yet another case of injustice for the working class and drove him out of preaching. You can read the whole interesting story here and here.
The Camp Meeting we’re looking at here was much more mild I have to say.
A Heaven on Earth
Chester Heights Camp Meeting ground became a reality in the fall of 1870 when the local Methodist Episcopal Church decided to purchase a grove in the countryside to use for their Sunday School. It’s a mouthful but these retreats came into fruition during the post Civil War American Methodist Camp Meeting movement (it’s now nondenominational). A nation trying to heal itself after the war had turned to religion.
The growing middle class after the Civil War had begun to visit resorts but church leaders found these to be more akin to “dens of vice” and deemed them unsavory. They wanted an alcohol free, religious, family-friendly retreats. This one was much more tame than those fire-and-brimstone ones of the South or in New England; more of a religious retreat than a religious frenzy.
Two years later, in 1872, this one in Chester Heights, Pennsylvania was opened and thousands visited. The woodland provided a welcome escape from hot summers and polluted air in industrial cities like nearby Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia…ow fun it was is certainly a matter of opinion. Original rules included no intoxicating liquor, card playing or even dancing. “Footloose” anyone?
Initially the camp consisted of a circle of tents; you could rent a large one for 75 cents a day or three dollars a week. In 1873 a large restaurant was built and boardwalks, a horse stable and tent platforms were added. With so many people attending plans were hatched for a new “cottage division.” Small Victorian style cottages to offer warm, dry and draft-free accommodations. A newly constructed railroad was bringing even more people in.
Numerous organizations rented out the grounds too including the Salvation Army and Women’s Temperance Union. By 1890 there were no more tents used here, every tent platform had been utilized to build mini Queen Anne and Gothic Revival cottages. All of the cottages on the grounds were built between 1874 and 1910, all Victorian many with balconies and most of them with charming gingerbread details. Many cottages were two stories high but none of them are particularly large, often only one room wide.
In 1915 the cottages were electrified though they still used hand-pumped water until 1966. A skating rink, tennis courts and a swimming pool were constructed though the children in 1918 were disappointed enough to make the paper when they were told they could not swim in the pool that summer. One man was permitting his muddy horses to bathe “freely” in the water.
That was probably just as disappointing as earlier in 1882 when the Camp Meeting refused to serve ice cream on Sundays to secure a larger crowd at services.
The State of Things
Camp Meetings lost popularity as time went on. There’s still a good handful of them but when the railroad left this one it significantly reduced the number of people attending. The campsite is still especially charming (I can’t stop using the word “charming” here because these little cottages are dripping with it) and it’s a bit like a giant time capsule despite it’s recent string of rotten luck.
In 2011 a fire in which three people were charged with arson destroyed the 100-year old tabernacle church and two cottages. In 2012 five teenage boys were charged with trespassing, and one with arson, after they set a fire that destroyed 10 historic cottages on the grounds. There’s actually a video of that blaze though it’s pretty sad to watch, here. Many of the cottages were already abandoned or in disrepair; a few of the cottages burned had just been completely renovated.
The next year with many cottages in ruins a 132 luxury apartment complex was proposed. It was shot down by the public at a crowded town hall meeting. In July of this year a devastating storm ripped through the area, the camp was particularly badly hit and it wrecked havoc on many cottages while bringing down power lines and numerous trees. The clean-up process for that is ongoing as you can see.
A few years ago the Camp Meeting was able to successfully join the National Register of Historic Places, though it is still in need of funds and repairs. Of the 50-some cottages remaining only 19 are inhabited during the summer months. It’s such a beautiful place, I hope it can be restored fully someday soon.
Some historical photos of the Camp Meeting:
All historical photos from the Camp Meeting Historical Archives.
Edit: I think I finally found something about this camp in the newspapers though I’m not positive: