Blauvelt State Park, in the Rockland County town of Blauvelt has a storied history. At first, it was a facility where members of the New York State National Guard (and the Naval Militia) could practice shooting. It was first used in October 1910, though still under construction at the time. Later on, the site would be called Camp Bluefields (Blauvelt means “blue field” in Dutch), but at this time the facility was known as the Blauvelt Rifle Range.
It replaced the Creedmor firing range, which was nearer to the New York City metropolitan area. But before long, stray bullets were found to be landing in South Nyack and Grand View, and residents were naturally unhappy. Guardsmen were also less than enthusiastic with the range.
As early as 1911, several officers went on record in the New York Herald saying that the location was unsuitable. Reaching the site was awkward due to limited transportation options they said, the firing line was oriented in a way that meant shooters often had the sun in their eyes, and the stony ground was unfit for practicing skirmishing.
Rifle Range a Failure
The range featured concrete target walls (called butts), tunnels for safe movement of personnel, a 175-foot tall observation tower, and buildings which included a headquarters and mess hall. It was set up so that shooting could be practiced at various distances up to 1,000 yards.
The Guard’s use of the range was discontinued, by order of General John F. O’Ryan on June 6, 1912. With a mountain as a backdrop, it had been thought that bullets would not leave the range, but that proved not to be the case. Modifications were explored, but were not found to be effective. It seemed that only with additional substantial expenditure would it be possible to make the range usable.
The property was transferred to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission on April 30, 1913. The rifle range, which Governor William Sulzer had called “the best rifle range in the world,” had cost the state close to $500,000, though its construction was said to never have been entirely completed.
Summer Camp for City Girls
The site then hosted a summer camp, run by the Y. W. C. A., where young women from the Big Apple could relax and enjoy a break from city life. Accommodating several hundred women at a time, it served as “a vacation camp for busy industrial girls of New York City,” wrote Elsie Herrick Lewis in the Y. W. C. A.’s publication The Association Monthly (September 1913). In June 1915, Governor Charles S. Whitman paid a visit, and over one hundred female campers sang him a song: “We Greet You, Governor Whitman.”
Called “Camp Bluefields,” the facility offered an experience much different from city life. The young women slept on cots in “white tents lined in military precision.” In addition to taking nature walks, the summer residents could make use of a reading room and athletic fields (including a croquet court). A bugle call woke them in the morning, and the melody of Taps let them know when it was time to sleep.
Over the years that Camp Bluefields was used for this purpose, it provided summer breaks for thousands of women. The 1918 annual report by the Commissioners of the Palisades Interstate Park said that 1,882 women had used the facility in 1917, with over 300 having stayed there more than once. Though workers of all sorts had visited, the largest category was “office clerks, stenographers and telephone operators”–a total of 763 of them.
Though run by the Y. W. C. A. (the Young Womens Christian Association), the program was non-denominational, with 101 Jewish women having visited, along with Christians of every strain, and 104 who gave no church affiliation.
Military Training for Teenage Boys
In 1918–when the U. S. was active in the First World War, Bluefields took on a different character. It was used as a military training center for young men, or–really–boys. The state required boys aged 16, 17, and 18 to receive military training. That summer, a full regiment of these “men” participated in the training, and they paraded before Governor Charles Seymour Whitman.
An Ithaca man, having visited his brother at the camp, reported in the Ithaca Journal that it was “conducted upon the most rigid military lines, and that the month’s training is severe.” But along with the vigorous training, “they are given food of the best sort in abundance.” Costs for the food and transportation were paid by New York State. Boys did have to buy their own uniforms, which were required.
Some military training continued after the war’s end, though boys’ participation was then voluntary. Though under control of military officers, at this time the camp was more focused on recreation. An announcement in 1920 touted – in addition to field training – “music, athletics, swimming, tennis, baseball, basketball, and healthful recreation.”
Uniforms were “desirable, but not required.” (Though some sources mention Blauvelt having been used after World War I to hold German prisoners of war, such references are vague and do not seem to be supported by any firm evidence.)
The Comeback Club for Disabled Veterans
In 1922, the camp became a recreation and rehabilitation facility for wounded veterans . It was begun by vets who were studying at Columbia University, members of the Come Back Club. By this time, some bungalows had been constructed, so some of the men slept indoors, rather than in tents.
One man who participated was George Kucehera. He had been rendered totally blind, not due to a battlefield wound, but as a result of an overdose of medication given him at a military training camp. Kucehera, according to a profile that appeared in The New York World, was happy at the camp, and especially enjoyed swimming and diving in the camp’s outdoor pool. He was “one of the best divers in the camp and a splendid swimmer.”
Over time, club eligibility was expanded: first, to wounded veterans attending any college or university, and then, in 1926 to all disabled veterans throughout the U. S.
Reserve Officer Training and Fresh Air Camp
In 1924, Colonel Peter E. Traub announced plans to provide training for reserve officers – with gunfire to be limited so as not to threaten nearby communities. This training for reserve officers was carried on for at least a few years. But Traub noted that Bluefields would still host disabled vets, Y. W. C. A. girls, and individuals from “similar organizations” who would be “permitted to camp on the reservation as in other years.”
One of the uses by “similar” organizations may have been the “fresh air” camps sponsored by the New York Herald-Tribune. Mention of this project appeared in newspapers as early as 1927, but it likely began before that.
In 1937, it was reported that “Hundreds of children who otherwise would be subjected to the heat and unhealthy atmosphere of the city are being given a taste of childhood’s Utopian atmosphere at the camp.” The fresh air program operated until at least 1939.
Work Camo and World War II Training Course
During the winter of 1932-33, and into the spring, some 200 single and homeless men lived and worked at a labor camp on the site. Proposed by the New York City Welfare Council, and funded by the New York Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, the men earned $6 a week carrying out park improvement work. This project–intended as an experiment–proved successful and was the precursor of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps that were created all over the U. S.
During World War II, Bluefields again served a military purpose. In 1944, an “infiltration course” was constructed at what was called Camp Blauvelt, and G. I.s from Camp Shanks had to navigate 100 yards, crawling under barbed wire with live machine gun rounds passing over their heads and with explosive charges being set off around them.
The course was, as reported in the Camp Shanks newspaper The Palisades, “designed to prepare the soldier mentally for the shock of combat.” Later on, an area was developed where soldiers practiced lobbing live grenades. In May 2019, a relic of the grenade practice course – a hand grenade fuze – was found by investigators who were checking the site for safety hazards.
Today Blauvelt State Park offers a network of hiking trails, including a section of the Long Path. The park is popular with explorers who are intrigued by abandoned places (who call it “Tweed” after Tweed Boulevard, a road that provides access to it). The old tunnels – in disrepair and populated by insects and other critters – are still there, decorated with graffiti, along with some deserted and decrepit buildings. A visitor today would never know all the activities the site hosted in the past.
Illustrations, from above: Come Back Club, New York Times, May 4, 1922; Shooters, New York Times, October 2, 1910; and YWCA, Around the World with a Camera, 1917.