FORT LEE, Va. (March 16, 2017) -- This installment of the Historic Photo of the Month looks back to 1917 and the advantages of building the first Camp Lee near Petersburg – the largest of the 16 Army cantonments in the United States.
“Many pages of the average newspaper would not contain the articles that have been written descriptive of Camp Lee built on a scale the world never knew until the United States got into the war with Germany.”
This is the first paragraph of an article in a late 1917 edition of the weekly newspaper The Bayonet. It appeared under the headline “Incomparable Advantages Won for Petersburg Cantonment.”
“There are 15 other such cantonment camps in the United States built after the same plans and on a similar scale, although recent additions to Camp Lee have made it capable of accommodating a larger number of men than any other of the cantonment camps of the National Army. The original plans for the 16 National Army cantonments provided for buildings sufficient to accommodate 47,000 men. Buildings added to Camp Lee since those originally planned were completed will make the capacity of the cantonment close to 60,000 men.
“Many reports are in circulation concerning plans of the War Department to make the camp still larger, but these are not confirmed. That the department regards the location of Camp Lee superior to very many, if not the majority of the National Army camps, is known to be a fact.
“The accessibility of Petersburg, its nearness to deep water and the remarkable fine transportation facilities, make it possible to bring an Army to the camp and take it to a seaport with the greatest possible speed. Also the topography of the site and the character of the soil, ensures solid footing an hour or two after the hardest downpour, owing to the sandy nature of the ground.
“All of these proved irresistible attractions and arguments when the War Department was considering the claims of various cities seeking to be designated as the site for one of the big encampments.
“The fight was a hard one, but it was evident, after all the claims of the various cities had been submitted, that no other community had a chance to be designated unless Petersburg should withdraw.
“After the selection of Petersburg had been announced, Secretary Baker revoked the order on the appeal of E.I. Dupont de Nemours Company, which feared that the location of the camp so close to its great plant at Hopewell would cause the demoralization of its forces of labor attracted by the high wages that would be paid by the contractors who would build the camp.
“But a body of Petersburg citizens hurried to Washington and presented the case of this city so strongly and gave such positive assurances that the labor organization of the du Pont Company would not be interfered with that Secretary Baker revoked his order, and the work of construction of Camp Lee was begun.
“The City of Petersburg – meaning a group of Petersburg businessmen formed themselves into a corporation and took over title to the land embraced within the camp reservation, involving a capital of $400,000. This land is leased to the government at a rental not exceeding $15 per acre per year. Upwards of 5,000 acres are included in the reservation.
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