MORRIS — In 1885, there were many summer camps surrounding Bantam Lake, but only one could boast being founded by Columbia University, an Ivy League research university in New York City; serving as a military combat training center during World War I; and having a connection with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became the president of the university in 1948 and facilitated the addition of a football field on the camp grounds for Columbia athletes to practice. Eisenhower also enjoyed hunting on the camp property.
The beginnings of Camp Columbia in Lakeside, Connecticut encompassed farms and woodland where students from Columbia University took summer courses in engineering, technology and international affairs, initially living in tents. Permanent school buildings including dormitories, a large bath house, dining hall and administration office were eventually erected. In the early 1900s, Columbia University added 471 acres to the property, including access to Bantam Lake.
To celebrate the Centennial for the town of Morris, a book entitled “One Hundred Years of History for Morris, Connecticut 1859-1959” was compiled by Laura Stoddard Weik, which provides more details about the camp. “Camp Columbia was developed for summer field work in surveying in connection with the College of Mines. Summer classes for Columbia University were started prior to 1884 and were at first held in Central Park. When this locality was first used in 1885 for practical experience, the students boarded at various places near the village of Litchfield, their exuberance frequently disturbing the tranquility of that staid old town.”
In 1917, during World War I, a course in military training was offered at the camp, to students who were planning to become officers in the armed forces. Map-making, military drills and rifle practice with live ammunition were part of the curriculum and the War Department used the property to organize a camouflage corp.
To establish a relationship between students and Morris town residents, the university provided a series of free lectures by their noted professors, including the subjects of “How Ships Find Their Way at Sea,” “Chemistry of Air and Water,” and “Bridge Construction.” The students were warmly welcomed in the Morris community, according to a newspaper article stating that “Camp Columbia has enlivened the town. Merchants and farmers are benefiting and the presence of the school adds a stimulus to the rapid grown of Morris and Bantam Lake as a summer resort.” The daily mailing of 300 letters from the students required the town to create a new post office in the village of Lakeside to handle the overflow.
The students enjoyed entertainment on Bantam Lake, where they had access to swimming and boating. In the 1920s there was a popular venue on the lake known as the Music Box, which switched to a hard rock dance hall known later as Beverly’s, featuring bands like Herman’s Hermits, the Guess Who and Chubby Checker, where local teenagers ran into university students, who were probably amazed to find some of the same popular rock stars they saw in New York City.
Morris residents who were born and raised in the town shared some of their experiences with Camp Columbia. “As youngsters, my brothers and I would visit the camp during off-season since it was close enough to walk to. It was a fascinating place. There were only caretakers and maintenance workers on the property then. We caught bull frogs and climbed the stone tower and were sometimes lucky to watch the football team practice,” said Tom Weik.
“Model airplanes — the precursor to drones — were very popular for young and old and there was a small landing strip used by a RC (radio-control) club just a short distance from the camp,” said David Weik.
After 90 years of higher learning in an outdoor environment, and declining enrolment for a summer semester, the university decided to sell the property. After the existing structures fell into disrepair, they were used by the Morris Fire Department for firefighter training. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection acquired the 591-acre camp property and it was dedicated as an historic state park in 2004.
The magnificent stone water tower, a gift from the class of 1906 to replace the wooden tower, was dubbed an “inland lighthouse” by a university press release at the time. The tower, and a deteriorating stone building that was referred to as the Instrument House (where surveying instruments were kept), are now the only remainders of this nearly 100 years of history.
Camp Columbia is located on Route 109 in Lakeside, Morris.