Camp Upton in WWI by Thomas Bayles

World War I
by local historian
Thomas Bayles


This account of the construction of Camp Upton in 1917 is taken from a report by the construction quartermaster, Major 0. K. Meyers, Jan. 15, 1918. "On June 20, 1917 travel orders and instructions were received to proceed to Yaphank, N.Y., and on the following day, accompanied by Col. Frank H. Lawton, of the Department of the East, Major M. J. Whitson, of the Cantonment Division, and the President and General Manager of the Long Island Railroad, an inspection of the property as far as the trail extending through it permitted, was made. The site of the camp was determined and was located on a U.S. Geological map of the section. The factors controlling the location of the camp site were that it should be centrally located on the property, to provide drill grounds on all sides, and that the prevailing winds would not pass over the stables before reaching the barrack buildings. The location being decided upon, the nucleus of an engineering organization was gotten together that evening.

A field party began surveys on June 23. The contract for construction was let to the Thompson Starrett Co. of New York on June 24 and their representative arrived on June 27.

The property obtained by the Commander of the East for the cantonment was a tract of land containing about 10, 000 acres. The property extended from the South Country road, (Montauk highway) on the south, to the Middle Country road on the north, a distance of six and a half miles, and from the Carmans river on the west to the Peconic river on the east, with a maximum width of four miles. To provide for rifle ranges additional land to the north was obtained, extending to the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Railroad, a distance of three and a half miles. Right to use the Tangier- Smith property to the south has been obtained. The total acreage at this time, June 15, 1918 is about 19,990 acres.

The soil is very fine sand, covered with from one to four feet of sandy loam, and in the lowlands there is an underlying strata of impervious hardpan, which causes them to be swampy during the wet season. The land is rolling, and in general is from 25 to 80 feet above sea level, a few mounds being as high as 135 feet. The property was originally covered with a hard wood forest. The stumps had rotted level with the ground surface, and numerous shoots from four to ten feet high had grown from them. These old stumps measured up to six feet in diameter. In addition there were about 50 pine trees to the acre, measuring up to 12 inches in diameter. It was necessary to stump, construct and maintain many miles of temporary roads as trucking could not be done except along prepared routes.

As it was necessary to house and feed all employees, the clearing placed an additional burden on the housing department. Fourteen hundred acres were cleared, and from June 25 to the latter part of July, the only work that could be done was clearing the site for a temporary camp near the railroad, clearing the site for the permanent buildings, and ordering materials and equipment. During this period engineering forces were making surveys of the area, in order to secure the necessary information to determine the location of the buildings and pipe lines before the arrival of material. The surveys developed that the land at the east end of the camp was too low for building purposes, and it was necessary to move the site of the camp 2000 feet to the west.

The month of July was one of discouragements. No one not a resident on the ground could appreciate the hardships placed upon the contractors, or could give them the credit due them for the manner under which they stood up under them. The wages paid were those in force in Brooklyn as of June 1, 1917. Unskilled labor was paid 37 1/2 cents an hour. Carpenters received 62 1/4 cents an hour, double time on Saturday and Sunday. Brick masons received 75 cents an hour, and labor foremen $60 a week. Other mechanics ranged from 62 1/2 cents to 75 cents an hour, and chauffeurs were paid $4.00 a day. The labor on the whole was poor and ready to take advantage of every opportunity to loaf on the work, which was frequently given them, as the contractors were unable to secure gang foreman in sufficient number.

When the property was acquired, arrangements were made with the Long Island Railroad to construct sidings for handling materials for the construction of the camp. The construction of the sidings was not begun until after the contract was let, so it was necessary to unload materials from the sidings adjoining the main line of the railroad. It was soon found these were not sufficient, so the railroad constructed temporary tracks leading into the camp. Materials were much longer in transit than anticipated, as the single track railroad and car float at Long Island City were unable to handle successfully the increased traffic.

It was necessary to house and feed most of the employees, and it was expected the lumber for the buildings would arrive within ten days, but the first shipment did not arrive until after 30 days in transit, so temporary of tents were provided.

The mosquitoes from the salt marshes to the south found cover in the undergrowth, making staying out of doors in the tents almost unbearable. Almost daily rains caused the temporary roads to become a series of mud holes.

In general the men who were superintendents of construction were men belonging to the contractors regular organization, but it did not have in a number of cases proper men in the small positions. The inability of the time -keeping department to properly handle their duties, gave a number of men the opportunity to put through false records.

The largest number of men employed on any one day was 15, 000. About 8,070 of the men were fed from company commissaries, the remainder cooking for themselves, or were local men who brought their lunches and went home at night. The prices charged were for meals for unskilled labor 25 cents, mechanics 35 cents, and office force 40 cents. The quality of the food served was good, and after the first month sanitary conditions were satisfactory. The service was that found generally in a construction camp and was not satisfactory to a large number of the men.

The heating plant at the base hospital proved to be inadequate to heat all the buildings at the recent low temperature of 15 below zero on Jan. 1. All the wards were heated satisfactorily, but sufficient pressure could not be obtained to force steam to the buildings at the end of the mains.

The fire department was in charge of a retired captain of the New York City Fire Department. Working with him was a force, which distributed water buckets, extinguishers etc. and made inspections to see that no unusually dangerous fire conditions occurred. A light truck equipped with extinguishers was held in readiness to answer any fire alarms, but no fires except a few brush fires occurred.

The division commander assumed command on August 15. The first troops arrived Sept. 10, with barracks ready for 10, 800. By November 1, barracks completed to house 37,000 men were in readiness.

As it was necessary to house all the construction men within the camp, and as it was near New York City, it quickly became infested with a large number of crooks and men of the underworld. To handle the conditions that resulted, it was necessary to employ a large number of detectives and men with police experience. At first the men arrested were taken before the local authorities, but this did not prove satisfactory, and a U.S. District Court was established at the camp. During the first nine weeks after the court was established, 1021 cases were tried with fines of $2700 imposed, and jail sentences of 900 days, with 309 men held for the grand jury. In addition, about 1000 men were escorted from the camp, as they could not account for their presence there or had remained after being discharged.

Following is a list of carloads of material used in the construction of Camp Upton, lumber 2779; cots 80; nails, 23; roofing paper 88; iron pipe 136; cement 91; feed, hay 7, oats 177; wall board 34; misc. 333; gravel 410; brick 62; sewer pipe 212; crushed stone 785; frames, sash 7 doors 100; radiators, stoves etc. 144; wood pipe 52;-Total carloads 5742.

The labor was obtained from the local villages as much as possible, but as there was not enough men in the neighborhood, the bulk came from New York. Great difficulty was experienced in July and August in the delivery of building materials due to the lack of graded roads. After Sept. 1, graded dirt roads were far enough advanced to make sections under construction easily accessible to teams and trucks. The permanent railroad sidings to the division warehouses were available on August 12 for limited use by the contractor. The time and cost of unloading the cars was excessive, as the lumber was thrown into a pile alongside the tracks, and then piled and sorted. Unloading went on day and night, the men working in shifts to suit the hours of the railroad switching crews. Great trouble was experienced in having the proper amount of lumber delivered to each building site. This was due in part to the carpenter formen, who would order the lumber unloaded at the building, they were working on.

All quarters for the men, stables and warehouses were built upon wooden post foundations, set 30 inches in the ground. In constructing the two story barracks a gang of carpenters followed the post gang and placed the first floor sills and rough flooring. Another gang followed and framed the sides flat upon the floor, and they were raised by men lifting the side along the wall plate, and walking underneath the sides and raising it into position. Cutting and ripping was done by 25 portable saws driven by five horse power gasoline engines. Most of the lumber was a low grade of unseasoned southern pine, and could not be handled without some loss due to breakage.

Three classes of roads were built. Class A roads where travel was heaviest. A base course of No. 3 stones five inches thick, and rolled, with a second course of the same size rolled, and covered with Tarvia X, and a final coat of Tarvia X covered with a layer of gravel and rolled. Class B roads were built of natural soil for light travel. The main road to camp from the Montauk highway was graded to connect with the camp road system, crossing over the L.I.R.R. tracks on a bridge.

At first garbage was removed by nearby farmers but the amount soon became so large they could not handle it, and rock pit incinerators were built and garbage placed in cans. A detail of men removed the cans to a nearby incinerator where it was burned."

The foregoing is only a part of Major Meyer's report, and the complete report is on file in the Middle Island Public Library.
Camp Upton was located on the site of the Brookhaven Laboratory, on a tract of about ten thousand acres, east of the William Floyd highway and extending from the Middle Country road to the Montauk highway. Later several thousand acres were purchased north of the Middle Country road and west of Lake Panamoka for a rifle range.

On June 21, 1917, Col. Frank M. Lawton, of the Department of the East, and Ralph Peters, president of the Long Island Rail Road, made an inspection of the property, which had been determined from a U. S. Geological map of the area. The location of the camp was approved and the contract for the construction of the camp was let to Thompson Starrett Co. on June 24th.

Work during that summer was very difficult, with extreme heat, rain, and millions of mosquitoes, which made working conditions almost unbearable. Rates paid for labor were 37 1/2 cents an hour for laborers and 62 1/2 cents an hour for carpenters. The men were fed in commissaries operated by the con-tractor, and the prices charged for meals were 25 cents for laborers, and 35-40 cents for mechanics. The largest number of men employed on any one day 15, 000. A total number of 5742 carloads of lumber and other materials were used in the construction of the camp.

The Long Island Rail Road extended tracks for the two miles into the camp from the main line, with tracks running to the passenger station, the freight yards, coal trestle, and to the ten warehouses where merchandise was received for the operation of the camp.

The first 2200 drafted men arrived on Sept. 10th and up to the end of October about 30, 000 men arrived. The camp was built to accommodate 37,000.

A station called Upton Road was built on the railroad east of the present William Floyd highway, and a shuttle train was operated into the camp from the main line that met the trains, in addition to the trains operating into the passenger station in the camp. Trains were operated on Saturday mornings to New York about an hour apart for the thousands of men on weekend passes, and returned Sunday night. Also visitors trains from New York came into the camp on weekends, bringing thousands of the relatives and friends of the men in the camp. Tickets to the soldiers were sold at $1.30 for a round trip to New York. The railroad station was a busy place in those days.

That first winter of 1917-1918 was a hard one with lots of snow, ice and muddy roads in the spring, as most of the roads were not hard surfaced at that time, and the only hard surfaced road out of the camp was the one to the Montauk highway, four miles distant. The Barrett Company had the contract for building the roads in the camp. The Longwood road and the old "Hay Road, that came into the camp from the Middle Country road were dirt roads and became almost impassable that winter. At one time the mud was so bad that autos and trucks could not get around and mule teams were used for trucking.

Irving Berlin, the famous song writer, was an early soldier in Camp Upton, and with all the other men hated to get up in the morning when the bugle blew, so he wrote the song, "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, " which became an instant success. He got many Broadway performers to come out to the camp and entertain the soldiers in the camp theater, and he directed a musical comedy called "Yip Yip Yaphank, " which soon became famous and had a short Broadway run.

Thousands of men were trained at Camp Upton during 1917 and 1918 and went overseas. The men of the 77th Division were trained there and most of them were from the New York and Long Island area. After the war ended in November 1918 the camp was made into a debarkation camp, as the men returned from overseas to be discharged. The American Railroad Association had an office with 24 hour telephone switchboard service, and handled all the railroad operations for the troop movements in and out of the camp. The railroad tickets clerks worked nights making up the tickets for the lists of men who were being sent out the next day to their homes all over the country.

The army had thousands of mules that were kept at the old "Remount" " in the part of the camp near the main line of the railroad. These were sold at auction and shipped around the country. We had a train of 50 stock cars with engine attached backed to the loading platform, and as the mules were sold they were lassoed and the government brand burned off, then herded up the loading platform and loaded 21 mules in a car. As each car was loaded the train moved ahead to the next car until the train was loaded. The waybills were given to the train conductor and the train departed.

The 1660 buildings, utilities and improvements in the camp were sold at auction on August-21, 1921 by the auctioneers Smith & Jaffee. Everything was to be removed within 60 days and the purchasers took down the buildings and salvaged the lumber in them. Hundreds of carloads were shipped around the country as far west as Indianapolis, Ind. Some of the smaller buildings were moved to various locations on Long Island.


March 17: Worked at Camp. We were shifted to warehouse No. 6 for the day. Unloaded 5 carloads blankets (35,000).

March 26: Worked at Camp on truck. 27th Div. from across came into Camp today, (25,000).

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