Camp Sanita’s Saga

by John Delach

I promised George that I would investigate the place where he spent his happiest summer vacations during the early 1950s, Sanita Hills Camp. This is what I discovered:

Mayor Fiorello took office in 1933 as a reformer dedicated to cleaning up the ruins left behind by Jimmy Walker, who had been forced from office. However, the Little Flower’s greatest challenge was to take bold steps to lessen the stranglehold the great depression had on the city. He appointed men who dared to do great things. Robert Moses was his most effective commissioner, but another, forgotten today, was William F. Carey, Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. “Carey demonstrated admirable concern for his workers known as the ‘White Wings’ for their white uniforms.”

Shortly after Carey’s appointment, he proposed to La Guardia that he purchase a Long Island estate for the exclusive use by sanitation employees. Morale was awful as the department had lower salaries than almost every other municipal operation. Carey explained to the mayor that he had a separate fund generated from revenue earned from a series of baseball games played by his department’s team against the Police Department in Yankee Stadium. The Little Flower didn’t object and encouraged Carey in his quest.

Carey purchased Oheka Castle in Huntington, Long Island. Otto Kahn, a Morris County based Jewish businessman, had bought the land in 1914 after being shutout one time too many for membership at one of the New Jersey golf clubs. He commissioned leading architects to design his mansion. Construction of the castle and the grounds including its own 18-hole golf course took five years to finish. When Kahn passed away in 1934, his estate put Oheka up for sale in a lean time when few “want to be” dukes or barons could afford such a luxury.

Enter Carey with a fist full of dollars who submitted the best offer on behalf of sanitation. The estate accepted his offer, the best they could expect. Carey deemed the new property to be: “Chateau Sanita.”

Huntington, even then, was an upscale community populated by influential families and individuals, so it didn’t take long for their quiet rage to force the castle’s estate to renege on the deal. “Sorry, old boy, but seriously, garbage men vacationing here. I mean, what’s next?”

Carey backed off. Hat in hand, he met with La Guardia for help to find a suitable tract of land in southern New York State to establish a vacation camp for his workers and their families. The mayor prevailed on both Eleanor and, her husband, Franklin, to help the city find the land he needed. With their help, “he was able to purchase land in in Duchess County, NY in the hamlet of Holmes to establish Sanita Hills Camp.

Information about the purchase or the development of facilities is not readily available so I have used what I could find and make assumptions about the rest.

“The property eventually had three camps; one for families, one for single men and a third for single women. The complex included a dining hall and recreation center. Four small lakes were expanded, cleaned up and beaches were created for swimming, sailing and other water sports.”

The problems associated with building cabins from scratch was solved by a fortuitous coincidence. At the same time that construction on the camp was beginning, the City of New York gained control of the old IRT and BMT elevated lines which they closed in preparation for demolition. Hundreds of wooden elevated cars were taken out of service. Commissioner Carey had the wheels removed from dozens of them and retro-fitted the units before hauling them upstate on flatbed trucks.

“The open-ended platforms were mounted on concrete supports, were fitted with simple wooden porches, railings and steps. Typically, this porch was shaded by a stripped awning and could be entered through a door cut into that side of the body. Referred to as “Pullmanettes,” Sanitation workers paid a nominal amount to vacation in Camp Sanita for as long as a week. Those Pullmanettes intended for family use had a center kitchen-dining area, a master bedroom and two berth children’s rooms. These interiors were trimmed with Philippine mahogany and equipped with an electric refrigerator and a tiled bathroom with a shower.

The camp had four lakes for fishing, water sports and swimming, the largest being Whaley Lake. Another, christened, Sunset Lake had separate lakeside areas for open air dancing, a theatre and communal dining and other recreational activities. A number of baseball and softball fields dotted the property as did courts and fields for other popular sports popular in those post World War II years.

Information about the why and cause  for an audit is sketchy, but apparently in 1943… “ it led to an investigation into how Sanitation was able to buy 1,100 acres of land and who authorized the requisition of city elevated train cars, not to mention the use of materials, supplies and city labor to build the resort.”

In 1943, The New York Times reported that Commissioner Carey admitted to authorizing  the project for the good of the department and the city. LaGuardia ordered the department to get rid of the camp, but this mandate was never made a priority as Sanitation employees and their families continued to make use of the property until the spring of 1956. In a ceremony conducted at the camp on May 18, 1956, then Commissioner of Sanitation, Andrew W. Mulrain, formally transferred the title of Sanita Hills to Boy Scouts of Greater New York Council.

Over time, interest in scouting diminished especially during the turbulent 1970s and the greatly reduced need for camps led to the shedding of unwanted property. Sanita was one of those casualties. Today, only past memories of past summer fun remains in those hill of Duchess County.