Presidential Emergency Facility Site 1 - "Cactus”

Camp David at Catoctin Mountain, Md.
Catoctin Mountain site of Camp David with Cactus Tower in the background
 1,900 ft. (579.1 m)
 Frederick County, MarylandUSA
 Appalachian Mountains
 +39.648333N -77.466667 W

Camp David was originally built as a camp for federal government agencies and their families, by the WPA, starting in 1935, opening in 1938. Winter at Camp David

In March 1942 President Roosevelt directed the National Park Service to investigate locations reasonably close to the Washington area for use as a Presidential retreat. After studying several locations, the National Park Service selected three tentative sites: One in Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, and the other two in the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, in Maryland. The President chose Camp Number Three or Camp Hi- Catoctin, by using the existing buildings that were there; the retreat could be completed in the shortest possible time and at minimum cost. The camp also occupied a perfect location, atop Catoctin Mountain at an altitude of about 1,900 feet above sea level; this location experienced a consistently lower temperature than Washington DC; and was only about 70 miles, or a 2-hour drive, from the White House.

Tower History and Purpose

Cactus was built on the Presidential Retreat at Camp David Md. The White House Communications Agency (WHCA) was responsible for the installation and maintenance of all of the communications equipment at the facility. The staff at this facility was assigned to The Defense Communications Support Unit (DCSU) and they were permanently stationed at Camp David.

WHCA provided non-emergency communications to all visitors that stayed at the facility, including all of the non-secure telephones terminating on a three position manual switchboard. They also provided the television sets and stereo equipment installed in all of the guest cabins as well as Aspen Lodge. The Secret Service and the White House Staff used two way FM radios to communicate with each other. Communications to Marine One was accomplished by using a two way UHF radio system. There was also a surface to air radio link for direct voice communications known as Echo Fox the AF1 Presidential Communications Network. This nationwide system was maintained by AT&T. The Communications Center provided all secure voice and TTY. WHCA also maintained the electronic fence surrounding the Camp.

WHCA personnel were also responsible for the communications equipment installed on the Presidential Train’s communications cars “Crate” located just outside Harrisburg Pa.

The Cactus facility consisted of a cylindrical tower and a two level bunker. The construction of the tower and bunker was completed during the mid to late 50’s. It was one of the first Presidential Emergency Facilities to be completed. There was also an Underground Bomb Shelter built near Aspen Lodge. This facility was designed to provide emergency shelter for not only the President and First Family, but also for select members of the White House staff and the Secret Service in the event of a nuclear attack.

Cactus was part of a microwave network designed to provide emergency communications to the President of the United States, Secret Service and visiting dignitaries while at Camp David. This microwave route connected Camp David, the Pentagon (Site R) and Mt. Weather directly to the President or White House.

Technology obsolescence of the microwave radio network was the primarily reason that the tower was closed and the advancement of communication technology especially satellite systems and fiber optic cable.

I know that the tower at Camp David was taken down sometime in the mid 90's. They also tore down the old U shaped barracks, mess hall, DCSU Headquarters, Radio Shop and Garage. I think they still maintain part of the bunker but I cannot verify that.

The new DCSU headquarters is a large office building with satellite downlink antennas out toward the back gate near where the old Log Periodic, HF antenna was located. You can clearly see the building on Google earth; you can also see a satellite dish behind the new mess hall. I can't be 100% sure that it's not for cable TV. Also if you look closely at the last building it appears to have a flat roof with some kind of white radome, could this be the down link? Of course I don't know for sure, but all the speculation is that the bunker under Aspen Lodge has been expanded and manned full time.

Facility Map of the presidential Retreat at Camp David
Google Earth view of Cactus Tower and bunker (1988) see shadow in foreground

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