In the mid-1800s. roads and water
routes were the two ways of transporting goods and travelers during the
Euro-American settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Hotels, in the modern
sense of the word, developed as the accompaniment to the convenient
transportation systems represented by the railroads. As the number of
cars increased in the Pacific Northwest after 1905, so, too, did the
need for accommodations for auto enthusiasts. The first half of this
century saw the rise and fall of auto camps. Today, lacking protection
from the National Register of Historic Places, these historic sites are
Some automobile owners viewed themselves
as pioneers and reveled in their ability to camp on the outskirts of
towns or anywhere along a road. ca 1927, Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15051
The auto camping fad peaked between 1915 and 1922.
Spurred, in part, by the fear of breaking down on poor roads, possibly
miles from any town with a hotel, travelers began outfitting their
vehicles with camping equipment. Some automobile owners viewed
themselves as pioneers and reveled in their ability to camp on the
outskirts of towns, or anywhere along the road. Camping was also
inexpensive, and many vacation destinations offered no other type of
The early auto campers often avoided hotels, even
though most could easily afford the rates. By camping, the auto "gypsy"
did not have to make reservations, or eat at the times set by the hotel
dining rooms. He did not have to tip, nor explain his sometimes
disheveled appearance after a day on the road to a clerk in a hotel
lobby. In camping there was room for a tourist's family, easy access to
his vehicle (most hotels did not have their own parking until after
World War II), informality, and fresh air. 
Even before the Pacific Highway opened in 1913 as a
route connecting cities located in the region's western interior
valleys, auto camping had been done on a short-term basis in many towns.
Campers in Ashland were allowed to occupy the city park for a couple of
weeks each summer for the Chautauqua festivities. By 1910, auto campers
were the natural successors to the earlier attendees brought to town by
Left to right: Minnie Lane, Mr. and Mrs.
Pernell Whitmore, Jessie Stone and Clarence lane at Diamond Lake. Their
two pets are Patsy Ruth and Skippy Stone. June 1931, Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15035
Lithia Park Auto Court ca 1940
Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15988
Problems associated with unrestricted camping
justified the establishment and subsidization of free municipal auto
camps. The first official municipal camp in the United States appeared
in Douglas, Arizona. in 1913. 
Within two years, several cities in the Pacific Northwest wanted to cash
in on the number of affluent auto tourists passing through their
communities. Boosters looked to the town's park board to situate an auto
camp in a centrally located city park. They reasoned that this would
attract tourists to downtown stores and allow the town to advertise
itself as one which embraced progress. 
Grants Pass and Ashland preceded larger cities in the
region by opening municipal auto camps in 1915. Grants Pass was first to
open its auto camp. The city made use of Riverside Park, an area opened
in 1910, to provide public access to the Rogue River. A park fund was
initiated in 1914 so that an automobile entrance and an adjoining
campground could be constructed. The latter was built in 1915:
... on the river bank east of the park and all
camp conveniences were provided to make the stop of this class of
tourists in Grants Pass as pleasant as possible. The town, already a
popular stopping place for train passengers and auto tourists who
stayed in hotels, needed the campgrounds to provide for those who
carried camping equipment and did not stay in the hotels.
Tents were rolled up and placed below
the door to keep more room inside the cars for camping equipment,
clothes, people and pets. July 1930; Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society
Ashland began construction of Lithia Park in 1909,
situating it adjacent to Chautauqua Park. The local boosters lost no
time in trying to capitalize upon auto tourists traveling to the Panama
Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco during 1915. They opened a
ninety-two acre auto camp on July 22, 1915. 
Originally, there was no charge nor limit to the length of stay.
By 1916 Ashland had expended $l75,000 on Lithia Park,
much of which went to developing the auto camp. Tourists were attracted
by amenities like mineral water, a community house with gas stoves for
cooking, a nearby grocery store, electric lights with individual
switches (so that campers could sleep in the dark), and even a laundry
wagon that picked up wash each morning and returned it the next day.
Although the argument for free municipal campgrounds
was that they simply filled out the range of accommodation available in
a community, it was not long before the urge to compete with other towns
led to expensive improvements. As the number of automobiles grew rapidly
in the years following World War I there was increasing pressure to levy
a charge for use of the facilities in municipal campgrounds.
Disgruntled hotel keepers and entrepreneurs who
wanted to open private camps viewed the free municipal camps as unfair
competition and pressed the park boards to eliminate them.
Both Grants Pass and Ashland instituted a charge of
fifty cents per night in their municipal camps beginning in 1923. That
year 15.2 million cars were registered in the United States, whereas in
1912 there had been only one million registered vehicles. The number of
cars increased to nineteen million in 1924, a year when it was estimated
that five million vehicles and fifteen million Americans would occupy
campgrounds across the U.S. 
Mr. and Mrs. C. E. Lane and Hazel Emery
relax with their auto tent at Mt. Rainier. ca 1923; Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15983
Although the private camps had started
renting tent space, their proprietors soon realized that cabins with a
few amenities attracted customers. Merrick's Auto Camp in Medford. ca
1930; Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #8940
Although tent sales peaked between 1923 and 1924,
many auto campers wanted to bring less camping equipment with them.
Private camps attracted their share of the auto camping public because
municipal camps were often crowded in the summer and had established
limits on how long a tourist could stay. Although the private camps had
started by renting tent space, their proprietors soon realized that
cabins with a few amenities attracted customers. Cabins appeared in the
Grants Pass and Ashland municipal camps by 1925, but by this time these
operations had to compete with a number of private camps which sprouted
along the newly numbered and paved highways.
The Redwood Highway connected Grants Pass with
Crescent City in 1926, and anew route to Crater Lake from Medford was
completed in 1927. These new roads and an improved Pacific Highway
between Drain and Wolf Creek (which had been described in 1917 by
Sunset Magazine as rough at all times and impassable in wet weather)
allowed entrepreneurs to build camps with cabins at strategic points to
lure the long-distance tourist. Since a cabin could be built for two
hundred dollars or less, an owner's investment could be paid off in a
season or two. 
Whether the commercial camps were located in the
vicinity of a town or on the highway many miles from a business
district, the cabins tended to be arranged in a row parallel or
perpendicular to the highway. 
One of the few differences between city and rural commercial camps was
that the latter more often included a gas station and/or store as part
of the operation. During this period, "kitchenettes" were often provided
in the cabin, but showers and toilets could be found in a central
Lithia Park's grounds were well used if
the cars lined up here are any indication. Lithia Park auto camp grounds
in Ashland, July 1931
Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15985
Left to right: Minnie Lane, Mr. and Mrs.
Pernell Whitmore, Jessie Stone holding "Skippy" and Clarence Lane
holding "Patsy" all camping at Diamond Lake. July 1931; Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15984
The first U.S. Forest Service campground was
established in 1915 (along Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge) and
their number nationwide grew to fifteen hundred by 1923.
 These campgrounds soon became an important
component to outdoor recreation in the Pacific Northwest because over
one-third of the region was national forest. Forest Service camp sites
consisted of parking space for a car, a level area for tents, and a
picnic table. The campground's community pump provided drinking water,
and one or two pit toilets served as sanitation. Like the early
municipal camps, there was no charge for use of the facilities.
By 1935, auto camping widened to include what were
originally called "trailer houses." Trailers allowed the motorist to
literally carry a dwelling to a camp site. Their appearance generally
coincided with the development of cottage courts and motor inns, so that
the modern range of accommodation for travelers was clearly discernible
Availability of funds and labor for campground
development through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program
coincided with the trailer's increasing popularity. Some camp sites were
modified to accommodate this new type of auto camping despite a protest
from one prominent campground designer stating that trailers were
detrimental to "the camp spirit," as contrasted with city, and town
Lithia Park attracted tourists with
amenities like mineral water, a community house with gas stoves, a
nearby grocery store, and even a laundry wagon. ca 1916
Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15987
People flocked to the auto campground
for the dedication of Lithia Park in Ashland, July 1916
Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15986
Nevertheless, a number of parking spurs to
accommodate trailers were eventually placed in many of the region's
Forest Service campgrounds. Few of the conversions were as dramatic as
the metamorphosis of the Sucker Creek Forest Camp, located near Milepost
12 of the Oregon Caves Highway. A nearby CCC camp began work in late
1934 to make the campground suitable for trailers because of the
gradient of the road beyond that point. It was renamed "Grayback
Campground," and the CCC began to construct new campsites which had
larger vehicle parking space. Other projects there included a massive
landscaping program to remove traces of the old campground; new
fireplaces: and construction of a community building like those in the
municipal auto camps.
Commercial use of the word "camp" declined in the
late 1930s, especially when the proprietor's aim was to cater to
business travelers. Older cabin camps were increasingly left to the
working class or itinerants, except in resort areas. Their image slid
further after a well-publicized magazine article in 1940 labeled the
majority of auto camps as havens for fugitives, prostitutes, and drug
Auto camps are still well represented along highways
throughout the Pacific Northwest. A few of them have been documented in
county surveys of properties potentially eligible for the National
Register of Historic Places, but they continue to disappear due to
deterioration and changing uses. Many of the losses can be attributed to
the failure of property owners and county officials to recognize auto
camps as potentially significant historic resources.
Camping enthusiasts could find auto
tents, like this one, in their Montgomery Ward catalog, 1929
Three surveys conducted since 1976 identified eleven
camps located in the two southwest Oregon counties as possibly
significant historic properties. Five of these are located in Jackson
County with the remainder in Josephine County. In contrast to the inns
and hotels which preceded them, there has been comparatively little
effort expended to preserve significant examples of this type of
travelers' accommodation. The lack of appreciation for how the
automobile forever changed the region's transportation infrastructure
during the quarter century before 1940 is one reason. Another difficulty
is an inability to identify auto camps and how they evolved from the
first free municipal campgrounds in 1915, to the motor hotels (or
"motel") by the end of World War I. The remaining auto camps in local
areas will have little chance to avoid eventual obliteration if their
importance remains unknown and nothing is done to put them into context
with the regional pattern of development.
Some auto camps in southwest Oregon might qualify for
listing on the National Register because they meet Criterion A. This is
where property is associated with processes that have been significant
parts of "broad patterns" of national, state, or local history. They
might also qualify under Criterion C, where a property is a good example
of a particular kind of architectural style, or if it represents a
significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack
individual distinction (such as a group of cabins that form a district).
A camp must also meet a seven-way test for integrity of location,
design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. The
tests for integrity are intended to disqualify those properties
compromised by unsympathetic alterations.
Camping was inexpensive and many
vacation destinations offered no other type of accommodation. ca 1927
Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #15243
The National Register is virtually the only means of
preserving significant examples of auto camps in southwest Oregon. The
Union Creek Resort is the only auto camp in Jackson County already
listed on the National Register at this writing. No auto camps have been
listed in Josephine County.
Steven Mark is a historian who lives in Fort Klamath.
A Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Auto Camps
to Motel, 1910-1945, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979) p. 139.
Ashland Parks file, SOHS Medford.
"America Takes to the Motor Court,"
Business Week 563, 15
Jun 1940, p. 19.
Warren James Belasco, p.77.
Grants Pass Courier, 16 May 1915.
"A Bit of Old Ashland," papers and interviews by eighth graders of
Ashland Junior High School, 1978, compiled by Marjorie Lininger, P.S.
Warren James Belasco, p.78.
Earl Chapman May. "The Argonauts of the Automobile,"
Evening Post 197:6,9 Aug 1924, p.89.
Staff of Popular Science Monthly, How to Build Cabins, Lodges,
and Bungalows, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934) p.14.
Norman Hayner, "Auto Camps in the Evergreen Playground"
Forces 9:1 Oct 1930, p. 256-266.
Popular Science Monthly. op cit., p. 210-214.
William C. Tweed, Recreation Site Planning and Improvement in
National Forests, 1891-1942, (Publication FS-354, Government
Printing Office. Washington, DC, 1980) pp. 4-5.
E.P. Meineche, "The Trailer Menace-A voice From the Past,"
Journal of Forestry, 70:5, May.
J. Edgar Hoover, "Camps of Crime,"
American Magazine 129:2
Feb 1940, pp.14-15,130-132.
This article first appeared in Southern Oregon Heritage, 1998,
Vol. 3 No. 4