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Camp Upton gets new historical marker away from highway

Jim Lennon, left, and Jim Michaud, both dressed

Jim Lennon, left, and Jim Michaud, both dressed in World War I uniforms, stand Thursday next to the unveiled new roadside marker, noting the history of Camp Upton. Credit: John Roca

For decades, the only sign that a mammoth World War I Army training camp once existed in Upton had been a roadside marker along William Floyd Parkway.

Local residents appreciated the recognition of Camp Upton — where thousands of recruits trained for trench warfare and Sgt. Irving Berlin penned "God Bless America." But the aging sign's location on a highway without sidewalks or a proper parking area irritated civic leaders and history buffs.

“The problem with that is you really can’t see it," said Gail Lynch-Bailey of the Longwood Alliance. "Unless you’re stuck in a huge traffic jam, you really can’t read it.”

Lynch-Bailey and other residents think they solved the problem last week with the placement of a new marker on Longwood Road, a short drive from the former camp site, now Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The blue-and-gold marker sits on property owned by Brookhaven Town and has a small area where cars can safely pull off the road. The site is near Longwood Junior High School and the town-owned Longwood Estate historical site.

“I encourage people to read it, and not get in a car crash," said Suzanne Johnson of the Longwood Society for Historic Preservation.

The old sign, which Johnson estimated had been erected at least three decades ago, will remain.

The new sign recalls the history of Camp Upton, which opened in July 1917 on 19,000 acres of scrub pine forest in central Brookhaven. As many as 40,000 soldiers trained there at any given time until the end of what was then known as the Great War in November 1918.

“The number who passed through there is more like 600,000,” said Johnson, who wrote a book about the camp that was published last year.

Lynch-Bailey said the sign was fully funded and delivered to the town by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, a Syracuse-based nonprofit that operates a grant program to fund historical roadside markers throughout the country. The foundation has funded about 800 markers, including 40 noting the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, spokesman Steve Bodnar said in an email.

"It’s a reminder to everyone that history was made right here in Brookhaven Town,” Councilman Michael Loguercio said in a statement.

The lab property still is pockmarked with remnants of the camp. Trenches dug to simulate European battlefields remain in remote sections of the property, and some century-old buildings still stand.

"The marker commemorates an important period in the history of the United States and especially of Long Island," Tim Green, the lab's environmental compliance manager and unofficial historian, said in an email. "This marker helps to keep the history alive."

Local residents take pride in Camp Upton's role in the war effort, Lynch-Bailey said, noting a recent Longwood High School student performance of "Yip Yip Yaphank," the musical revue Berlin wrote and staged during his time there.

“We love that Camp Upton was the birthplace of 'God Bless America,'” she said. “It’s a great source of pride for people. We heard from a lot of people whose grandfathers trained there or their great-grandfathers trained there.”

Marking history

The new marker on Longwood Road, west of William Floyd Parkway, bears the following inscription:

Camp Upton

World War I Army cantonment, 1917-1921. 77th Div. trained here. Rebuilt for World War II. Brookhaven National Lab established nearby in 1947.

William G. Pomeroy Foundation 2018

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