Echo Lake Camp in the late 1940s. Credit: Paul DeWitt

Fires have been a regular presence at Berkeley’s Echo Lake Camp, though none has threatened it as much as the Caldor Fire that ripped through the area overnight.

The camp opened its doors to about 75 people in 1923. Four years later, the rough-hewn dining hall and kitchen burned down, according to Mera Melandry, the author of a book about the city’s three camps, Our Paradise: Berkeley’s Fabulous Family Camps. The city of Berkeley rebuilt the structure in 1932 — but it burned down again later that year.

Peter Feldmann was a 15-year-old camper in 1956 when flames came within about a half mile of the camp. Feldmann, who had been born in Switzerland, had been coming to the camp with his family for a few weeks every year since 1948. Until then, Echo Lake Camp had been an idyllic getaway for his parents, five younger sisters and himself. His family would rent three of the canvas tent cabins and would spend their days hiking the granite outcroppings of Desolation Wilderness or swimming in the cold, clear lake located a half mile away. His mother loved not cooking (the camp served three meals a day) and his sisters spent their time at the horse stables across the street. His parents occasionally drove to Nevada to do a bit of gambling. There were intense volleyball games between campers and staff and lots of arts and crafts. Dinner was announced by a camper banging a metal pipe on an empty propane can.

Peter Feldmann returned to Echo Lake Camp in 1960 to work as a “kitchen boy.” Here is the staff from that year. Feldmann is wearing a yellow apron in this photo. Credit: Peter Feldmann
Peter Feldmann returned to Echo Lake Camp in 1960 to work as a “kitchen boy.” Here is the staff from that year. Feldmann is wearing a yellow apron in this photo. Credit: Peter Feldmann

The fire erupted (Feldmann couldn’t remember if it was late July or early August) and those staying at the camp were told to be on high alert. They were not evacuated. When someone put out a call for volunteers to cut fire lines, Feldmann donned blue jeans and boots and got to work. He spent about 24 hours clearing brush.

“We were really scared but a bulldozer came through and cut a fire break at just the right time,” said Feldmann.

Campers had to evacuate when the 2007 Agoura Fire threatened the camp, said Melandry. But no fire has been as menacing as the Caldor Fire.

A group of eight Berkeley firefighters went to the camp on Sunday to create more fire breaks and be ready to defend the camp when flames came through. But they had to withdraw Monday when the heat became too intense. But the camp, with its 42 tents, dining hall and swimming pool appears to have been spared, according to a video shot Tuesday morning by a Sacramento journalist.

Feldmann, now 80, welcomed the news.

“I’ve been devastated with the news over the past few days because the camp played such an import part in our family’s life,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep the last two nights, I was so anxious about it. I have so many memories.”

Beginnings of Echo Lake Camp

The city of Berkeley owns or operates three family camps, which is an anomaly for municipalities. The city rents Forest Service land for its Echo Lake and Tuolumne camps and owns the land which holds Cazadero.

Berkeley established the first two camps in the early 1920s at a time when people were concerned that increasing urbanization denied children exposure to nature, said Melandry. The Berkeley Recreation Commission appointed a site selection committee to come up with some suitable locations. Members included the well-known architects Bernard Maybeck and Charles Keeler, according to Our Paradise.

In 1921, the subcommittee recommended a site by Echo Lake near Johnson Pass. It sat at an elevation of 7,200 feet in the El Dorado National Forest. By the spring of 1922, the Recreation Commission had voted to approve the Echo Lake site as well as a Tuolumne site in the Stanislaus Forest. The idea was to create camps for family groups seeking to enjoy nature, wrote Melandry. (Berkeley first leased Cazadero camp in 1927 and purchased it in 1929.)

Echo Lake Camp opened on July 4, 1923. Challenges plagued the camp from the start. It had snowed heavily on June 20 and it snowed, hailed or rained for the next two weeks, said Melandry. Crews only got to work constructing the camp on June 11 and managed to build an outdoor dining area and kitchen on platforms by the opening, as well as a few tent platforms and a camp office, but not much more. There was no hot water, electricity and no flush toilets for the initial group of 75 campers. There was a lodge and fireplace by 1925.

The city advertised the attractions of Echo Lake Camp to bring in visitors. “Echo Lake Camp is the most beautiful camp in America,” the city’s recreation director said in 1936, according to Melandry.

Cook’s tent at Echo Lake camp in the mid-1980s. Credit: Peter Feldmann
Cook’s tent at Echo Lake camp in the mid-1980s. Credit: Peter Feldmann

Despite its stunning location, Echo Lake Camp has had difficulties over the years, said Melandry. It didn’t open at all in 1933. A fire had burned the replacement kitchen in 1932 and heavy snows crushed what was left of those buildings that winter. Feldmann said he visited in the 1980s, only to find it closed. In the 1970s, enrollment dipped, worrying city officials. The camp ran a deficit from 1964 to 1974.

“Echo has never been as popular as Tuolumne,” said Melandry. “The city on several occasions has even considered closing it because they didn’t have enough people going. It made a difference when the city installed a swimming pool. Kids and swimming are a great combination.”

The pool was installed in 1957.

Berkeley residents build cabins around Echo Lake

Residents of Berkeley began frequenting the Echo Lake area after construction began on the Lincoln Highway, a transcontinental road, in 1913, according to Charles Wollenberg, a historian of Berkeley whose family has owned cabins at the lake since the late 1920s. In the early 1920s, the road was paved making it easier to reach the region. Prior to that, it took eight hours to get from the Bay Area to Echo Lake Camp. Travelers had t0 traverse 40 miles of unpaved roads, according to Our Paradise.

“Up until then Echo Lake was too hard to get to,” said Wollenberg.

The Forest Service began to encourage people to lease land along Echo Lake in the 1920s, he said. One of the earliest people to take advantage of that was Frank Kleeberger, a professor of physical education at UC Berkeley. Kleeberger established the Kleeberger Camp on upper Echo Lake and hired teachers from Berkeley High School to staff the camp.

Both Cal professors and Berkeley High teachers leased land and built cabins, firmly establishing a Berkeley connection. There are now about 121 cabins on National Forest land and 17 cabins on private land, according to the Echo Lakes Association. Some families have owned the cabins for four or five generations. While they cost just hundreds of dollars to build, they are now selling for $500,000 or so, said Wollenberg.

Rim Fire brought Tuolumne families to Echo

The Rim Fire that destroyed Tuolumne Camp in 2013 also impacted Echo Lake Camp. Long the most popular of Berkeley’s three camps, the fire meant Tuolumne families no longer had their familiar summer place to go. As a result, many families have started going to Echo Lake Camp, and that has made a huge difference, according to Melandry. In 2013, Echo Lake had 968 campers. In 2016, the camp had 2,185 campers, she wrote.

The big question is what will happen in the summer of 2022 when the newly rebuilt Tuolumne Camp reopens. Will so many families return to Tuolumne camp, she wondered, that Echo suffers attendance problems again? Or does it have enough loyal “fans” to sustain it?

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...