Past Times

NC hotel served as German internment camp during WWI

The detainees also built a German village on the grounds of the camp, using odds and ends of material found on the hotel grounds.
The detainees also built a German village on the grounds of the camp, using odds and ends of material found on the hotel grounds. State Archives of North Carolina

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, a number of German civilians found themselves in “enemy territory” and were detained at the internment camp set up at the Mountain Park Hotel in Hot Springs. A special report in The News & Observer took a look at conditions of the camp.

At Hot Springs, thirty-eight miles west of Asheville via the Southern Railway, where the French Broad emerges from its mountain walls with crashing waters to a broadened valley, the hundred acre shaded lawn and rolling upland surrounding a large four-story hotel flies the white flag and symbolic lettering, “U. S. I. S.”, indicating that is a United States immigrant station.

A month ago the hotel was conducted by J. E. Rumbough, and it was open to all comers; now the United States is the proprietor and the guests are exclusively Germans – 500 officers and 100 members of the crews of ships caught in American ports by the beginning of the war in 1914. Then invisible signs spelled “Welcome”; now a four foot high wire netting topped by a strand of barbed wire surrounds the property and is patrolled by khaki clad men armed with pistols and badged as “watchman.” These visible, animate “signs” mean “Verboten” to those inside, and the translation in unmistakable North Carolina language to those outside is “Keep Out.”

Fence and guards are not so much to keep in the Germans as to keep out curious Americans. Why should these Germans wish to escape. While their compatriots are dying in misery or living in torture in France they are living at ease in a fine hotel where other guests have been paying $4 a day and “up,” enjoying its golf course, tennis courts, natural hot baths, delightful climate and superb scenery. They pay no bills…. The French Broad lulls them to slumber with its sounds of the sea.…

These Germans were brought to Hot Springs from Ellis Island and other immigrant stations where they had been kept since the United States entered the war. They are officially designated as “detained immigrants,” aliens who had not chosen to acquire residence in this country before the beginning of hostilities, and who are not now eligible to do so. Under President Wilson’s proclamation they are also “alien enemies” and can be so treated if occasion requires.

But no such occasion has arisen.… The Germans make absolutely no trouble; they strictly obey the few rules imposed on them by the American officials.…

The rules are few. At 9 a. m. daily the government charges answer roll call, and there is a daily fire drill. Then they are practically free, within the grounds until 11 o’clock at night when taps sounds. They generally keep busy, working when they work, playing when they play, loafing but little. One great massive-shouldered man, further distinguished by a pair of trousers seemingly several sizes too large for him, was seen hunting for a four-leaf clover, searched as diligently as if seeking a lost diamond.…

Some of the Germans work for the government, 50 ship carpenters being engaged in the construction of additional barracks on the grounds on whose completion a thousand more Germans will be brought to Hot Springs. Others are working as common laborers, and others as mechanics. The station officials decline to say what pay is given the workers, but it runs from $20 to $30 a month, it is learned from other sources.

Some of the aliens work in the seven-acre vegetable garden where a fine crop of food is growing. Others have their own little patches, marked by a border of white stones, where flowers and vegetables grow together. Cultivating the land appeals to the German taste, but not all of the hotel guests know all there is to know about vegetables. One ship captain has a little patch in which he is cultivating beans and corn, and likewise one large and thriving Jimpson weed which is impudently taking advantage of the poor man’s belief that it is some strange American vegetable which has sprung up from a former planting. “The thing was half grown before I noticed it,” said an official, “and now I haven’t the heart to tell the captain it is a weed.” The N&O Aug. 19, 1917

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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