YMCA Camp Letts History | YMCA DC

YMCA Camp Letts History

Welcome to the Y. We’re an inclusive organization joined together by a shared commitment to nurturing the potential of kids, promoting healthy living and fostering a sense of social responsibility. 

Camping became a cornerstone of YMCA programming in 1885 with the founding of Camp Dudley, America’s first known summer camp program. Since that day, our aim has been to give children a positive developmental experience through healthy friendships, confidence and self-discovery. 

Steeped in Rich History

Since 1906, YMCA Camp Letts has been the fabric of generations of childhood memories.

It’s not hard to spot our alumni as they are so passionate about each adventure and experience on our 219-acre peninsula. Although memories usually fade with time, we never forget the magic of Camp Letts. Most can still hum a few lines of a campfire song, remember the name of their best camp buddy and recall their summer here as the best one of their lives. Camp Letts is at the heart and soul of the YMCA’s mission.


  • It all began in 1906, when YMCA Boys’ Work Director Albert M. Chesley founded what is now the oldest overnight camp in the Washington area. He pitched camp with 17 boys on five acres along the South River. As Chelsey described, “We lived in tents, starting with three, had old Uncle Dick, a Civil War Cook, for two or three years. He was a terrible cook… was supposed to have been over 80 years old at that time.”
  • The camp moved to its present location in 1922, thanks to the generosity of John Cowen Letts. The larger area allowed for the construction of a state-of-the-art Recreation Hall (today the Boat House) with a large fireplace, porch and dressing rooms. Letts also invested in a unique farm program that later provided food for the camp, such as apples, corn and ham.
  • In the 1930s, a YMCA report on Camp Letts states that it is regarded “… as more than a venture in education; its program includes more than the hurrah, eats and entertainment which are so often confused for a good time, it includes the development of Christian character and training for leadership… health attainment, nature acquaintance, wholesome recreation, self-reliance, joy of achievement, altrustic service and religious worship.”
  • As World War II grips the nation, many staff are drafted or enlist in the war effort. Women become a more familiar sight as our boy’s camp becomes takes a more inclusive approach to staff members and their families.
  • Family Vacation Camp, now called Family Camp, starts in 1952. A 1954 brochure notes that “Family camp usually helps a family to regain values that have been lost in modern urban civilization.”
  • In 1956, Camp Letts celebrates its 50th anniversary, a far cry from its early days of a few canvas tents. At this time, Camp boasted 49 buildings, including screened cabins, tent cabins as well as both dining and recreation halls.
  • By the 1960s, Camp Letts embraced diverse programs and international youngsters. We offered swimming, boating, canoeing, waterskiing, hiking, nature lore, land sports, archery, fishing, riflery, and arts and crafts. Camp Letts participated in a camper exchange program, which brought European Y kids to camp and sent 10 DC-area youth to camp in Europe. Camp Lichtman, the YMCA’s Negro camp founded to offer camp experiences for YMCA Anthony Bowen youth, merges with Camp Letts in the 1960s. Groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, colleges, Indian Guides and churches begin to use Camp Letts for various outdoor activities.
  • Camp Letts officially becomes co-ed when it merges with YMCA Orenda in 1975. We secure the services of a female waterfront director and a male arts and crafts director to dispel gender stereotypes.
  • In the late 1970s, horseback riding makes its way to Camp Letts. Staff build a barn across from the Director’s house so he can easily tend to the horses.
  • The Dining Hall undergoes a major renovation and reconstruction in 1984, hosting its first wedding shortly after opening. The bride and groom spend the entire weekend swimming, sailing, waterskiing and horseback riding.
  • Only second in size to the U.S. Naval Academy, Camp Letts has a fleet of 40 to 50 Laser sailboats by the mid-1980s.
  • In the 1990s, Camp Letts is on the ropes with a new course that has 8 elements, including a zip wire, and continues to be a big attraction today.
  • The first Turkey Chase race was held on Thanksgiving Day in 2000.
  • In 2006, Camp Letts celebrates their 100th anniversary with an alumni reunion, the 1st annual Golf Tournament, and a gala event.
  • For over 50 years Family Camp continues to bring together families each Memorial and Labor day for a 3 day weekend of fun for the whole family. On Saturday evening there is always a staff vs. adults kickball game that brings out the competitive side in everyone. Each Sunday evening after the traditional ice cream social Mac McCall and his wife come and lead line dancing for all Family Campers. The weekend is filled with campfires, activities and always concludes with a cookout on Monday for lunch.
  • In 2015 the Plebe 1 cabin was renovated with new floors, updated bathrooms and siding.
  • In 2018 Camp Letts purchased 20 Stand Up Paddle Boards and added to their waterfront activity offerings. Now both Retreat Center guests and Summer Campers can paddle around the Rhode River while practicing their balancing skills.
  • In 2019 Turkey Chase celebrated their 20th anniversary with one of the most registrations and money raised in sponsorships  to date.
  • In 2019 the Boathouse was renovated with new floors, ceiling paneling and a fresh coat of paint. Also in 2019 Quartermaster 2 cabin was renovated with new flooring, updated bathrooms, fresh paint and siding.
  • In 2020 with generous donations from sponsors Ensign 3, Ensign 1, Mariner 3 and Fisher Hall were renovated with updated bathrooms, flooring, new paint and siding.