THE ARRIVAL of Memorial Day always meant the same thing to Jacqueline Dowling: time for another summer at Camp William Penn.

For 13 years, when Dowling finished her job as food-service manager at Germantown High School, she headed to her summer job at the city's overnight camp for underprivileged children.

She didn't even have to pack.

She had a cabin up there where she left everything she'd need for another season in the Poconos.

But there won't be another summer at Camp William Penn this year for Dowling or anyone else.

After 56 years, the city has closed the facility.

"I was devastated," Dowling said this week.

Children won't occupy its rustic cabins, won't swim or boat in its two private lakes, won't awake to the tranquil sounds of the 677 rural acres in East Stroudsburg.

City officials say that declining enrollment made it economically impractical to sink the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to bring the camp's kitchen up to fire code and to replace two generators.

"The kids who go there don't want to go back," said Leo Dignam, a deputy commissioner in the Recreation Department.

Attendance has fallen off over the years. Last summer, 313 campers enrolled for a four-night stay. Only one in five returns for another encampment.

The camp's simple outdoor life is too old-fashioned for kids accustomed to high-tech electronics.

"Times have changed, and kids are exposed to a lot more things," said Terri Kerwawich, recreation program director.

"They like the comforts of home."

Children who'd normally go to William Penn will be able to attend a local Outward Bound camp or Camp Ladore, run by the Salvation Army in the Scranton area.

Still, the closing of Camp William Penn symbolizes the passing of an era.

The noble notion of providing an outdoor adventure for inner- city kids - the chance to breathe clean air, to sleep in peace and to experience the simple, restorative pleasures of nature - has become quaint.

The city bought the beautiful expanse of woods in the 1950s to provide the kind of summers not available to children in the dense, hot city.

Taxpayers have subsidized the camp outings since then, keeping fees as low as $90 a week for the lowest-income families.

Although the camp is devoid of electronic diversions - there are no computers, video games or televisions - it won the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society's Excellence in Programming Award in 2005 and 2006.

The day was cool when I walked around the camp, which is tucked into the woods at the end of a winding road.

Luxurious, it wasn't. The cabins had bare lightbulbs and sparse accommodations: beds and scarred wooden shelves for belongings.

The bathroom amenities were primitive, with a trough sink and stall toilets.

But geese scampered across Lake Herrick, and the expanse of hilly grounds was inviting.

There's a tiny, old, family cemetery in the middle of camp that could inspire a scary bonfire story. There's even a resident brown bear.

And the ancient dining hall, dark and sturdy with a soaring ceiling, reeked with tradition: On the wall was a 1931 portrait of campers from Girard College, which sold the camp to the city in 1951.

The kitchen was indeed ancient and in need of renovation. The camp was cited by local officials for code violations, and it also violates L&I standards, officials said.

But you have to wonder, with enrollment declining, why the city didn't improve the camp over time rather than be forced to abandon it.

One insider had this jaundiced view: The camp isn't in anyone's councilmanic or legislative district, so no one gets credit for it and no one has an incentive to fix it.

"There's no ribbon-cuttings they can pose for," the observer said.

Former Recreation Commissioner Victor Richard, who left office in January, believes that the camp was an asset and should be reopened.

"It's a great experience for young people to learn life skills, things that urban youth won't normally be given the opportunity to experience unless their parents are in the position to do it," he said.

Richard cited "fishing and hiking and nature and conservation and wildlife" as the experiences that help children grow.

Jacqueline Dowling said she was especially looking forward this year to seeing a red-haired camper named Michael.

He's been returning for years and couldn't wait to become a junior counselor.

He would have been old enough this year. *

E-mail porterj@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5850. For recent columns: