“America’s Best Idea”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Hawaii Volcano National Park, n.d.

Hawaii Volcano National Park, n.d.

Denali National Park, n.d.

Denali National Park, n.d.

Grand Tetons National Park, n.d.

Grand Tetons National Park, n.d.

What do these images have in common, other than incredible beauty? You probably guessed that they’re all national parks, specifically: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Denali National Park, and Grand Tetons National Park. Invaluable treasures, the parks encompass over 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.  In 2017, 330,882,751 visitors enjoyed the scenic beauty. The National Park Service has kept yearly visitation figures since 1904; the 113-year total is a whopping 13,918,617,696!   Follow this link to see more details about the most popular sites to visit: Visitation Numbers: National Park Service.

The parks are beautiful and clearly beloved, but how did all this begin?  According to National Park Service (History Channel online),  “Prior to the nineteenth century, most Europeans and Americans viewed nature solely as a resource for food, clothing and shelter. In Europe, early attempts at nature preservation centered upon the efforts of wealthy landowners to conserve trees for timber and wildlife for game hunting. While America’s national parks drew upon earlier examples of European woodland preservation, they were a uniquely American idea rooted in democracy, philosophy and art.”

Early in the nineteenth century, the philosophy of transcendentalism became prominent.  Transcendentalists “were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe.”” Inspiration and truth were found in the beauty of nature.  At the same time, most Americans believed in the doctrine of manifest destiny—that it was our inherent right and moral imperative to expand westward, to colonize the continent.  As travelers headed west, word came back of “awe-inspiring scenery in places such as California’s Yosemite Valley and along Wyoming’s Yellowstone River.” The naturalist and conservationist John Muir traveled extensively in the West and published a series of articles touting its wonders.  “It was California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite that truly claimed him. In 1868, he walked across the San Joaquin Valley through waist-high wildflowers and into the high country for the first time. Later he would write: “Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called no [sic] the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.””  His words inspired President Theodore Roosevelt, who joined Muir on a camping trip in Yosemite in 1903 and gained a passion for conservation. “President Theodore Roosevelt saw in conservation a means of keeping the natural wealth of the United States for the public and not leaving it as it had been for the economic benefit of entrepreneurs. In a move to preserve prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts on public lands, he signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, using it to create eighteen national monuments by presidential proclamation, including Devils Tower in Wyoming; El Morro in New Mexico; and, in Arizona, Montezuma Castle, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. During his tenure as president Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 bird preserves, and 4 game preserves.  In those same years Congress established 5 national parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon, Wind Cave in South Dakota, and Mesa Verde in Colorado. Roosevelt increased natural forest lands from 43 million to 194 million acres.

Theodore Roosevelt, n.d. Source: Unknown.

Theodore Roosevelt, n.d.

Theodore Roosevelt was a great supporter of national parks, but he did not establish the first national park.  This was done by on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant approved the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.  Yellowstone was not only America’s first national park, it was also the first in the world.  The legislation that Grant signed “set aside 1,221,773 acres of public land in the future states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, broke with the established policy of transferring public lands in the West to private ownership.” Following his lead, Congress created three more national parks: Mount Rainier in 1899, Glacier in 1910, and Yosemite in 1890 (Yosemite was established as a state park in 1864 and returned to the U.S. in 1890).

Historic map of Yellowstone National Park, 1904. Source: https://bit.ly/2RS9H6H

Historic map of Yellowstone National Park, 1904. Source: https://bit.ly/2RS9H6H

By 1915, the United States had 8 national parks, but no centralized control. Over the years these parks had been administered by the Departments of War, Agriculture, or Interior, leading to an array of management and conservation decisions and activities.  Some resources were protected against human interference while others were not.  On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act, which created the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior.  The first Superintendent of Parks was Stephen Mather, a self-made millionaire who was deeply influenced by his encounter with John Muir in 1912. “Mather was a leader in the transformation of the poorly managed and underfinanced national parks and monuments into the centrally administered National Park Service. Under his dynamic leadership, Grand Canyon, Acadia, Bryce, Zion, Lassen, Hawaii, and Mount McKinley National Parks were established. He successfully lobbied for enabling legislation that ensured the future creation of other parks, including those that involved purchase from private owners in the eastern United States, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave.” He paid salaries out of his own pocket, persuaded wealthy friends to purchase and donate land to the National Park Service, and even purchased and donated land himself. He waged a tireless public relations and lobbying campaign to promote the parks, professionalized the positions of park superintendent and ranger, and worked with the automotive industry to encourage park visitation. After his untimely death in 1929, it was noted: “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.

The truth of this judgment can be seen in the 417 parks, monuments, historic sites, battlefields, recreational areas, rivers, trails, and parkways administered by the National Park Service today (60 of these are officially ‘national parks’). Indiana has George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Porter, and the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City.  If you’ve not visited these, follow the links for more information. Two of these (George Rogers Clark and Lincoln Boyhood) are within 1 to 1.5 hours from campus.

The George Rogers Clark Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 14, 1936 and became part of the National Park Service in 1966. The memorial honors the capture of Fort Sackville to Clark on February 25, 1779.  The fort was on or near this site. In this 1978 photograph, the memorial is seen from the Wabash River. Source: Gregory Smith collection, MSS 034-2234.

The George Rogers Clark Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 14, 1936 and became part of the National Park Service in 1966. The memorial honors the capture of Fort Sackville to Clark on February 25, 1779. The fort was on or near this site. In this 1978 photograph, the memorial is seen from the Wabash River. Source: Gregory Smith collection, MSS 034-2234.

264-1601

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Visitor Center, under construction in 1941. This building was completed in 1943; the angle of this photograph makes it difficult to see the semi-circular shape of this building. Source: Thomas Mueller collection, MSS 264-1601.

“Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore hugs 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan and has much to offer. Whether you enjoy scouting for rare species of birds or flying kites on the sandy beach, the national lakeshore's 15,000 acres will continually enchant you.  Hikers will enjoy 50 miles of trails over rugged dunes, mysterious wetlands, sunny prairies, meandering rivers and peaceful forests.” Source: https://bit.ly/2AMsHd2

“Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore hugs 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan and has much to offer. Whether you enjoy scouting for rare species of birds or flying kites on the sandy beach, the national lakeshore’s 15,000 acres will continually enchant you. Hikers will enjoy 50 miles of trails over rugged dunes, mysterious wetlands, sunny prairies, meandering rivers and peaceful forests.” Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/noaa_glerl/8741872906

University Archives and Special Collections has a few more photographs from visitors who fell under the spell of the parks as did so many others. If Yellowstone was our first national park, Canada’s was Banff National Park, established in 1885.  It’s in Alberta, covering 2,564 square miles of the Canadian Rockies.  Here’s a glimpse of its beauty, taken in 1954.

mss 129-101

View at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, 1954. Source: Olive Carruthers collections, MSS 129-101.

Take a look at this 1974 photograph of the state of Wyoming taken from NASA’s Skylab space station.  It shows a number of national parks, including the oldest.

A near vertical view of the snow-covered northwest corner of Wyoming as seen from the Skylab space station in Earth orbit. A Skylab 4 crewman used a hand-held 70 mm Hasselblad camera to take this picture. A small portion of Montana and Idaho is in this photograph. The dark area is Yellowstone National Park. The largest body of water is Yellowstone Lake. The Absaroka Range is immediately east and northeast of Yellowstone Lake. The elongated range in the eastern part of the picture is the Big Horn Mountains. The Wind River Range is at bottom center. The Grand Teton National Park area is almost straight south of Yellowstone Lake. Approximately 30% of the State of Wyoming can be seen in this photograph, 1974. Source: Lee William Jones collection, MSS 244-0255.

A near vertical view of the snow-covered northwest corner of Wyoming as seen from the Skylab space station in Earth orbit. A Skylab 4 crewman used a hand-held 70 mm Hasselblad camera to take this picture. A small portion of Montana and Idaho is in this photograph. The dark area is Yellowstone National Park. The largest body of water is Yellowstone Lake. The Absaroka Range is immediately east and northeast of Yellowstone Lake. The elongated range in the eastern part of the picture is the Big Horn Mountains. The Wind River Range is at bottom center. The Grand Teton National Park area is almost straight south of Yellowstone Lake. Approximately 30% of the State of Wyoming can be seen in this photograph, 1974. Source: Lee William Jones collection, MSS 244-0255.

The National Park Service (NPS) publishes information about a diverse array of topics.  Since the NPS is a government agency, these publications are government documents.  These are distributed through the depository library system.  Rice Library is such a depository library, and owns a selection (not nearly all) of NPS publications.  Below is a sampling of these, all of which are available to be checked out.

All photographs are from: https://bookstore.gpo.gov/agency/national-park-service-nps

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If you’re intrigued and want to know more about this topic, I suggest watching The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a documentary by Ken Burns.  It’s available in the DVD section on the first floor, with this call number: SB482.A4 D85 2009b.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (General Collection: SB482.A4 D85 2009b)

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (General Collection: SB482.A4 D85 2009b)

What national parks have you visited?  What’s your favorite?  Why?  If we get enough response, I’ll post a short update to this blog.  You can respond anonymously or provide your name if you want to be credited.  In the meantime, enjoy our country’s ‘best idea!’

Resources Consulted:

Brief History of the National Parks (Library of Congress)

John Muir: A Brief Biography (Sierra Club)

National Park Service (History Channel online)

The national parks: America’s best idea.  PBS documentary by Ken Burns.  DVDs, Audiovisual Materials, 1st Floor  Call Number:  SB482.A4 D85 2009b

Scott, Gary.  The Presidents and the National Parks (The White House Historical Association)

Quick History of the National Park Service

Stephen Tyng Mather (American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration)

Transcendentalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

U.S. National Parks—In the Beginning (National Geographic, May 26, 2010)

Visitation Numbers: National Park Service

This entry was posted in American history, history, Nature, nature photography. Bookmark the permalink.

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