Happy 100th, National Park Service

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is one of 22 Arizona sites administered by the National Park Service. | Klaus Priebe

The following essay appeared in the March 1969 issue of Arizona Highways, to mark the 50th birthday of Grand Canyon National Park. We’re reproducing it today, on the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.

A Tribute to the National Park Service
By Edward H. Peplow, Jr.

Not only the early autumn chill made the men sit close about the campfire. Their voices were hushed as they tried somehow to put into words the feelings of awe, of wonder and delight, they sought to express.

The silence of the ages filled the voids in the conversation, accented by the fluid murmuring of a nearby stream and the occasional soft rustle of a night creature in the great forest. Overhead the inky, vaulted dome was alive with stars a man could almost touch, and from every vantage point could be seen silhouettes of majestic mountains rising up as though to lead the thoughts of men to higher things.

U.S. Cavalry sentinels kept an alert vigil around the camp, for a party of a hundred or more Crow warriors had been spotted watching them that day, September 19, 1870. But Nathaniel P. Langford, Cornelius Hedges and Gen. Henry Washburn, leaders of the exploration party, were preoccupied with matters far headier than their personal safety.

It was with unabashed reverence these three rugged and sophisticated gentlemen and their ten companions discussed the incredible natural wonders they had traveled through since leaving Helena, Montana, August 17. Today had brought the climax, a geyser which spouted a jet of steam and water scores of feet into the air on a schedule so regular Hedges had been prompted to call it Old Faithful.

Langford repeated to his companions his story about old Jim Bridger. Bridger, back before 1820, had heard of John Colter’s tales of the wonders of the country where the Yellowstone, the Wind and the Snake rivers rise; Mountainman Colter had penetrated that vastness in ’06, and Bridger had followed suit in the early ‘20s.

Like Colter, Bridger was not one to talk much. It was too easy for a man to get the reputation of telling windies, and then nobody took any stock in whatever he said. But a few men, like Langford, had more vision than most and could be trusted. Langford had come to the Montana Territory from Minnesota in ’62 and had quickly distinguished himself and had been named Collector of Internal Revenue for the Territory. He didn’t laugh at Bridger.

Neither did David Folsom and two companions who had heard some of the tales. In 1869 they had armed themselves well and gone into the Yellowstone country. But when they returned they refused to talk for fear their compatriots in Helena would laugh at them.

Thus on that fateful night in 1870 the Langford party had much to discuss. Should they tell of the forests, the mountains, the game, the rivers and lush valleys, the verdant meadows, the great waterfalls, and the hot springs and spouting system they had seen? Should they try to describe the grandeur, the majesty and the awesome splendor of the scene?

Why not? They were thirteen prominent, reputable, sober men, and they had a military escort under Lt. Gustavus Doane to corroborate their testimony.

Then the talk turned to more vital matters. What steps should they take to claim the land and its wonders? One suggestion was that each man claim to an individual, equal acreage of such size that the whole would encompass the principal marvels of the area around Old Faithful.

Another, more acceptable suggestion was that the entire party lay claim to the whole area, that ownership be communal with each man owning an equal interest in the whole so that no one man could claim personally a more desirable site.

But Hedges, with Langford’s and Gen. Washburn’s support and prompting, held that such wonders should not be privately owned by either an individual or a group. They should belong to the nation. And gradually, around that campfire in the heart of one of the world’s grandest wildernesses, the concept of a national park was born.
When at last, exhausted but exhilarated, the men stretched out to sleep, only one in the thirteen still favored private exploitation. Surely that was a night when morning stars sang together.

Back in Helena the men faced two problems. The first was to convince their friends and the man in the street of the wonders they had seen. It took a while, but their reputations, the size of their party and their persuasive abilities were all in their favor. William Clagett, congressman from Montana, became an important ally.

So effective were their efforts that in 1871 two reconnaissance parties entered the Yellowstone country, one a military expedition and the other a geological survey under Dr. F.V. Hayden. Both of these came out with not only verbal confirmation of the Langford-Hedges reports but with many photographs as well. The day was virtually won.

In December of 1871, a bill creating Yellowstone National Park was presented in the U.S. Senate and passed within six weeks. Four weeks later the House of Representatives followed suit, and on March 1, 1872, President William Howard Taft signed the measure which brought into being the world’s first national park. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Actually, it was President Ulysses S. Grant. Taft didn’t serve until the early 1900s.]

The act “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” nearly 1,100 square miles of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring scenic wonders. Nat Langford’s role in the process was recognized by his appointment as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, a post he filled for five years without either pay or funds to run the park.

For years thereafter Langford, Hedges, Gen. Washburn and those who had worked so diligently to help create the park must have suffered bitter disappointment. Poachers hunted the area indiscriminately; entrepreneurs promoted one illegal scheme after another to exploit the geological and other natural resources of the park. A welter of laws were passed in the cause of “controlling” what went on in the park, then were repealed.

The whole problem became so confused that what few funds finally were allocated for running the park were withdrawn, and the Army was called upon to take over. The Department of Agriculture at times shared responsibility with the Department of the Interior (which had original jurisdiction) and the Army. The national park idea seemed to be in deep trouble.

Great ideas, however, die hard. Inspired by the idea of Yellowstone, people elsewhere pressed for the creation of other national parks to protect the wonders in their sections of the country. In 1890 three national parks were established in California: General Grant (now part of Kings Canyon) to protect the General Grant Tree and other huge trees; Sequoia, including Mt. Whitney, Kern River Canyon and trees 20-30 feet thick; and Yosemite, with its beautiful valley, high cliffs, spectacular waterfalls and its giant trees.

Over the course of the next thirty years other wonder areas were brought under the protection of the national park status. These included Mt. Rainier (1899), the Platt (1902), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915), Lassen Volcanic (1916), Hawaii (1916), and Mt. McKinley (1917). Not until 1919, however, did Acadia, in southeastern Maine, Zion, in southwestern Utah, and the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona, make the list.

By the time Grand Canyon National Park was created there was a duly constituted agency of the Federal Government to administer to administer the national parks, a clearly enunciated policy to follow, and the recognition of Congress that the agency needed funds to perform the duties with which it was charged.

The National Park Service, however, had many troubles aborning, while Grand Canyon National Park seemed at times destined not to be born at all, as chronicled elsewhere in this issue.

The idea of creating a National Park Service might not have succeeded for many years had it not been for John (“John of the Mountains”) Muir, the father of Yosemite, and Teddy Roosevelt, the father of American conservationism. Roosevelt described a visit to the wilderness of the Sierras in 1903 with Muir as “the grandest day of my life.” It was followed by more than two weeks in Yellowstone in the company of John Burroughs, the eminent naturalist.

Roosevelt brought the power of the presidency to bear and stumped for measures to provide adequate and efficient administrative controls for the natural, scenic, scientific and historical wonders of the nation. His first success came in 1906 with the enactment of Iowa Congressman John Lacey’s “Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities.” This enabled the President to establish by proclamation national monuments to protect and preserve scientific and historic landmarks on the public lands, and Roosevelt, of course, was prompt to use the power.

The Antiquities Act, however, did nothing toward alleviating the problems of administration and its financing of the national parks and monuments. The Departments of War, Agriculture and Interior still shared piecemeal jurisdiction and responsibility, and all three lacked funds and authority.

Interior, created in 1849 largely for the purpose of administering the growing riches created by the settlement and exploration of the West, seemed the logical home for a National Park Service. In 1912 President Taft began a campaign to bring such an agency into being within Interior, and his Secretary of Interior, Franklin K. Lane, helped. The authorization of a water storage reservoir and hydroelectric plant in Yellowstone’s Hetch Hetchy Valley despite the bitter opposition of such conservationists as John Muir and the Sierra Club, served national notice of the seriousness of the need. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Hetch Hetchy Valley is actually in Yosemite National Park.]

Finally the advent of war in Europe in 1914 obviated American travel to the continent and turned the eyes of Americans to their home land. It was to this newly interested audience that Lane preached his gospel that, “If the railroads were conducted in the same manner as the national parks, no man would be brave enough to ride from Washington to Baltimore.”

It was at this juncture that Steven t. Mather came on the scene. Mather was a restless, energetic, 47-year-old alumnus of the University of California (as was Lane) who had made a fortune from his “20-Mule-Team” brand of borax. He wrote lane criticizing the manner in which the national parks were administered, and Lane replied, in effect, if you don’t like it, come to Washington and try doing it yourself.

Mather did. He proceeded on the thesis that Congress responds to public pressure. But the public was not going to press for a National Park Service until the public knew the parks and what they were all about. The public, however, couldn’t get to know the parks unless the parks were accessible by the now popular automobile and, especially, until a segment of the public sufficiently large to make itself heard in Washington knew about the parks’ plight and demanded an improvement in conditions.

Accordingly, Lane undertook — despite some serious opposition — a program of road building and promotion. He organized automobile caravans to visit the parks on guided tours and camping trips. He held conferences and seminars in various parts of the country. He enlisted the help of influential editors in his publicity efforts. He generated reams of space in national publications by taking the padlocks off automobiles.

That’s right. Padlocks! At Yosemite the visitor had to allow his automobile to be chained to giant logs and padlocked, with the key left at headquarters. At Yellowstone cars were banned from the park completely. Mather realized such practices were not only anathema to the American spirit but that they excluded from the enjoyment of the wonders all but the rugged individuals who could stand the rigors of prolonged hikes.

Mather’s efforts captured the audience he needed. Despite a plethora of political obstacles, Mather succeeded in getting a bill creating a National Park Service as an agency of the Department of the Interior introduced into Congress. An issue of the National Geographic Magazine devoted largely to the wonders of the national parks was published during the hearings, and even the tortuous mazes of Congress could no longer perpetuate the confusion. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on August 25, 1916.

It had taken more than 44 years since the creation of Yellowstone, the first national park, for the country to provide adequate means for the accomplishment of the goals for which Yellowstone and other parks and monuments were established.

Incidentally, the difference between a National Park and a National Monument is, basically, two-fold: the Congress must create a park, but a monument may be created by executive proclamation; and a park usually is a spacious area, essentially primitive or wilderness in character, with great scenic and natural wonders which require protection for their preservation for the benefit and enjoyment of all the people, while a monument is made of an area the principal attraction of which is an object of historical, prehistorical or scientific interest.

The act establishing the National Park Service directs that the Service “shall promote and regulate the use of the … national parks, monuments, and reservations … by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purposes of the said parks … which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the same wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This is remarkably close to what Langford, Hedges and Washburn and company had had in mind that night in 1870 around the campfire. But neither they nor the authors of the bill could have foreseen the magnitude of the challenge their idea presented. If they had, they probably would not have been brash enough to promulgate it.

Today, more than 200 areas around the country come under the administrative supervision of the National Park Service, including national parks, monuments, memorials, and historical and military parks and sites. Each is staffed by personnel who must be among the most dedicated in the world. (If they weren’t, they’d get some less nerve-wracking employment, like steeple-jacking, deep-sea diving, or lion taming!)

A quick survey of the hats a typical ranger in the National Park Service must be prepared to wear if he expects to rise to supervisorial status is appalling. First, obviously, he must be a great outdoorsman. He must understand both wildlife and people — of which the latter is by far the more difficult. He must be prepared at a moment’s notice to switch from the role of accomplished greeter and host to that of daredevil to rescue the foolhardy or fight a blazing forest fire.

When occasion arises he must be able to shoot a marauding bear with a tranquilizing gun or to soothe with words an irate member of the public — and he must stoutly resist the temptation to use the former means on the latter. He must be lawman and hotelman, forester and restaurateur, teacher and servant, philosopher and administrator, diplomat and guide.

The ranger must have at least a smattering of a number of disciplines and real expertise in at least one or more. These include geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, entomology, forestry, nature education, nature recreation, physical geology, wildlife management and resource conservation.

He must keep current in the thinking and techniques of the Service by undergoing periodic intensive training at the Horace M. Albright Training Center at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. And he must keep his communications skills polished by attending the Stephen T. Mather Interpretive Training and Research Center, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

In the course of the 53 years since the National Park Service was established many important landmarks have been brought under its aegis, and there is almost universal agreement that the Service has done a remarkable job of accomplishing the difficult assignment given it by Congress. But its greatest accomplishment has been its recruitment of the dedicated, highly educated and unbelievably patient personnel essential to fulfill the Service’s two obligations toward the areas it administers: provide for their use by the public but at the same time preserve them for future generations.

Messrs. Langford, Hedges and Washburn, along with Franklin Lane, Steve Mather and Teddy Roosevelt, no doubt are looking down on their handiwork well pleased that in today’s complex and highly commercial world the backing for the idea of the National Park Service is even stronger than it was the first night in 1870 around the campfire when twelve out of thirteen Americans enthusiastically endorsed it.

Today, thanks to their vision and dedicated effort there still are in America many places where the morning stars sing together and men can shout for joy.


Oh what an informative story and very interesting to read!! Enjoyed it very much! All National Parks and Memorials should be on everyone's bucket lists. Get out there America, see the beautiful natural and historical wonders we possess in our great country! Hats off to all of the Park Rangers!! You are a national wonder, in and of itself.

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