Who Should We Really Thank For the Creation of the National Park System
One of the greatest and proudest achievements of preservationists in this country occurred in the late 19th century when our government set aside great tracts of land for protection and public enjoyment as National Parks. But who were these preservationists, and who do we really have to thank for this grand achievement? Naturalists like John Muir and Frederick Law Olmstead were dedicated to protecting the flora and fauna of natural areas from the blight of industrialization. Poets, authors, artists and photographers brought the beauty of the land to the awareness of the people through books, magazines, sketches and paintings. However, without the railroads’ involvement, those aforementioned groups would not have had the power or the means (both politically and financially) to have the government commit to the idea. In fact, railroads had so much clout in Washington, environmentalists often partnered with them to see their goals realized. Although the railroads’ intentions might not have always been so altruistic, they brought with them organization and leadership. The railroads paid artists and authors to travel to the wilderness, document their experiences, and then share them with the public. Sketches and paintings were used in advertisements, and stories and observations would be printed in national magazines and newspapers. Today we can credit the railroad industry with the creation of many National Parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park.
In the late 1800s the U.S was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were growing across the country. Factories and industries were flourishing. Railroads were being built to connect east to west. It was a time of great change and expansion, but there was also a movement of getting back to nature, of simplification. Thoreau and Emerson had both written of man’s connection with nature and the need to return to it: “To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself.” New York City, with the guidance of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, had begun work on an immense natural park in the center of the city. Americans had grown up with the artist’s view of the landscape, thanks to the idealized paintings of the Hudson Valley School, where wilderness was still a wonder. With this mindset, the creation of scenic tourism was born, and the railroads were ready to capitalize on the idea. Competition between the railroads to provide the best scenery along the way developed. Both the Pennsylvania and the New York Central operated lines between New York and Chicago, so they attracted passengers by advertising that each had the most picturesque route. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad promoted its exclusive right-of-way through Harpers Ferry and Cheat River Gorge using illustrations by artists and photographers who had been given a special train for their travel. Unfortunately, more tourists and visitors travelling by train also meant a captive audience for advertising, in the form of billboards. This caused a problem for the railroads as their potential customers would likely choose the railroad company that did not have those unsightly advertisements ruining the beauty of the landscape. The railroads took no time in having the billboards torn down. They understood the importance of keeping the scenery unblemished, creating their own version of environmentalism. If you can keep nature pristine you can attract tourists, and if you can attract tourists… you can create great revenue!
The railroads’ attentions were now beginning to look westward for new areas of tourism. There were vast expanses of great natural beauty that could be turned into visitor destinations. The interest of (wealthy) vacationers to forego the stress and fatigue of European travel and instead visit the mysterious west was growing. The Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR), under the guidance of their promoter and financier Jay Cooke, led an expedition to the Yellowstone area in September, 1870. Along for the ride were railroad promoter Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Truman Everts, Montana writer and lawyer Cornelius Hedges and Cooke’s office assistant A.B. Nettleton. Langford believed the future success and prosperity of the area depended on the Northern Pacific Railroad (his employer). Upon returning east from the trip, Everts, who had become lost for 37 days while on the expedition, wrote a magazine article about his experience which subsequently garnered Yellowstone a lot of public attention. Hedges wrote of his experience in Montana newspapers. Langford (financed by Cooke) set out on a publicity tour, to promote the natural wonder and beauty of Yellowstone, and suggested that only The Northern Pacific Railroad could take tourists there quickly and easily, as their right-of-way brought visitors within 50 miles of Yellowstone. Upon hearing Langford’s lecture, Ferdinand V. Hayden was enthralled. Hayden was a highly respected geologist at the University of Pennsylvania and government surveyor, and he convinced Congress to provide financial backing (to the tune of $40,000) to carry out a geological survey of the area during the summer of 1871. Once Langford got wind of the expedition, he had Nettleton write a letter to Hayden, suggesting he take along an artist by the name of Thomas Moran. He promised Moran would pay his own way, though Cooke was actually paying Moran $500 to make the trip. Cooke knew Moran’s vivid paintings and sketches could bring Yellowstone to life and bring even more awareness to Yellowstone. In October, 1871, Hayden received another letter from Nettleton, asking Hayden to use his influence with Congress to make Yellowstone a public park. Northern Pacific knew if they stayed quietly in the background, the public, and Congress, would be influenced more from a scientific supporter than a corporation. “Dear Doctor: Judge Kelley has made a suggestion which strikes me as being an excellent one, viz.: Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever—just as it has reserved that far inferior wonder the Yosemite valley and big trees. If you approve this (sic) would such a recommendation be appropriate in your official report?” In Hayden’s report to Congress, he noted with great urgency, the need to protect and preserve the area, so it would not be ruined in the hands of independent entrepreneurs who would spoil it beyond repair, as was happening at Niagara Falls at the time (known as the Shame of Niagara). It worked. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill making Yellowstone a “National Resort and Pleasure Ground for the enjoyment of the people”, our nation’s first National Park. The railroads had won their first preservation victory. Due to the financial collapse of 1873 and resulting depression it wasn’t until 1883 that NPRR was able to complete the spur to the southern gate of Yellowstone. After building a station, grand entry gate and a series of hotels, they were finally ready to focus on promotion and marketing. Charles S. Fee, the passenger agent at NPRR, chose the advertising theme of Alice in Wonderland, promoted it as the Wonderland of America, and even wrote a guidebook entitled Northern Pacific Railroad: The Wonderland Route to the Pacific Coast, 1885. F. Jay Hanes’ images, Yellowstone’s official photographer and concessioner, were used in posters and advertisements, and his stereoscope views were for sale from “first-class dealers in Views and on all trains of the N.P.R.R.”. Americans were ready to travel. In 1882, the park saw 1,000 visitors; the following year attendance jumped to 5,000 and increased steadily thereafter.
Meanwhile, the other railroad companies weren’t sitting idly by. They, too, could see the idea of the National Park as very lucrative. If they could get National Park status for other areas of the west, and they conveniently happened to provide direct access, both the public and the railroads would benefit. On June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill giving California guardianship of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees as a preserve, known as the Yosemite Grant. Public interest and concern soon rose over the care and conservation (or lack thereof) of the park. Naturalist and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead wrote a detailed report in 1865 hoping to further protect the landscape and open it to everyone for free. The Yosemite Valley, at that time, was operated by James Mason Hutchings, who owned two hotels in the valley and had started charging admission. In 1869 Hutchings hired a man by the name of John Muir to run his sawmill. Muir went on to become Yosemite’s most vocal and poetic advocate of preservation. Muir’s efforts helped create Sequoia, Yosemite and Grant National Parks when President Benjamin Harris signed the bills in 1890, although the State of California would still oversee the running of them. “The gardens of the Sierra, also, and the noble forests in both the reserved and unreserved portions are sadly hacked and trampled, notwithstanding, the ruggedness of the topography,–all excepting those of the parks guarded by a few soldiers.” When Muir returned to Yosemite after a short absence, he found the park polluted and mismanaged. Muir and his Sierra Club fought tirelessly to have the Yosemite Valley and surrounding area return to federal jurisdiction and protection. In 1905, the Sierra Club teamed up with the Board of Trade, a powerful advocate of tourism, agriculture and wilderness preservation, because they knew that organization was “a powerful body with a very large backing” When the California legislature did not pass the retrocession bill, Muir turned to his close friends for help… E.H. Harriman, the President of the Southern Pacific Railroad and William F. Herrin, the VP and legal counsel of the Southern Pacific Railroad. With their continued support and influence, President Roosevelt signed a bill on June 11, 1906 handing over the jurisdiction of the park from the State of California to the Federal Government, ensuring protection of the land and another victory for the railroad industry. Southern Pacific would go on to promote Yosemite and the Sequoias in their magazine, Sunset, which it had started in 1898 as a periodical to encourage travel to the west and to share the western lifestyle. In Montana, The Great Northern Railway promoted the Waterton-Glacier area as the “Playground of the Northwest” and built a railway to its door. James J.Hill, president of the railroad, thereupon helped push legislation that created Glacier National Park in 1910. He and his son, Louis, became the major developers of the area: they built hotels, boats, roads, and trails to attract tourists. His slogan “See America First” was designed to discourage European travel. The area eventually became known as “Switzerland of America”. In 1901, The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe built a spur that led right to the rim of the Grand Canyon. It looked to tourism dollars to see a return on its investment. From 1905 to 1954, The Santa Fe financed and built the historic hotels, including the Mary Colter-designed pueblo-inspired structures, within the park. Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill that made Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908, although it wasn’t until 1919 that it became a protected National Park.
Our National Parks are natural preserves that protect the environment, wildlife and ecosystems. The railroads of this country were instrumental in the creation of those parks. They knew that natural beauty would attract tourism, and tourism meant revenue. They used artists, writers, poets, and photographers to help advertise the spectacle of the west and created great public interest and curiosity. They developed the major tourist attractions on the edges and within park boundaries and thousands upon thousands of tourists rode the rails to visit those scenic wonders. They joined with both politicians and naturalists to bring urgency to the need for protection of those natural areas and remarkably, in the process, became the country’s most influential and successful preservationists.
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