The National Park Service 1916-1966

By Special Contributor posted 11-17-2015 14:21


By Robert Sutton

In this next post in a monthly series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service Robert Sutton looks at the first fifty years of NPS history.

 Grand Prismatic Geyser from above. | Credit: Sara Parelhoff
  View of the Grand Prismatic Geyser in Yellowstone National Park from above. | Credit: Sara Parelhoff

The origins of the National Park Service are surrounded by myth and reality. For example, many believe the National Park Service was the first agency in the world created to manage its national parks—not true. Canada beat us by five years. Another deals with how Stephen Tyng Mather was invited to Washington, D.C., to help create the National Park Service. The often told story goes like this: Stephen Mather, a successful and wealthy businessman, wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, complaining about the deplorable condition of many of the National Parks he had visited in the West. As the story went, Lane wrote back to Mather: “Dear Steve, if you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, why don’t you come on down to Washington and run them yourself?” As the story continued, Mather came to Washington, lobbied Congress and a number of influential people, and created the National Park Service.

As it turns out, the first part of the story is true, the second is not. Mather wrote to Lane, but Lane never wrote the “Dear Steve…” letter. Lane instead went to Chicago and arranged, through a mutual friend, to meet with Mather. Mather did come to Washington, and Lane spelled out what he wanted Mather to do, which was mostly to lobby Congress to create a national park agency.

During their meeting, Mather kept saying that he would probably step on too many toes to be effective, at which point, Lane brought his assistant, Horace Albright, into the room. Albright was a terrific public servant who could manage all of the issues he—Mather—was concerned about, and Mather and Albright hit it off immediately. Mather decided to accept the job if Albright agreed to stay in Washington as his assistant for a year. Their partnership continued much longer than the year they agreed to, and Mather became the Service’s first director; Albright followed as the second director.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, home of the Hohokam Peoples in the Salt and Gila Valley in Arizona. Established as a National Monument in 1918. | Credit: Jasperdo on Flickr via Creative Commons.
 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, home of the Hohokam Peoples in the Salt and Gila Valley in Arizona. Established as a National Monument in 1918. | Credit: Jasperdo on Flickr via Creative Commons.

The agency Mather and Albright established consisted of 35 units, almost all in the West. Many—like Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite—were established by legislation, but 21 were created under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gave the president the authority to designate National Monuments on federal lands. Some of the larger parks, like Yellowstone, were managed by the Army. Civilian employees were caretakers for others; and most National Monuments had little or no management. Mather and Albright set about bringing parks into a more unified system. They also recognized that for the parks to thrive, they needed to find ways to attract more visitors. New roads provided better access; low-cost campgrounds accommodated many; and “comfortable and even luxurious hotels” were built and managed by concessionaires, who also provided other necessities like food services and stores.

Under Mather and Albright, the park system continued to grow, and gradually more eastern parks—such as Great Smoky and Shenandoah—entered the system. In 1933, the National Park Service nearly doubled in size, when Horace Albright encouraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to transfer more than 20 military parks, historic battlefields, and monuments to the Park Service, as well as a number of non-military historic sites. Among them were the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore and the District of Columbia's most hallowed places, like the Lincoln Memorial, other monuments on the National Mall, and Rock Creek Park. In all, over 50 parks, monuments, and historic sites came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Two years later, in 1935, Congress passed the Historic Sites Act. In part because of the influx of additional historic parks with the reorganization of 1933, and mostly because the National Park Service saw the need to add important cultural properties to the system, the Historic Sites Act provided a vehicle for that purpose. Under this act, the service was authorized to conduct an ongoing historic sites survey to identify nationally significant properties. The Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments (later changed to the National Park System Advisory Board), made up of outside experts, then reviewed the survey results, and made recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior for inclusion of these sites into the National Park Service.

  View of Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. | Credit: National Park Service

Also in the 1930s, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. To put young men back to work, Congress established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was designed to employ 18-25 year olds. By the end of 1933, there were more than three million men in the CCC, including our current director’s father. The National Park Service became one of the largest employers of CCC workers, supervising over 600 camps nationwide, with a total of more than 120,000 young men by 1935. Some 6,000 professional supervisors oversaw their work, and many stayed on with the National Park Service. Most worked in state parks, but there were 118 camps in National Parks. With the Works Progress Administration (WPA) art program, a group of artists produced the National Park Service “Ranger Naturalist” series of 14 posters that were distributed to chambers of commerce and other tourist organizations to encourage visitation to National Parks.

Following World War II, the American public rediscovered their national parks. In 1942, during the war, six million people visited parks, but by 1950 the number exploded to 33 million, and by 1960, that number increased to over 72 million. Little was done to improve the park infrastructure, and visitors were loving their parks to death. Not long after the new director Conrad L. Wirth took over the agency in 1951, he conceived of a monumental program to upgrade all parks to commemorate the park service’s 50th anniversary in 1966. He called the program “Mission 66”; he received the endorsement of President Eisenhower, found strong supporters in Congress, and over a ten-year period from 1956 to 1966, more than a billion dollars were spent on the National Park System. Many parks received new visitor centers, employee housing, and other visitor and maintenance facilities. New employees came on board, and the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings was resuscitated to facilitate the orderly expansion of the system.

Under Mission 66, more than 100 new visitor centers, 584 new comfort stations, 221 administrative buildings, 36 service buildings, and 1,239 units for employee housing were added. The 78 new park units nearly doubled the size of the National Park System. And some of the most impressive and widely recognized park projects, such as the Gateway Arch and the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge were completed. At the conclusion of Mission 66, The National Park Service was ready to embark on its next 50 years.

Next Month: John Sprinkle takes a look at the National Park Service since 1966.

Robert Sutton is the Chief Historian of the National Park Service.

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