Out of the Past
History Lessons 

Yellowstone National Park Established

Yellowstone National Park -- some say it is America's greatest contribution to world culture-- the best idea we ever had. Yet when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Act on March 1, 1872, the preservation of a park more than 3,300 square miles in size was a radical idea.

This was a time when natural resources were thought to be limitless, and conservation was considered wasteful. With the signing of the Act, a new era in conservation began. 

Historically, in Europe, "parks" were owned by the wealthy elite for their use alone. In early America, particularly Puritan New England, the attitude toward the value of work resulted in the perception that idle time led to wickedness, and nature was viewed as frightening and something to be subdued. 

But in the 1800s the philosophy of romanticism evolved in Europe and spread to America. Men such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about nature in a new way. They described it as wondrous, beautiful, and restorative. In the mid-1800s American cities began setting aside tracts of land for public parks such as Central Park in New York. Attitudes were changing. 

In 1870 and 1871, expeditions were sent to explore the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. The members of those expeditions and many other Americans, influenced by this new way of viewing nature, worked tirelessly to have the Yellowstone Park Act introduced into Congress in December 1871.

Congressional debate focused on the "worthlessness" of the Yellowstone country for any "useful" purpose. The lack of any known reserves of timber, minerals, or other resources of any economic value was emphasized. Because most of the area was at or above 7,000 feet in elevation and received snow during much of the year, agriculture and settlement were considered difficult at best. 

Though Congressional opposition was weak, the necessity of preserving a place of such little value was questioned. In order to secure passage of the bill, supporters promised that no funding from Congress would be requested for the park's administration. Indeed, Yellowstone received no federal funding until 1877 when it was recognized that without someone in charge, there would soon be nothing left to see as poaching and vandalism were rampant. 

Our perception of Yellowstone has changed dramatically since the Congressional debates of 1871-1872. Today the park is host to more than 3 million visitors each year from all over the world. While still fairly remote, it is no longer inaccessible. Its geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, and wildlife are no longer thought to be worthless, but are considered priceless. The park has become an integral part of our culture and stands as a symbol, not only of American democracy, but also of the importance of preserving wild places for everyone. 

Selling Yellowstone
Selling Yellowstone
: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature by Mark Daniel Barringer

Given its remote location in the upper left corner of one of the least populated states, few of the founders of Yellowstone National Park would have believed that it could become what it is today -- a highly commercialized world-wide tourist attraction

As historian Mark Daniel Barringer demonstrates in this economic history of the park, Yellowstone was transformed from a wilderness preserve to a profit-making enterprise by a series of enterprising entrepreneurs who were pretty much given free rein by the federal government.

In 1882, as the Interior Department was preparing to sign off on a lease allowing a small group of investors to take control of commercial activity in Yellowstone, the current park superintendent warned that the action "threatened to lock up too much land in the hands of the investors, that park visitors would be at the mercy of private concerns if they desired to see the wonders of the park," Barringer points out. That agreement brought full-scale capitalism to bear on the park and set the stage for what was to come.

Barringer's critical assessment of how profit-driven business interests influenced the development of Yellowstone National Park explains how lands that Congress promised to protect and preserve "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" became the site for some of the most intensive commercial activity in the West.

Guide to the National Park Areas: Western States
Guide to the National Park Areas
: Western States 

A President in Yellowstone
A President in Yellowstone
The F. Jay Haynes Photographic Album of Chester Arthur's 1883 Expedition
by Frank H. Goodyear III

For three weeks in August of 1883 the first sitting president to visit Yellowstone National Park, Chester Arthur, made an ambitious 330-mile overland trip from Green River, Wyoming, north to Mammoth Hot Springs with a 75-man military escort led by General Philip Sheridan.

It was the longest and most unusual vacation ever taken by a sitting President. The traveling party included Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, who commemorate the trip with a leather-bound album of photographs taken on the journey by a young photographer, F. Jay Haynes, along with the dispatches describing the President’s activities which were sent to the Associated Press.

This volume reprints much of that album, of which only six copies were ever made, and publishes more of Haynes' 130-year-old photographs of Yellowstone National Park and the President's party.

Great Falls of the Yellowstone by F. Jay Haynes
Great Falls of the Yellowstone
by F. Jay Haynes

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