The real creators of the National Parks are the entrepreneurs who followed their passions about protecting these wilderness places… millionaires, politicians and wandering students, the prominent and the unknown, those out for commercial gain and those dedicated to wilderness conservation. The idea and development of the Parks at the turn of the 20th century was a unique American endeavor.
The PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, beautifully created by director/producer Ken Burns and producer/writer Dayton Duncan, is a moving portrait of the spirit of the American entrepreneur
John Muir dedicated his long life to the Parks. It is interesting that his wife Louisa supported his release from his management of her family’s 2600 acre ranch in California after only 10 years, returning him to his public pursuits.
Theodore Roosevelt supported the formation of the first National Parks and Monuments during his Presidency, at the urging of John Muir and others,
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. left his father’s company and dedicated himself to philanthropy, including the support of the Parks, and his design and building of Maine’s Acadia National Park’s 40 miles of carriage roads, to this day open only to hikers and bicyclers, horses and cross-country skiers.
Stephen Mather, an industrial millionaire, established the National Park Service in Washington D.C. to protect the parks.
Horace Albright, son of a California miner, lived in a room in Washington D.C.’s YMCA upon his arrival there, and became the legal assistant to Stephen Mather. He functioned as Acting Director of the NPS during Mather’s 18-month illness, later succeeding him as the 2nd Director of the NPS.
The early directors of the railways pursued the opening of the Parks to tourists and the building of hotels and tourist attractions, bringing in the people for whom the Parks were built.
Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb built their photographic studio on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1904, photographing hikers and mule riders on their way down the Canyon, and just managing to process the prints by end of day when their subjects returned to the Rim at the top. Taking one of the first motion picture cameras down the river through the canyon (only the 8th such successful river trip known at the time), they produced the first motion film of the river and the canyon and each other, often in precarious moments. For 60 years afterwards, Emery’s narration, in person and on tape, was shown twice a day at their studio on the South Rim.
John Dorr, one of the wealthy “cottage” owners of Mt. Desert in Maine, rallied his friends, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to buy, donate and preserve the island from the results of the newly-invented gasoline-powered sawmill. He convinced President Woodrow Wilson to set aside 6,000 acres into what is now Acadia National Park, the first Park east of the Mississippi. Dorr became the Park’s first superintendent in his 70s, for 25 years, spending all of his inherited wealth over his lifetime on his passion. It is said there were funds for his burial only because his trust fund administrator hid $2,000 from him.
These stories from 100 years ago show the American history of these capital, political and social entrepreneurs, who represent as much of our national character as the Parks themselves.