Celebrating 100 Years of the National Parks Service

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1938 WPA Poster courtesy of the Library of Congress

July 25, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service (NPS). Established by Woodrow Wilson under the Organic Act of 1916, the national parks are enjoyed by millions of visitors interested in exploring the diversity and beauty of the U.S. landscape. Today, the creation of a new federal bureau would likely make headlines, but the policy issues surrounding the consolidation of park management as well as the other conservation acts leading up to the creation of the NPS don’t seem to drive the discussion about national parks in our papers. Instead, the parks are frequently mentioned in conjunction with tourism. Across our papers, headlines related to national parks typically take the form of travel notices about Floridians on the move, advertisements offering guided trips to the West, and society segments chronicling the travels of famous Americans to distant areas like Yosemite, Crater Lake, and Glacier National Parks. Finding this perspective in our papers isn’t all that surprising, an argument historian Marguerite S. Shaffer makes in her book See America First: Tourism and National Identity 1880-1940. In her work, she argues “under the leadership of the National Park Service, the United States government, in partnership with private corporations, began to define and promote a national tourism as a ritual of American citizenship. In the process, the national parks were transformed into a system of national assets, and tourism became integrally linked to national identity” (Shaffer 92). To celebrate the centennial of the NPS, we’ll be exploring instances in our papers where the parks are discussed in relation to travel.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, interest in the American West increased substantially due in part to stories, photos, and even theater shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West celebrating the region circulating in the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Expansions in national railroad infrastructure as well as new travel technology like the car made it easier than ever for people to explore the vast American West, leading to concerns about conservation and access. This is an issue tourism scholars Richard W. Butler and Stephen W. Boyd discuss in the introduction to the book Tourism and National Parks: Issues and Implications. In it they claim, “while preservation and romantic notions of safeguarding wilderness places were often stated as the driving forces behind early park establishment, many of the first parks would not have been established if they had offered no potential for tourism….The first parks in North America, for example, Yellowstone and Banff, benefited from the presence of railroad interests that provided not only initial access to the parks but also the necessary tourism infrastructure within the parks for the first tourists” (Butler and Boyd 9). While some Americans may think of the parks as pristine nature preserves, they are in fact tied up in a larger legacy of tourism and development.

Yellowstone National Park was the first park to be formed by the U.S government. Signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, it became the first such park “in the history of the world” (PBS EP1). By the end of the 19th century, there were additional national parks including Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mt. Rainier. A further expansion of presidential powers took place in 1906 when Teddy Roosevelt signed what is commonly known as the Antiquities Act, giving the president “the exclusive authority – without any Congressional approval – to preserve places that would be called national monuments” (PBS EP2). Conflict over who would manage these monuments and parks demonstrated a need to create a governmental agency with that express purpose. At the same time this need developed at an administrative level, promotional materials were created and distributed by groups in support of the parks (including companies using the slogan “See America First”) which “sought to establish the value of national parks as national assets” (Shaffer 104). Public and corporate support for the national parks generated by promotional campaigns contributed to the passage and signing of the Organic Act of 1916. Combined with the fact that access to Europe for tourists was hindered by the ongoing World War, Americans turned west to explore their own country. As we see in our papers during this time period, “between 1918 and 1919, the parks were defined as more than just scenic wonders. They became quintessentially American landscapes that objectified the American character and embodied the essence of the nation, and in the tradition of democracy, they belonged to the people, ever available for their benefit and pleasure” (Shaffer 114-115).

With that background in mind, please enjoy the following excerpts from our Florida newspapers about visiting the national parks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Famous Visitors to the Parks

Roosevelt Yellowstone ed
Palatka News and Advertiser April 10, 1903
Taft and wife Glacier ed
Pensacola Journal August 28, 1913

Floridian Tourists

Brownings Trip ed
Palatka News and Advertiser August 11, 1916
Van Hood Yosemite ed
The Ocala Banner June 12, 1903
Mrs. Rex Todd Glacier ed
Ocala Evening Star June 17, 1922

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Union Pacific No American Miss Trip ed
Pensacola Journal May 28, 1909
Low Fares from Pensacola ed
Pensacola Journal July 20, 1914
Vacation Tours for Florida People ed
Ocala Evening Star July 12, 1916

Auto Tourism and the Parks

Yosemite Auto Tourist 1921 ed
Palatka Daily News October 13, 1921

Citations and Additional Sources

Butler, Richard W. and Stephen W. Boyd. “Tourism and parks-a long but uneasy relationship.” In Tourism and National Parks: Issues and Implications, edited by Richard W. Butler and Stephen W. Boyd, 3-11. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, LTD, 2000.

Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Yellowstone National Park, Ranger Naturalist Service. 1 print (poster): screen, color ; 48 x 36 cm. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. From: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007676133/ (accessed August 25, 2016).

Shaffer, Marquerite S. See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

PBS. “The National Parks America’s Best Idea.” Accessed August 25, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/history/.

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Chronicling America Tutorial

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