Chapter Four – The First National Park
When President Roosevelt and John Burroughs arrived at Gardiner, Mont., on April 8, 1903, Yellowstone already had been a national park for more than 30 years.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed the law that made Yellowstone a national park. It was the first national park in the United States and even in the world. But while Congress had established five other national parks between then and 1903, it still wasn’t quite clear exactly just what a “national park” was.
Everyone agreed it was land that should belong to everyone. When Congress was debating making Yellowstone a park, they were very careful to say that it wasn’t good land for farming anyway, and it didn’t have very much timber, either.
In those days, there was a lot of land in the United States that didn’t belong to anyone in particular, but the idea was that people should be able to claim it and make use of it. That was how our economy would grow.
Some land had been set aside for Indian nations, but, in 1872, the United States was still at war with some of those nations. Even when peace had been made, promises to Indians were often broken so that white settlers, miners and loggers could claim the land.
And where states had been established, it was agreed that they could also own land. In California, the beautiful Yosemite Valley had been given to the state of California so that visitors could enjoy it.
Montana had even asked that the entire Yellowstone area be declared part of that territory so Montana could have a park like Yosemite. But nearly all of Yellowstone was in Wyoming, and lawmakers in Washington realized that Wyoming would not want the park to be taken from them and given to a neighboring territory.
A bit of Yellowstone was also just over the border into Idaho, and so, rather than start a quarrel, it was decided that the best idea would be to let the three territories keep their shares, but put the entire area under federal protection as a park.
When the discussion reached Congress, however, not everyone agreed with the idea of a park, even though the land was no good for farming.
“But if it cannot be occupied and cultivated why should we make a public park of it?” asked California Sen. Cornelius Cole. “If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation? I see no reason in that.”
Illinois Sen. Lyman Trumbull answered that farming wasn’t the only reason someone might want to claim land in such a wonderful place. “(I)t is possible that some person may go there and plant himself right across the only path that leads to these wonders, and charge every man that passes along between the gorges of these mountains a fee of a dollar or five dollars.”
The Senate agreed, and Yellowstone National Park was created.
But what was it?
New York City had created “Central Park” 13 years earlier, then had it all beautifully landscaped. And some cities and towns had put aside playgrounds, which they also called “parks.”
Calling something a “park” didn’t mean leaving it unchanged.
When Roosevelt and Burroughs arrived, this discussion already had been going on for several years.
Roosevelt himself had been part of those discussions well before he became president, thanks to his friend George Bird Grinnell.
Grinnell had realized that simply calling Yellowstone a park would not protect it. People were still coming there to kill large numbers of buffalo and elk so they could sell the meat and hides. The army had begun patrolling the park in 1886, but without firm laws with real punishments, they couldn’t do much more than make these poachers leave.
With the help of the Boone and Crocket Club, Grinnell got a law passed in 1894 to stop hunting in the park.
But that was not the only threat to Yellowstone.
There was also pressure to allow the railroads to come into the park, and it made sense in a day when the idea of a “park” was a place people could enjoy. They could enjoy it better if it were easy to visit!
Hikers, hunters and campers, however, knew that part of enjoying nature is the quiet that comes with it. The chugging, smoke-belching steam locomotives would ruin the experience for true nature lovers, and Roosevelt was among those who fought to keep trains out of Yellowstone.
Still, Roosevelt knew, there would need to be roads there. If people couldn’t visit the park, what good was it?
When he and Burroughs arrived at the edge of Yellowstone National Park, they were met by Major John Pitcher, the army officer in charge of the park, and several of his soldiers.
At that point, nearly everyone else was left behind. Locomotives were not the only thing that could ruin a camping trip.
“The President wanted all the freedom and solitude possible while in the Park, so all newspaper men and other strangers were excluded,” Burroughs wrote. “Even the secret service men and his physician and private secretaries were left at Gardiner. He craved once more to be alone with nature.”
With Roosevelt on horseback and the older Burroughs in a coach, the two friends and their army escort rode into Yellowstone National Park for a two-week visit that would include hiking, skiing, horseback riding and viewing nature.
But even with reporters waiting outside the park, stories about the visit appeared every day in newspapers around the country, helping to build a national discussion of what the words “National Park” really meant.
Next week Conservation and Preservation
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson; illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin
Project funded by the New York State United Teachers, New York Newspapers Foundation and the Wyoming Press Association.
Anyone interested in the corresponding curriculum guide, audio podcasts, graphic organizers and student contest, visit www.nynpa.com/nie/nieserial.html.