Platt National Park's first park ranger
Born in Greeley Center, Nebraska, August 24, 1882, Forest moved with his parents to Guthrie, Oklahoma. At the age of six he rode a horse in the "Great Land Rush" at the opening of the Cherokee Strip, where his father served as Deputy U.S. Marshal.
By the 1890s the Townsley family had relocated to Sulphur Springs, in the Chickasaw Nation. Forest's father, Willis Townsley, was the unpaid caretaker of the Buffalo and Antelope Springs for a few years following the establishment of the Sulphur Springs Reservation in 1902.
Forest started his National Park career on June 18, 1904 at what was later known as Platt National Park, serving first as patrolman and later as park ranger. Ranger Townsley furnished two private animals, at his own expense, used in patrolling the park. Superintendent Swords wrote to the Secretary asking that the rangers who furnished private animals receive an additional sum of twelve dollars per animal per month for its care and feeding. Park Ranger Forest Townsley and a collegue were commissioned as Deputy United States Marshals for the Southern District of Indian Territory out of Ardmore, I.T. Their commission, however, was limited to the confines of the federal reservation.
Besides the customary job of protecting the visitors and maintaining law and order, Rangers Forest Townsley and Robert Earl had to keep the cattle out of the reservation. In April of 1907 the rangers removed 1,466 head of cattle and horses beyond the limits of the Park.
In 1906, the Park still had over one hundred abandoned buildings that were bought by the government during the two segregations. One of the jobs of the rangers was to keep squatters and trespassers out of the old buildings.
After nearly ten years on the job, Townsley relocated to Yosemite National Park as a park ranger in 1913, paying his own moving expenses.
Courtesy of Elaine Townsley
He was appointed Chief Ranger of Yosemite in 1916. Stephen T. Mather, Director of National Parks selected him to organize a ranger force at Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. While there the late King Albert of Belgium visited the Park and decorated Chief Townsley for horsemanship.
As Chief Park Ranger of Yosemite National Park, Townsley welcomed visitors from all parts of the world and from all stations in life and shared with them his love of the wilderness.
Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Park in 1934 at Young Lake, where she camped five days with a ranger party. She praised the Chief very highly. Later she wrote in her, “My Day,” of Townsley. Here are quotes from her column, “He has the kindliest face I know and the most humor, yet the eyes look you so straight in the face that I should hate to meet him if I wished to hide anything. He gave you a sense of his strength.”
His skill as taxidermist also brought special recognition from Stephen T. Mather, first Director of National Parks. His bird and mammal specimens were the nucleus of an exhibit which was the beginning of the first National Park Museum. These were originally prepared and displayed by Townsley in the ranger office in the Old Village in 1915. In 1920 the exhibits were moved to the Old Jorgensen Studio which served as the Park Museum until the opening of the present museum in 1926 at Government Center.
Chief Townsley wrote, “about 1905 during a conversation with Frank C. Churchill U. S. Inspector from Washington and Col. Swords, who was Superintendent of Platt National Park at that time, we discussed at length the uniform that was worn by Dr. Francois Matthes, in connection with his work in some of the South American countries. It was decided at that time that a uniform should be designated for the ranger service. A catalog issued by the M. D. Lilly and Company of Columbus, Ohio, showed a uniform similar to that worn by Dr. Matthes. We thought it a good serviceable outfit for a mounted patrol ranger. I ordered a uniform made up by the above company. It was very similar to the regulation soldier uniform at that time with high collar, regular riding breeches, Stetson hat olive drab color, with puttee leggings and officers military shoes.” This uniform with some later changes became the National Park Ranger Uniform.
Chief Ranger Townsley died of a heart attack on August 11, 1943. He was on a fishing trip in the Tuloumne Meadows area at “his lake,” Townsley Lake.
Forest was Chief of the Yosemite Ranger Force 27 years. There is a Marker in the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery to his memory. Having trained many of the first and second generations of park rangers, Townsley's legacy was continued by his son John, who served as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in the 1970s.