John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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In the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are preserved life forms existing millions of years ago, a time span dwarfing humankind's brief existence on the earth. The seemingly long period of interest in the John Day Basin's geology from the First Oregon cavalry explorations of Captain Drake to the present--130 years--are but a flash in time when compared to the record found in the monument's formations.

Even shorter is the 60 year period beginning with my earliest recollections of my grandfather, John C. Merriam, describing his work in the John Day country. He envisioned a parkway under state auspices along the John Day River, where the geological story could be revealed to visitors in an educational and inspirational way. After his retirement from the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1938, grandfather dedicated much energy to this project and started a group called the John Day Associates.

As president of the Save-the-Redwoods League, grandfather experienced unusual success in preserving and interpreting the spectacular coast redwood as an ancient life form in California. He thought similar efforts could be made in the John Day country after he provided the impetus for the state to acquire land there in 1927. The gigantic trees along U.S. Highway 101 are, however, a great aesthetic attraction in themselves and are easily appreciated when compared to the more subtle fossil beds. A series of events precluded the parkway project, even though grandfather seemed to have the attention of highway commissioners who controlled funding for the state parks in those days. There never seemed to be enough money to acquire private lands needed for the parkway and the state parks superintendent misperceived the parkway concept. Another complication was that World War II continued almost to grandfather's death in October 1945.

As state park planner under the Oregon State Highway Commission in the early 1950s, I made several trips to these parks--then called Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds. Characterized by widely scattered tracts of land, both parks possessed little in the way of visitor facilities. Painted Hills was a small park of only 13 acres, accessible by a gravel road several miles away from the Ochoco Highway. At what is now called the Sheep Rock Unit, there were several parcels known as the John Day Fossil Beds State Park. The only interpretation at either park consisted of a rustic wood sign summarizing the basin's geology at an overlook east of the Cant Ranch.

Thus it is a tribute to the national monument's supporters in Oregon who, aided by Congressman Al Ullman, obtained a National Park Service study of the area. After much planning and persistence, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was established in 1975. This publication tells the story of its growth and management.

Lawrence C. Merriam, Jr.
Corvallis, Oregon


As a part of 20th century human history in north central Oregon, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument deserves to be known as an ambitious experiment in public education. It is also testimony to perseverance, something which, to a much lesser degree, characterized completion of this document. Park staff first identified a need for an administrative history of the monument in 1986, but another six years passed before the National Park Service's Cultural Resources Division in Seattle could find a way to fund it. Even then the project had to be done on a collateral duty basis, due to my primary responsibilities at Crater Lake National Park. Nevertheless, this way of working allowed me some time to make better sense of the source material and perhaps enhanced the final product's usefulness.

The park's comparative youth as a unit of the National Park System afforded two distinct advantages in attempting to write this administrative history. One was the luxury of finding much of the record on site, whether in John Day or at the Cant Ranch. Substantial credit must go to former superintendent Ben Ladd for emphasizing the need for organization and retention of records relating to the monument. The second advantage involved being able to conduct a number of oral history interviews, something which came in handy whenever the written record needed clarification. Each person interviewed demonstrated patience in answering what sometimes became a barrage of questions and I want to thank them collectively.

Several institutions provided copies of important correspondence and manuscripts, most of which pertains to the period before the national monument campaign began in 1965. I am indebted to staff at the Library of Congress, Bancroft Library (located at the University of California, Berkeley), as well as the University of Oregon Library for their help in locating documents pertaining to establishment of the state parks, most notably the papers of John C. Merriam. Elisabeth Potter at the Oregon Park and Recreation Department in Salem deserves special thanks for her assistance in providing me with access to files related to the former state parks.

This project could not have been possible without several National Park Service employees who are based at the cluster (formerly regional) office in Seattle. Gretchen Luxenberg facilitated funding and provided crucial editorial assistance. David Louter periodically scrutinized draft chapters and helped me find an approach to writing my first full administrative history. Mary Ellen Bartholomew, Rick Wagner, and Fred York are among the other Seattle-based NPS staff who made contributions along the way.

Thanks also go to a number of park employees. Ted Fremd and Jim Morris made a number of important suggestions during the early phases. Hank Tanski used one of his lieu days to show me around, and along with John Fiedor provided office space when I visited the Cant Ranch. Lorie Rummele compiled the employee roster when the project reached its final stages. Support from two Crater Lake superintendents, Dave Morris and Al Hendricks, as well as that of chief interpreter Kent Taylor, was vital for my research and writing. Another Crater Lake employee, my wife Amy, tolerated me throughout and became so enthused about the monument that she even volunteered her artistic skills to help with interpreting one of its trails.

The title of this work is derived from a line by John C. Merriam, "time is a moving stream in which the present floats," which appeared in an unpublished guidebook to the John Day Basin some 50 years ago. It seemed like a fitting way to describe the scope of this administrative history, while also perhaps kindling interest in an extraordinary place.

Stephen R. Mark,
Crater Lake, Oregon

Table Of Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002