The National Park Idea
The idea of a "national park" must have jarred strangely the nineteenth century intellects upon which the words of a Montana lawyer fell as he spoke from the shadows of a campfire in the wilderness of the Yellowstone one autumn night 70 years ago. For Cornelius Hedges addressed a generation dedicated to the winning of the West. He spoke at a time when stout hearted pioneers had their faces determinedly set toward the distant Pacific as they steadily pushed the frontier of civilization and industrialization across prairie and mountain range to claim the land for a Nation between the coasts. His plan was presented to men cast of that die-men whose courage and enterprise characterized the era in which they lived.
But Cornelius Hedges had looked deeply into American character and was not disappointed. He counted upon the altruism which marked that character, and planted in it the ideal which instantly took root and has since flowered as one of America's greatest treasures: the national park system. Thus was a new social concept born to a Nation itself reborn.
The man who broached the national park idea to those men of courageous spirit who comprised the Washarn-Langford-Doane Expedition for exploration of the Yellowstone was indeed the most courageous of all. This expedition of 1870 had set out at its own expense to investigate once and for all the incredible stories of natural wonders which had been coming out of the region for years, from the time the first scouts of fur trading companies blazed their trails across the fantastic wonderland. They found that all of it was true, and that the tallest yarns of the wildest spinners of tales (except perhaps the notorious Jim Bridger, who later simply embellished what nature had already provided) could hardly outstrip what the eye itself beheld. Here were the geysers shooting their columns of boiling water and steam into the sky; here were the hot pools, the mud volcanoes, and other strange phenomena. Here were the gigantic falls of the Yellowstone River in its gorgeously tinted canyon a thousand feet deep. Here were the forests and the abundance of wildlife in every form native to the region. Here, indeed, was a fairyland of unending wonders.
As they sat around their campfire the night of September 19, 1870 near the juncture of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers (now called Madison Junction), the members of the party quite naturally fell to discussing the commercial value of such wonders, and laying plans for dividing personal claims to the land among the personnel of the expedition. It was into this eager conversation that Hedges introduced his revolutionary idea. He suggested that rather than capitalize on their discoveries, the members of the expedition waive personal claims to the area and seek to have it set aside for all time as a reserve for the use and enjoyment of all the people. The instant approval which this idea received must have been gratifying to its author, for it was a superb expression of civic consciousness.
As the explorers lay that night in the glow of dying embers, their minds were fired with a new purpose. In fact, some of them later admitted that prospects of the campaign for establishment of the Nation's first national park were so exciting that they found no sleep at all.
This, then, was the birth of the national park idea. The idea became a reality, and the reality developed into a system which, through the years, has grown to embrace 21,011,778.58 acres of land and water including 25 national parks, 80 national monuments, and 45 national historical parks, national battlefields and other various classifications of areas.
Web Edition Note: The campfire myth was later proven to be untrue.
The advocates of the national park idea lost no time in following their plan through. First steps for carrying out the project to create Yellowstone National Park were taken at Helena, Montana, principally by Cornelius Hedges, Nathaniel P. Langford, and William H. Clagett. Fortunately for the plan, Clagett had just been elected delegate to Congress from Montana and was in a splendid position to advance the cause. In Washington he and Langford drew up the park bill which was introduced in the House of Representatives by the Montana delegate on December 18, 1871. During the preceding summer, the U. S. Geological Survey had changed its program of field work so as to give attention to the wonders described by the civilian explorers. Two Government expeditions, one under Dr. F. V. Hayden and the other under Captains Barlow and Heap of the Engineer Corps of the Army, had traveled together in making Yellowstone studies. W. H. Jackson, who continues to this day to serve as a collaborator on national park studies, was a member of the Hayden party. He obtained a remarkably fine series of Yellowstone photographs, samples of which Dr. Hayden placed on the desks of all Senators and Congressmen. In other ways, Dr. Hayden joined Clagett and his Montana constituents in influencing the passage of the National Park Act. Finally a copy of it was carried personally by Mr. Clagett to the Senate where it was introduced by Senator Pomeroy of Kansas. In response to a request from the House Committee on Public Lands for his opinion, the Secretary of the Interior endorsed the bill. The measure was put through after perhaps the most intensive canvass accorded any bill, in which all the members of Congress were personally visited and, with few exceptions, won over to its support. It was adopted by the House on January 30, 1872, passed by the Senate on February 27, and received the signature of President Grant on March 1.
For the first time the Government had acted to conserve land for a new purpose. The term "conservation," so commonly applied to coal, iron, or other raw materials of industry, was now applied to mountains, lakes, canyons, forests and other great and unusual works of nature, and interpreted in terms of public recreation.