If any one theme can be drawn from the recent human history of Olympic National Park, it is the near absolute dominance of the place itself. An isolated, rugged, wet, myriad of topography and ecosystems so significant it is now designated a World Biosphere Park, Olympic defies simple description as surely as it defied modern man's attempts to subdue it. It is, in fact, only through the varied history of these attempts to subdueor at least coexistwith this wild and quiet land that we can gain some real understanding of the Park and the power of its natural environment. Early settlers and World War II coastal defense troops alike confronted the same set of environmental and human challenges. Eventually (in hindsight it seems almost inevitable), it was the natural world that predominated, leaving modern man and his technology to seek other more attainable goals.
At more detailed levels of analysis, the same theme remains. Topography and climate, as well as distance, restricted early exploration and set limits on early settlement, forcing an isolated existence of "spuds, elk and sauerkraut" that few found sustaining for very long. Where man and his technology could gain a foothold, as in the Queets, the larger significance of the natural wonders of the Park generated public policies that discouraged or eliminated settlement.
Well into the twentieth century, after the geology of the Olympics eliminated hopes for mineral riches, popular ideas regarding the importance of unspoiled places like Olympic to full human growth and spiritual regeneration redefined the Olympic wilderness as a positive, almost romantic asset. This time technologyparticularly the automobilecould facilitate the idea and make it popular, available to more than the occasional explorer. And this time it was with a reverence for the place, this Olympic wonder, that development occurred inside and often outside what is now the Park. As resorts like Rosemary, Singer's, Becker's, Sol Duc and other automobile tourist facilities created what is today called "front country" around the Park, trails, shelters, chalets and guidebooks opened access to what became "backcountry, the land beyond the highway. Both front and backountry provided the places for Americans to escape the much publicized pressures of urban life and to recreate in all the grandeur and silence of the Olympics. While the forms of that recreationas well as the forms of reverence for the placewere as varied as the Park itself, they were consistent in the dominant importance of the natural, over man-built world.
One interesting secondary conclusion to be drawn from this study centers on the constant backdrop of a mature industrial society only a few miles distant. Unlike earlier waves of exploration and settlement, Olympic provided the constant and close alternative of urban life far different from that required of its pioneers. Explorers enjoyed the benefits of wide press coverage for many of their exploits, while settlers often suffered a sense of isolation exaggerated by the proximity of bustling twentieth-century towns and cities. Perhaps more important, the imminent threat of human impact within Olympic was not so much in absolute numbers but in the industrial technologies that made exploitation both more possible and much larger in scale. It is not without reason that the success of the truck in the timber industry or the automobile in the resort industry were closely paralleled by public policy decisions to establish or increase the level of protection afforded the old-growth forests, lakeshores and backcountry of Olympic. Where other parks in other regions could more leisurely develop, Olympic, if it was to survive as an undeveloped area, was forced into rapid maturity as a federally protected reserve. Nearly fifty years of full protection have healed the first scars of timbering or unplanned resort development, but the presence and the power of early development must not be underestimated.
Historic buildings still surviving in the Park provide interesting insights for management as well as human history. Whether because of natural deterioration or conscious administrative decision, few structures actually survive, and all of them are twentieth-century structures. The earliest is Humes cabin (ca. 1900), followed by the Lake Crescent resorts of the nineteen-teens, the Reid and Shaube (Smith) cabins on the Queets built in the 1920s and the Forest Service cabins and outbuildings of that same decade and later. The nineteenth-century structures are already vanished, sites now important as research topics to further our understanding but lost to direct visitor appreciation.
Like the Park itself, the twentieth-century structures that still retain integrity are precious resources, cultural resources that facilitate an understanding of man's changing relationship to the larger natural resource that is Olympic.
One small conclusion must also be drawn regarding historic sites as opposed to structures. The trails and surviving blazes, caches, railroad roadbeds, mine tailings, and other less obvious remnants offer opportunity for a broader understanding. While often no more than a place name or an environmental scar, these nineteenth-century and even earlier reminders of exploration and exploitation suggest different eras and different perceptions of the Olympic Peninsula and the Park. As interpretive material, they extend our appreciation as far back as the eighteenth century and greatly expand our understanding of nineteenth-century activities, an insight otherwise unattainable.
A secondary conclusion regarding the older buildings in Olympic focuses on design. Throughout the history of private as well as public building within what is now Olympic, buildings have been remarkably consistent in their materials and design. Whether conscious or accidental, buildings were built to a scale now judged appropriate and built of materials equally in keeping with their surroundings. From Forest Service shelter to private resort or chalet, and for structures as geographically separated as Elwha, Graves Creek and Staircase, the use of shingle or shake roofs, log or wood channel-drop siding small pane wooden windows, and location that respects the site rather than dominates it, is admirably consistent. When the CCC and other relief programs brought new buildings to the Park, these architectural themes were repeated, most formally in the headquarters buildings but also in community kitchens, picnic areas, campgrounds and a host of other building types. As a guide to future management policies regarding Park buildings, this historical and appropriate consistency might well be considered. Such consideration would continue a tradition established long before Olympic National Park but one developed and implemented by the National Park Service throughout the West.
Finally, one personal observation about Olympic history and the Park must be permitted. Despite the remarkable absence of scholarly material or even popular work on the Park and its historical variety, there exists an impressive local awareness of this historical development. For Olympic, historical research is a pursuit enlivened by the presence of still-living historical figures and still-fresh recollections of trials, tribulations and achievements. There is, in fact, a keen local interest in Park history that is shared by long-term resident and new ranger alike. While congressional decisions often conflicted with local interest and left in their wake deep feelings of frustration and occasional resentment, the unfolding saga of man's efforts in what is now Olympic is a common meeting ground, an arena in which other differences can be, and are, discussed. If nothing else, it is hoped this study will broaden that arena, allowing a continuing dialogue centered on man's evolving and ever-changing relationship to the natural world.
This intellectual relationship between popular American culture and the meaningfulness of Olympic National Park is only indirectly explored in this study, but many of the same sources will yield rich, interpretive material on an individual human scale. Equally useful, the few structures to survive the harsh climate or the rapid revegetation of the lowlands provide fascinating insight into this growing cultural appreciation of wilderness. From Humes cabin to Park headquarters, the extant reminders of exploration, settlement, exploitation, resort development, relief programs, and defense, establish an intellectually accessible window into the larger meaning and complexity of the entire Park. In the development of trails, shelters and chalets is documented an earlier era of interest and participation in the backcountry, an interest that did much to establish the popular support essential to the creation of Olympic National Park. Similarly, lakeside, beach, hot springs and campground provided much larger numbers of Americans with their own version of a wilderness experience, while the CCC and other relief programs expanded and improved facilities, again strengthening the ties between popular culture and National Park. It is ironic that this increasingly popular sense of need for wild and quiet places both supported and threatened the Olympic resources it most highly respected. It was this same dualism that gave the National Park Service its basic charter "to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same . . . ."
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2009