The modern history of the area now included within Olympic National Park is a peculiar combination of early inland exploration, evolving settlement patterns, escalating resort development, governmental actions, and an ever-dominant environment. The Park area, and especially its mountainous spine, was always a formidable place, a "wilderness" that fascinated the curious and provided inspiration to many, even those unable to visit. The first governmental move to protect the area, to remove it from settlement, came in the same decade that Americans discovered there were more of their number in cities and towns than in rural settings. A nation of pioneers suddenly realized the loss of the frontier and filled thousands of pages of popular text in discussing the meaning of such a loss. In this context, that the president of the United States would move decisively in 1897 to save this last bit of frontier on the Olympic Peninsula, is not surprising.
The 1897 Olympic Forest Reserve, the smaller 1909 Mount Olympus National Monument and the expanded 1938 Olympic National Park designations by either the president or Congress of the United States all expressed the democracy's popular concern for wild and unsettled places, for areas in which man might find the inner meaning of an earlier primeval self or the tranquility of an alpine meadow. For local residents already working within this environment, both perceptions and reactions were logically different. Pioneer farmers, the very types eulogized in the loss of the frontier, often found changing government policy or simply the threatening presence of the government to be more than already strained resources could bear. Locked into a bitter struggle for survival under primitive and isolated conditions, the possibility of loss through government action was often sufficient to discourage even the strongest. Later on, during the 1910s and 1920s, resorts first flourished but were later restricted as were private recreational homeowners who became "inholders" in the Park.
Equally important in this remarkably brief journey from early exploration to World War II is the change in the meaning of "wilderness" to those able to visit Olympic. Seashore to glacier, the varied climates and landscapes of the Park are no more varied than man's own fascinating reaction to those same environments. From early exploring expeditions to present-day auto travelers, the Park and its resources have been perceived and "understood" in a rich variety of contexts and perspectives. As each of these perspectives came to the Peninsula and created its own market for Park experiences, forest Park and private managers responded with policies and development programs often specifically tuned to the new market. Backcountry trails and shelters, private chalets, seaside and hot spring resorts, housekeeping cabins and auto campgrounds on lakes and streams all had their day and left their mark. Each was a reflection, and an increasingly popular one over time, of the interest in wild and quiet places as well as a certain level of comfort and safety. While today we may see forms of dichotomy if not contradiction in such goals, we are, in fact, only reflecting yet another market for yet another form of Park experience.
Two other hints to the reader seem appropriate. The Olympic Peninsula, and especially its mountainous core, is a very isolated place. Time frames appropriate to other areas and their evolving patterns of human activity are here compressed into the twentieth century. Even though a maturing urban-industrial culture existed less than 100 miles east in Seattle, the awesome quiet of mountain, valley, and shore remained at least until the loop highway encircled the Peninsula in 1931. The isolation left those who chose it existing in a more exaggerated or separated world that may well have seemed more lonely as well. The brave pioneers of the plains were half a century past and the social appeal of town and city half a century stronger. Settlers longed for the benefits of urban life and culture while urban dwellers sought the quiet solace of a wilderness resort. Thus, at virtually the same time as knowledge of the Olympics began to overcome its isolation, this same isolation began to be its greatest asset.
Finally, to speak of the variety of environments as a constant backdrop to human history is deceiving. The Olympic peninsula may be the best possible setting for a simplistic version of environmental determinism, so vast and powerful is the effect of terrain, temperature, climate and season. So quickly does this natural world reclaim its losses in the moist lowland forests that there are no nineteenth-century structures still standing within the Park. Farms, abandoned in the 1940s or earlier, are now nearly impossible to find while only a rare blaze marks an early trail. Even mining, an enterprise that seems consistently to scar the natural environment, has been virtually erased by the land itself. History here in all its periods, development sequences, and accidents was shaped and most often dominated by the variety and power of the landscape.
The earliest explorers were fascinated by this grandeur and variety. Once convinced there was no mineral wealth, they argued eloquently for a park, a formal method of protection for this isolated and rugged landscape. After fifty years of failed attempts to do otherwise, to find some way to develop the area now called Olympic National Park as though it were ordinary land, the American people, acting through Congress, formally agreed with those early explorers and established the Park in 1938. While its environmental qualities remain its most enduring features, the rich threads of human history woven into that environmental tapestry provide an understandable human dimension. It is through the eyes and the experiences of those who have gone before that we can more fully appreciate the natural wonders of Olympic National Park.
Last Updated: 2009