Rocky Mountain National Park
A History
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"You have to understand why parks are here and what parks are. They are different from other land areas. . . ."
Dwight Hamilton, Chief Park Naturalist, 1978

ON A sunny June afternoon in 1982, Park Technician Dr. Ferrel Atkins and I ambled around the site of Abner Sprague's old homestead in Moraine Park. Not much of the place remained for us to see. In fact, if Dr. Atkins had not been able to point to places where roads once ran, where buildings housed guests, and where a golf course existed, most eyes would never have guessed that a homestead, a resort, and a restoration had all occupied that space over the course of a century. In a similar way, as our minds contemplate the current scenes of Rocky Mountain National Park, it is easy to overlook the many efforts and struggles those in the past encountered as they met these mountains.

Sitting vacant in Moraine Park, about to be removed, the ghost-like structures of the Sprague-Stead's ranch recalled a vacationing style of an earlier era. Barely a trace of that old resort can be found today. (RMNPHC)

As Dr. Atkins recounted the many details of Abner Sprague's life, one could almost envision how that hardy pioneer first saw this spot. There is no doubt that he saw the area change from its wild eststate into a popular public park. Within his lifetime, Sprague saw people change the land and watched the land change them. Hunters in the wilderness became settlers; ranchers became resort operators; exploiters became conservationists; preservationists became park supporters; park officials became promoters; and park protectors became wilderness defenders. Only change was constant.

What Dr. Atkins could see in that old homestead site very few modern travelers could discern without benefit of an educated memory as a guide. For only by pondering the accounts of the past can we ever imagine what those pioneers first saw when their eyes met these mountains. Only by reading the letters of Isabella Bird to her sister can we really understand what it must have been like to climb Longs Peak in the absence of crowds waiting to attain the summit. Only by reviewing the many books of Enos Mills can we examine the birth of the conservation movement as it pertained to this section of the West. Only by paging through dozens of government documents can we sense the vision of Superintendent Roger Toll and other park officials as they planned for the future. What our memory's eye shows us in retrospect is a much grander vision than that enjoyed by Sprague, or Bird, or Mills, or Toll, but to them we owe gratitude for their concern for this small section of one of the planet's great mountain chains.

It is our fortune to be able to cast an eye toward the past and perhaps glean some nuggets of knowledge from the experience of those who have gone before us. They may help us put our present in perspective. Even more important, seeing how this land has been treated through time may help us determine how we prefer to see it in the future. For Rocky Mountain National Park's future, like its past, is now in our hands.


Rocky Mountain National Park: A History
©1997, University Press of Colorado All rights reserved.
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