“Rigging” History: Mount McKinley National Park’s Origin Story

black and white photo of four people standing next to a bus
Horace Albright and wife Grace Nobel (center left and center right) during a trip to the park in 1931.

DENA 3847 (reuse by permission only)

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian

On the 26th of February each year, we celebrate Denali’s birthday. In 1918, a year after the park’s founding, National Park Service’s Acting Director, Horace Albright, ran into Charles Sheldon in Washington, DC.[1] Albright was curious about Mount McKinley National Park and how the proposal for the park originally developed. Sheldon told Albright that he would provide a written statement about the park’s origin but urged him to write Harry Karstens and get his recollection.[2]

Karstens’ response to Albright’s request for the history of the park’s origin essentially corroborates what was later published in Sheldon’s memoir The Wilderness of Denali—the idea for the national park was inspired by Sheldon’s 1906-08 visits to the region; however, it also reveals some interesting twists and an apparent attempt at some revisionist history by Alaska Governor Thomas Riggs.[3] The passages below are transcriptions of original letters that are available through the National Archives in College Park, Md.

Horace Albright's Letter to Harry Karstens

April 22, 1918
Dear Mr. Karstens: I was recently talking with Mr. Charles Sheldon in Washington, and in the course of our conversation I told him that I had in mind the preparation of a short history of Mount McKinley National Park. I explained to him that I was particularly anxious to learn something about when the first suggestion that the park be created was made. He has promised to give me a statement of what he knows about the park idea.

He happened to tell me that you were with him in the Mount McKinley region, and probably had some observations that would be valuable. I immediately said that I would write to you.

May I ask you to let me have, at your convenience, a statement of your recollections regarding conversations that you had with people in Alaska about the proposed establishment of the park, and just how the proposal developed as you watched it? Needless to state, I will appreciate thoroughly any material that you can give me for this paper that I have in course of preparation.

I hope someday to have an opportunity to meet you personally. If funds are appropriated for the park this year, this meeting may not be very far off.

Yours cordially, Horace M. Albright, Assistant Director
historic image of a man loading up items on a horse

Unidentified maker, "Toklat horse packed with bear skins to go out—Karstens, Silas," June 1, 1908. Gelatin silver print, 4 x 5 in. Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives, gift of Sheldon Family in memory of their father Charles Sheldon. MS430_D7.74D.

Harry Karstens' Letter to Horace Albright

Fairbanks, July 25, 1918
Dear Mr. Albright: Received your letter of April 22 in regard to the first suggestion of making Mount McKinley district a park and am only too pleased to assist you in any way I can. We of this district have always considered the present park as one of the best all around hunting districts in Alaska. Plenty of sheep, moose, carraboo [sic] and bear, numbers of lynx, fox and wolverine and some wolves and the best of it is most of them stay within the limits of the present park.

My more thorough knowledge of that country came when Charles Sheldon of New York came in on a hunting trip and hired me as guide. I believe it was in 1906. We roamed along the range from between Mount Foraker and McKinley to very near the Nenana River. During the days travel and stopovers Sheldon would be taking in every nook and corner in the range. We made our home camp at timber line on the Middle Fork of the Toklat and from there we had small shelter camps in different sections. During our stay that summer Sheldon was very enthused about the country he couldn't get enough of it, out one morning and wouldn't get back till the next morning and most always alone, many a night I was most anctious [sic] about him. He was continually talking of the beauties of the country and the variety of the game and wouldn't it make an ideal park and game preserve, nothing would do but he must hunt in a whole year here and watch the actions of the game in the different seasons. And he did. He came in the following July hunting for the Biological Survey and stayed a year, during that time and after we had located the limits of the carraboo [sic] run. We would talk over the possible boundaries of a park and preserve which are laid out practically the same as the present park boundaries.

One thing which brings it home to me is, Sheldon promised to assist me to get the Wardenship if it went through. There are several of the old timers in the Kantishna country yet who know of Sheldon wishing to set aside that country for a park. Their names are Joe and Fanny Quigley, Jim Taylor, Joe Dalton, Charles McGonagall and several others. Sheldon was the first one I ever heard mention anything regarding a park anywhere in this country. If you want information in regard to the park, Sheldon is the man to go to, for he knows the park better than any man here. I have talked about the park since with a number of the boys, but last summer I got a little peeved where Thomas Riggs our present governor tried to tell me that he was the man that proposed the park. I told him of Sheldon starting it years ago, but he couldn't see it. Then he tried to talk me out of the wardenship, told me it would be better to get a concession to handle the tourist travel. I was thinking it over for a day or so when I found out that Wm. Raybourn, one of Riggs men had made a special trip out to Washington to put in his application. Raybourn is a fine man and if I cannot have the position I hope he gets it. If I can assist you at any time just drop a line to

Yours, H.P. Karstens

Horace Albright's Letter to Charles Sheldon

August 24, 1918
Dear Mr. Sheldon: I have just received a long letter from H.P. Karstens in regard to the original idea of establishing the Mount McKinley National Park. It is very interesting.

I have just returned from Yellowstone and have a lot ot tell you when I see you. I hope that we may meet soon.

With kindest regards, I am cordially yours, Horace M. Albright, Assistant Director

[1] Horace Albright was appointed Assistant Director of the National Park Service after the agency was established in 1916 but served as Acting Director from 1917-1919 while Director Stephen Mather was severely ill. Albright eventually became the Director in 1929. Director Albright visited Mount McKinley National Park in 1931.
[2] Karstens was Sheldon’s Interior Alaska guide in between 1906 and 1908. In 1918, Karstens was one of the candidates to become the first Superintendent of Mt. McKinley National Park but the park did not have an appropriation to hire until the summer of 1921. Sheldon recommended Karstens as the most qualified for the job but Governor Thomas Riggs preferred W.B. Reaburn—an early 20th century surveyor of the Alaska-Canada border.
[3] Before becoming governor, Thomas Riggs was a member of the Alaska Engineering Commission and assisted Sheldon and Belmore Browne in drafting the enabling legislation for Mount McKinley National Park in 1916. The legislation did not pass until February 26, 1917.

man standing outside a small wooden building in a forest
Superintendent Harry Karstens at Riley Creek Headquarters

Entry 9, Central Files, 1907-1939, Box 110, RG 79, National Archives, College Park.

Part of a series of articles titled Denali History Nuggets.

Last updated: January 21, 2020