On-line Book
Book Cover to Mission 66 Visitor Centers. With image of Dinosaur NM Visitor Center, view from beneath ramp


Table of Contentss




Wright Brothers


Pertified Forest

Rocky Mountain

Cecil Doty



Appendix I

Appendix II

Appendix III

Appendix IV

Mission 66 Visitor Centers
National Park Service Arrowhead

The Origins of Mission 66

In 1949, Newton Drury, director of the National Park Service, described the parks as "victims of the war." [1] Neglected since the New Deal era improvements of the 1930s, the national parks were in desperate need of funds for basic maintenance, not to mention protection from an increasing number of visitors. Between 1931 and 1948, total visits to the national park system jumped from about 3,500,000 to almost 30,000,000, but park facilities remained essentially as they were before the war. Without immediate improvements, the parks risked losing the "nature" that attracted people to them. Already, the floor of Yosemite Valley had become a parking lot littered with cars, tents, and refuse. Brilliant Pool, a popular thermal feature at Yellowstone, looked like a trash pit. Drury realized that new, modern facilities could help conserve park land by limiting public impact on fragile natural areas. But the necessary improvements required significantly larger appropriations from Congress. Throughout his tenure, Drury remained unable to obtain the necessary federal support for his program. [2]

As Drury worried about "the dilemma of our parks," and basic methods of sustaining them, he also participated in planning a major architectural event: the competition for the design of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Conceived during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, the memorial project lagged during World War II, but in 1945 the idea was revived and with it the added incentive of providing a symbol of national recovery. The advisor for the design competition, George Howe, was known for his collaboration with William Lescaze on the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) building in Philadelphia, the skyscraper that brought the International Style to mainstream America in 1932. The competition attracted national media attention and submissions from one hundred and seventy-two architects, including Eliel Saarinen, The Architect's Collaborative (founded by Walter Gropius), and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. [3] Fiske Kimball, William Wurster, and Richard Neutra were among the judges who unanimously awarded first prize to the design of Eliel's son, Eero Saarinen. The 630-foot stainless steel arch was a monument to westward expansion, an engineering feat and an icon of modernist architecture. The conception, design, and construction of the gateway extended from the New Deal (the era of Park Service Rustic) to Mission 66, the ten-year park development program founded in 1956. Bolstered by a decade of congressional funding, the Mission 66 program would result in the construction of countless roads and trail systems and thousands of residential, maintenance, and administrative facilities, as well as the beginning of new methods for managing and conserving resources. When the arch was finally dedicated in 1968, Mission 66 had left a legacy of modern architecture in the national parks. [4]

Authorization for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was still pending in 1951, the year Conrad Wirth took over as director of the Park Service. Even more pressing problems of funding for new construction and facility maintenance remained unsolved. Over the next few years, the conditions Drury had described in 1949 would become a subject of public concern, not to mention ridicule. Social critic Bernard DeVoto led the crusade for park improvement with an article in his Harper's column, "The Easy Chair," entitled "Let's Close the National Parks," which suggested keeping the parks from the public until funds could be found to maintain them properly. [5] The story caught the attention of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a longtime park patron, who wrote to President Eisenhower of his concern over this potential "national tragedy." Eisenhower's staff responded with a standard apology, but Rockefeller's letter did cause the President to request a briefing from Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay on conditions in the parks. [6] As the need for massive "renovation" of the Park Service entered the public forum and reached the President's desk, the Park Service's pressing maintenance problems continued to mount. [7]

During the summer of 1954, Department of the Interior Undersecretary Ralph Tudor began a reorganization of his department that would indirectly result in the Mission 66 program. The leadership hierarchy of each bureau was "realigned" and a Technical Review Section established to coordinate the agencies. This procedure included a board of businessmen that examined Park Service policies in the hope of streamlining the bureaucracy. Issues of western mineral and water rights were of particular concern at the time because of the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of the Echo Park Dam at Dinosaur National Monument. Horace M. Albright, former director of the Park Service, served on an advisory committee for mineral resources. According to historian Elmo Richardson, the reorganization allowed Conrad Wirth to focus attention on the crisis in the Park Service, and its history of "subjective and procedural problems." Once the door was open, Wirth had a captive audience for his improvement program. [8]

Director Wirth's recollection of the birth of Mission 66 is fittingly more dramatic. In Parks, Politics and the People, Wirth remembers one "weekend in February, 1955," when he conceived of a comprehensive program to launch the Park Service into the modern age. [9] The brainstorm occurred once Wirth envisioned the Park Service's dilemma through the eyes of a congressman. Rather than submit a yearly budget, as in the past, he would ask for an entire decade of funding, thereby ensuring money for building projects that might last many years. Congressmen who wanted real improvements for the parks in their districts would support increased appropriations for the entire construction period. Armed with a secure budget, the program would generate public support through its missionary status and implied celebration of the Park Service's golden anniversary in 1966. Mission 66 would allow the Park Service to repair and build roads, bridges and trails, hire additional employees, construct new facilities ranging from campsites to administration buildings, improve employee housing, and obtain land for future parks. This effort would require more than 670 million dollars over the next decade. From its birth, Mission 66 was touted as a program to elevate the parks to modern standards of comfort and efficiency, as well as an attempt to conserve natural resources. Wirth immediately organized two committees to work on the Mission 66 program, a steering committee and a Mission 66 committee, with representatives from several branches of the Park Service, many of whom were to devote themselves full-time to the project. Lemuel Garrison put aside his new appointment as chief of conservation and protection to act as chairman of the steering committee. In his memoirs, Garrison captures the energy behind the mission and its fearless confrontation of park problems; each superintendent was asked to write a list of "everything needed to put 'his' park facilities into immediate condition for managing the current visitor load, while protecting the park itself." [10] They were also to estimate the number of visitors ten years in the future. During this early planning stage, the Mission 66 staff reviewed the history of Park Service development policy and began a pilot study of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, chosen as typical of parks with a range of problems. From this study, the Mission 66 staff derived a list of priorities for determining park needs, which would also assist the superintendents in their assessments. One result of the project was the creation of park standards throughout the system. Each park was to have a uniform entrance marker listing park resources, a minimum number of employees, paved trails to popular points of interest, and other amenities; visitors could expect the same basic facilities in every park. The Mount Rainier study also led to seven additional pilot studies, a sampling of parks of various types throughout the country. [11]

Mission 66 Committee (7 persons)
Figure 1. Mission 66 Committee, 1956 (left to right: Howard Stagner, naturalist; Bob Coates, economist; Jack Dodd, forester; Bill Carnes, landscape architect; Harold Smith, fiscal; Roy Appleman, historian; Ray Freeman, landscape architect).
(Courtesy National Park Service Historic Photograph Collections, Harpers Ferry Center.)

During the course of its research, the planning staff benefited from public and personnel interviews and more general information from a national survey. In April 1955, private funding was obtained for "A Survey of the Public Concerning the National Parks." Audience Research, Inc., polled a national sample of 1,754 American adults to determine the level of knowledge about parks and park-related concerns. Although results indicate an appalling lack of education—twenty-two percent couldn't name a single park—they also confirmed the continued rapid increase in visitation and the general dissatisfaction of those who had made park visits. Over two-thirds of the visitors voiced complaints, the most common of which were overcrowding and the need for overnight accommodations. Of those visitors with suggestions for improvement, eighteen percent desired "more information about the sights to be seen, plaques, printed material, guide maps, lectures, etc." This response, second only to "more facilities for sleeping," demonstrated the public desire for the kinds of interpretive services gathered together in future visitor centers. [12]

Mrs. Singer holding bison and elk meat with tong as Conrad Wirth, Clarence Davis, Russel Singer look on.
Figure 2. Conrad Wirth, second from left, sampling bison and elk meat at the American Pioneer Dinner, 1956. Undersecretary Clarence Davis is on the left and Mrs. Singer and Russell Singer, ex-vice president of the American Automobile Association, are on the right. Photograph by Abbie Rowe.
(Courtesy National Park Service Historic Photograph Collections, Harpers Ferry Center.)

By necessity, Wirth's preliminary planning of the Mission 66 program was geared towards promotion, and, in particular, selling his idea to Congress. Along with the pilot studies, the staff was to produce a basic outline of the program for the Public Service Conference at Great Smoky Mountains on September 18, 1955. Since a future meeting with the President had been confirmed in May, Wirth hoped to reserve "Mission 66" until then, but news of the program leaked out after the conference. In anticipation of the congressional meeting, the staff began work on a promotional booklet and final report. [13] After several dry runs and administrative delays, Wirth introduced Mission 66 to the President and his cabinet on January 27, 1956. The program received immediate approval from the President. The necessary documents for final authorization were signed in early February, and Mission 66 was officially introduced to the public at an American Pioneer Dinner held at the Department of the Interior on February 8th. Highlights of this event included a presentation by Wirth, a Walt Disney movie entitled "Adventure in the National Parks," and the circulation of Our Heritage, a promotional booklet. Wirth himself was involved in the minute details of his carefully orchestrated marketing campaign. He personally chose the cover for Our Heritage—the Riley family of Williamsburg, Virginia, superimposed over a photograph of the liberty bell. The Rileys represented the ideal American family, the most desirable park visitors. Having achieved its immediate goals, the Mission 66 organizational staff was disbanded that month. A core group of the original members remained to help direct the ongoing program. [14]

Our Heritage showing a typical American family standing behind the huge Philadelphia Bell.
Figure 3. Our Heritage, brochure cover, National Park Service, 1955.

CONTINUED continued



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