Big Bend
Administrative History
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A Brighter Day: Improved Prospects for Big Bend National Park, 1940

In a most ironic twist to the creation of Big Bend National Park, prospects for acquisition of its vast acreage improved just as the clouds of war engulfed all of Europe. Six years of persistent promotion by the National Park Service and local sponsors had made the general public in Texas and the nation aware of the future NPS unit, while expansion of the Lone Star economy in wartime meant increased tax revenues for the state legislature to distribute. Park service officials capitalized on all of these forces in play during 1940, adding tried-and-true strategies like highly publicized trips to the Big Bend, the projected windfall of tourism spending, and appeals to Texans' sense of pride in their state. At year's end, park promoters could detect a ray of hope that few could have imagined twelve months before: passage of a measure to purchase with state funds the 788,000 acres that would constitute the Texas's first national park.

One reason for Big Bend's good fortune in 1940 was the cumulative effect of New Deal investment in the state park system of Texas. The NPS chief of land planning prepared a memorandum on January 5 for Conrad Wirth, providing him with details of work in Texas that director Cammerer could use in his upcoming conference with the new Under Secretary of the Interior, Alvin Wirtz. Even better news was that the "Texas Big Bend National Park Association [had] employed Adrian Wychgel and associates of New York City to conduct the campaign to raise funds from private subscriptions" for the park. The NPS memorandum knew that "the campaign has not yet started but is expected to commence shortly." The land planning chief conceded that "it will be difficult to estimate the amount of funds that may be raised," but did note that Governor O'Daniel "apparently believes that it will be necessary to supplement the funds . . . from private subscription by State appropriations in order to raise the necessary amount." Big Bend also fit with a larger strategy unfolding in NPS circles to expand the agency's network in Texas. "For a number of years," said the land planning chief, "the Service has been interested in the proposal to establish a national seashore along the Texas Gulf Coast." The memorandum suggested that "perhaps the most suitable area is Padre Island, approximately 118 miles in length, extending from Corpus Christi to Point Isabel." The Santa Fe regional office hoped to send a review team into the field soon, but realized a problem similar to that facing Big Bend and nearly all potential park sites in Texas: "The chief difficulty here is the fact that the majority of the lands are in private ownership." [1]

This reference to NPS plans for Padre Island National Seashore revealed changing attitudes in Texas toward national parks. The land-planning chief told Cammerer that by early 1940 "consideration has been given the proposal to establish the Palo Duro National Monument along Palo Duro Canyon in Randall and Armstrong Counties near Amarillo, Texas." NPS inquiries found that "the State has contracted to purchase a portion of the lands involved at what appears to be an [exorbitant] price," but that "Representative Marvin Jones is interested in this project." In addition, said the memorandum, "Old Fort Griffin has been proposed as a unit of the national park system by Representative Garrett of Texas." The regional office found that, "after careful study of the proposal, the Service advised Representative Garrett that Fort Griffin appeared to be more suitable for administration as a State park." Then there was the "area in East Texas known as the Big Thicket," which the NPS planning chief described as "a unique type of biotic community [that] should be preserved because of the scientific and inspirational features found therein." As with Big Bend and Padre Island, however, the Big Thicket was "in private ownership and it is estimated that approximately $4,000,000 would be required for its purchase." [2]

Yet another area of Texas studied by the NPS in the late 1930s was "the proposal to extend Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico." This idea also "received consideration," said the land-planning chief, "but the area in Texas is privately owned and no funds are available for its purchase." Then the memorandum noted that "since the Under Secretary is a native of San Antonio, Texas, he may be interested in the La Villita project of the National Youth Administration, sponsored by the City of San Antonio." Responding to the mayor of that city, the Santa Fe Regional Office sent NPS technicians to study the site. "We have advised the mayor," the chief of land planning told Cammerer, "that the Service will be glad to cooperate in every possible way to insure the preservation of the historic values involved." Among its recommendations was that "the City employ a historian to supervise the work." Then the NPS land-planning chief remarked that "the most important historical area in Texas in which the Service is cooperating is the Goliad State Park at Goliad, Texas." The memorandum suggested that "perhaps no other part of the United States offers in as pure and untouched a condition, material evidences of the influence of the padre, the soldier, and the settler illustrated by the mission, the presidio and the town." The land-planning chief, as with the other Texas sites under consideration, offered Cammerer a written report on Goliad, "with accompanying photographs," for the discussion that the NPS director would have with the native Texan who had become the Interior department's undersecretary. [3]

As the park service explored new areas of Texas for inclusion in the NPS system, Horace Morelock persisted in his efforts to stimulate interest in Big Bend's private fundraising campaign. Rumor had it that Amon Carter would commence the initiative before the end of February, and the Sul Ross president contacted Representative Ewing Thomason to take full advantage of the publicity. One feature that Morelock believed would ensure a successful campaign was mention of the international park in the same press releases going out to newspapers statewide. Thomason then wrote Interior Secretary Harold Ickes on the subject. Quoting Morelock, the El Paso congressman asked: "'Do you not think that we should immediately take the necessary steps to get the National Park Service of Mexico City to be ready to announce that the 400,000 acres just across the border will be available when and if the National Park on this side of the Rio Grande is a reality.'" Again using Morelock's words, Thomason told Ickes that, "'if I interpret properly the many questions that have been asked me relative to the international phase of the park, I think publicity of this kind released at the time of the start of the campaign in Texas will bring at least 30 percent more money from Texas people than you will get otherwise.'" The El Paso representative noted that "Dr. Morelock suggests that a special trip be planned to Mexico City to work out details," and that the Sul Ross president "desires to enlist your good offices to the end that there be proper Government participation in such a trip." Thomason knew of Ickes's "very deep interest in the establishment of the Big Bend Park," and thus hoped that the Interior department "will render all possible cooperation." The Interior secretary concurred, advising Thomason that "Dr. Morelock's suggestion should be taken up with the Department of State." Should that agency agree, said Ickes, "this Department will be glad to render all possible cooperation" through the NPS regional office in Santa Fe. [4]

Simultaneous with his appeal to Harold Ickes, Morelock worked with the influential Fort Worth Garden Club to sponsor a luncheon to raise funds for the Big Bend land-acquisition campaign. From the dollar paid by attendees at the February luncheon, 25 cents went towards the land-acquisition fund. Amon Carter had agreed to preside at the gathering of dignitaries and club members, with one newspaper account claiming that "many out-of-town reservations are expected." The NPS's Region III sent several members of its Texas state office, who joined with the president of the Texas State College for Women, based in Denton. The group heard Morelock speak on "The Educational Advantages of the Big Bend National Park." Carter then addressed the gathering with remarks about the fundraising venture, and introduced Sul Ross's Dr. Preston Smith, who presented color slides of the future park site. The group also witnessed a fashion show of "recreational togs" that one might wear to Big Bend, and watched a square dance that the program said was "dedicated to Mr. Amon G. Carter." They viewed a display of outdoor camping equipment suitable for the ruggedness of the new park, and dined on a menu created to evoke the sense of mystery and wonder that marked the promotional literature about Big Bend for nearly a decade: Horsetail Cataract shrimp cocktail, Pack Saddle chicken, Paint Gap Hills green beans, Green Gulch Canyon salad, Del Carmen barbecue sauce, Mariscal sweet potatoes, Baldy Peak rolls and doughnuts, Chisos Mountains pie, and Capote Falls coffee. [5]

Soon after the high-profile luncheon in Fort Worth in support of the fundraising campaign, Representative Thomason asked for permission to inform his colleagues in Congress of the merits of Big Bend National Park. On April 3, Thomason delivered an address that included a lengthy article from the El Paso Times written by Milton Hill. The El Paso congressman told the House: "The Big Bend is literally what the name implies." Thomason recounted how in 1935 he had sponsored the legislation authorizing creation of the park, highlighting how "this act made no mention of funds for purchase of the necessary land, as it is against the policy of the Federal Government to appropriate money to buy land for national park areas." The nation's lawmakers, Thomason noted, "expected that adequate appropriation by the State legislature will be made and supplemented by funds which shall be raised through private subscription." Since Thomason's initial effort on behalf of Big Bend, "the Government made a substantial contribution to the fund for purchase of land in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." Thomason had voted for this measure, "as I felt that Federal funds could not be expended to a more worth-while end." He then stated rhetorically: "I wish my colleagues would support me in an appropriation for the Big Bend Park." He wrote that "the people not only of my district but the entire State are making a vigorous campaign at this time to raise money to buy the land." Yet "up to this time nothing like a sufficient amount has been raised." The Texas legislature in 1937 had appropriated $750,000 for land acquisition, only to have it vetoed by Governor Allred "on the ground that the financial condition of the State did not warrant the outlay." Thomason did express optimism that Governor O'Daniel's public support of the project would influence the state's lawmakers, and that "funds may be made available at the next session of the legislature." [6]

Beyond the financial details of the land-acquisition program, Thomason wished to link Big Bend's creation to the worsening crisis in Europe. "A vital need in the world today," said the El Paso representative, "is cultural and economic understanding between countries." He predicted that "an international park on our southern border would be a means of promoting contacts that would be not only interesting and instructive, but invaluable to the people of both countries." Thomason then focused upon the intrinsic benefits of a national park such as Big Bend. "As our country nears the saturation point in population," said Thomason, "we are forcibly reminded of the need of extensive recreation areas that shall be established in perpetuity." Thomason claimed that "there are no more public lands that may be set aside for national park purposes and unless the Federal Government establishes the policy of acquiring areas of outstanding scenic aspects for such use, then our people must raise funds and buy them." Texans "welcome all the help our neighbors will give us in the establishment of Big Bend Park," said Thomason, "which will be enjoyed by people from every section of our own country and travelers throughout the world." [7]

In order to dramatize that beauty, and also to encourage those donations (and perhaps a congressional rescue of the fundraising campaign), Thomason then introduced into the record Milton Hill's story about the value of Big Bend to travelers and locals alike. "To become a national park," said the Methodist minister from Pecos, Texas, "a region must have exceptional qualifications." For many of Hill's west Texas neighbors, "it is a little difficult for us to realize that right here at our back door is such a place" as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Mount Rainier National Parks. Lone Star citizens, Hill admitted, "have been in the habit of thinking of beautiful and picturesque places as being far, far away in some distant State." Thus it came as a pleasant surprise to Hill that "the national park people, who are familiar with the scenery of the entire Nation tell us that the Big Bend does qualify." Hill then reminisced about his own youth, where "I worked one season in Yellowstone Park, and I remember how disappointed some tourists were because Yellowstone did not have flower beds with iron fences around them." This, said Hill, "was their idea of a park." He then warned readers of the El Paso Times: "Someone [of this persuasion] might form an entirely wrong impression of the Big Bend Park." They instead should come prepared for a place whose "outstanding feature is grand and spectacular desert and mountain scenery, and it is a wonderful example of the unspoiled wilderness of the Southwest and of the health-giving atmosphere that goes with it." [8]

To aid the potential visitor, donor, and state or federal lawmaker, Hill outlined what he considered the best trips one could take in the future national park. "I have visited the Chisos fully 15 times," he wrote, "and each time this scene [Green Gulch] becomes more impressive and beautiful to me." "Very fortunate is the visitor," Hill continued, "who sees the clouds when they hang low in the mountains and drift among the great cliffs and crags." Hill himself had "seen them pour down through the clefts in immense cascades of white vapor." Green Gulch carried the visitor into the Chisos Basin and its C. C. C. camp, "where a company of boys are at work." Once one reached the "Window," a visitor could glimpse the quicksilver-mining town of Terlingua, and "beyond it the distant blue Bofecillas Mountains." From the Window, Hill encouraged the traveler to choose between a footpath "through a narrow, winding gorge with springs and a beautiful little creek," or to hike "to the head of Juniper Canyon, a great trough which comes into the mountains from the east." It was the third option for the Big Bend visitor, however, that Hill considered "the finest in the mountains." One rode horseback "through the forest to the pass just west of Emory [Peak]," then "[went] by an old lake bed, the Laguna, turn[ed] to the east, and pass[ed] under the south side of Mount Emory." In so doing, the traveler encountered Blue Creek Canyon, where "all around are great forested mountains." To the north stood Boot Canyon, and to the south the rim where one stood "on the edge of a tremendous escarpment, 6,000 feet higher than the Rio Grande out there below you." The horseback rider encountered "a land of clouds and trees; far below is the desert wilderness." Hill could only conclude: "The national park people are accustomed to grand and spectacular scenery and are not easily made enthusiastic." Thus "it means something," said the Pecos minister, "when they state that they consider this as magnificent as view as can be found in the United States." [9]

Once visitors availed themselves of wonders such as these, Hill believed that they would stay to appreciate some of the other attractions that Big Bend had to offer. "The park will be a large-scale museum for the botanist," wrote Hill, and "geologically the region is one of the most interesting on the continent." Yet "equally remarkable are the magnificent canyons of the Rio Grande," with Hill claiming that "it will be possible for tourists to make the trip up into the [Santa Elena] Canyon with little difficulty and no danger." He found that "words are utterly inadequate to describe the magnificence and grandeur of this canyon." Downriver in Mariscal Canyon, Hill reiterated his thoughts from earlier publications. "It has marvelous rock sculptures," said Hill, "wonderfully varied scenery, and it can be traversed by boats, with no danger when the river is normal." The Rio Grande canyons, he summarized, "will some day be recognized among the most magnificent and beautiful pieces of scenery in the United States." Even so, the visitor also should venture into "the desert badlands, where the earth has been carved into weird and fantastic shapes with rich and beautiful coloring," formations that Hill contended "will surpass the noted badlands of South Dakota and Nebraska." He then concluded that "in our hurried and busy age there is needed a region such as this, rich in grand and varied scenery, mild and invigorating in climate, a place of healing and restoration of mind and body." The park would be of "inestimable value . . . for the people of the entire Nation and for our own great State and its citizenship." Donors to the land-acquisition fund thus would ensure "the greatest single step ever taken in the history of the State of Texas." [10]

Thomason's speech to Congress, and the moving prose of Reverend Hill, became public as the NPS changed management in Santa Fe. Colonel John White replaced Hillory Tolson as director of Region III, and worked with Alvin Wirtz to grasp the politics of park building in Texas. Wirtz corresponded with former Texas lieutenant governor Walter Woodul, advising him that White would visit on an upcoming tour of Texas. "I would like for you," said Wirtz," to have Col. White tell you what other and poorer states than Texas have done in the matter of putting up funds, both private and public, for the acquisition of land needed for the establishment of national parks." In addition, the undersecretary hoped that Woodul and White could discuss "particularly the States of Tennessee and Kentucky with respect to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." [11]

To Amon Carter, Wirtz offered more detailed information about the new Region III director. "I have assured Colonel White," said the undersecretary, "that you, as Chairman of the Texas Big Bend Park Association, are the man to get the job done." Wirtz then advised Carter: "Since I have become connected with the Department of the Interior and have had the Park Service under my direction, I have come to realize what a great asset a national park can be to our State." He also apologized for "how backward we have been on the Big Bend project." It bothered Wirtz that "poor states such as Tennessee and Kentucky have raised huge sums of money for the acquisition of lands necessary to the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." The undersecretary especially worried that "the funds required of those states are much larger than [have] been asked of Texas;" monies that Wirtz pointedly noted "were raised by private donation," even as he forgot the substantial contributions by the states and the federal government. Wirtz also told Carter: "Of course, the state [of Texas] could afford to spend the money out of its general treasury, if it had any, as the traffic going to the park would practically all traverse the entire state." The "contributions in the way of gasoline taxes alone," he surmised, "would more than repay the State on its investment." [12]

Cultivating Amon Carter in the spring of 1940 was an important feature of NPS work on Big Bend. Milo S. Christiansen, acting assistant director for Region III, tried to contact the Star Telegram publisher on April 10, reaching instead James Record. From him Christiansen learned that Carter planned to open the Big Bend fundraising office on May 15, "that the subsequent 90 days would be spent on a preliminary campaign, and that the big drive will start with a big splurge the day after Labor Day." Carter wanted this portion of the campaign to last only fifteen days, with a "plan to have the whole thing through with by October 15." Christiansen informed Conrad Wirth that "at the present time the groundwork is all laid, and with good luck -- a good wet summer -- and the war situation does not get worse, it is figured they can clean it up in 15 days in September." Carter had agreed to employ Adrian Wychgel's firm to collect $1 million. In addition, Record advised Christiansen that "they have a lot of encouragement, and feel it is 'over the hill,'" with "some of the money . . . already raised." [13]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003