National Parks
The American Experience
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The Heritage of Achievement and Indifference

Happily the United States Government (warned by the results of having allowed the Falls of Niagara to become private property) determined that certain districts, discovered in various parts of the States, and noted for their exceeding beauty, should, by Act of Congress, be appropriated for evermore "for public use, resort, and recreation, and be inalienable for all time."

Lady C. F. Gordon-Cumming,
British traveler, 1878

More than a century ago, a small group of Americans pioneered a unique idea—the national park idea. It was the contention of this group that the natural "wonders" of the United States should not be handed out to a few profiteers, but rather held in trust for all people for all time. Gradually, as perceptions of the environment changed, national parks also became important for wilderness preservation, wildlife protection, and purposes closer to the concerns of ecologists. To be sure, the national park idea as we know it today did not emerge in finished form. More accurately, it evolved. Still, the values of the nineteenth century have remained influential, a fact which does much to explain why many national parks are still torn between the struggle for preservation and for use. Especially because most Americans still seek out spectacular scenery and natural phenomena, environmentalists caution that the public has little understanding of the restraints on visitation needed to protect the diversity of the parks as a whole. [1]

Who first conceived the idea of preservation is not known. Ancient civilizations of the Near East fostered landscape design and management long before the birth of Christ. By 700 B.C., for example, Assyrian noblemen sharpened their hunting, riding, and combat techniques in designated training reserves. These were copied by the great royal hunting enclosures of the Persian Empire, which flourished throughout Asia Minor between 550 and 350 B.C. It remained for the Greeks to democratize landscape esthetics; their larger towns and cities, including Athens, provided citizens with the agora, a plaza for public assembly, relaxation, and refreshment. Known for its fountains and tree-shaded walkways, the agora has been compared to the modern city park. [2]

Although urbanization throughout the Roman Empire led to similar experiments, Medieval Europe, like Asia Minor, reverted to the maintenance of open spaces exclusively for the ruling classes. Hunting once more became a primary use of these lands; in fact, the word "park" stems from this usage. Originally "parc" in Old French and Middle English, the term designated "an enclosed piece of ground stocked with beasts of the chase, held by prescription or by the king's grant." [3] Trespassers were punished severely, especially poachers who often were put to death.

With the possible exception of the Greeks and Romans, therefore, the park idea as now defined is modern in origin; only recently has it come to mean both protection and public access. Not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did the appreciation of landscapes and democratic ideals rise to prominence throughout the Western world. In Europe, and later the United States, with the rapid spread of cities, factories, and their attendant social dislocations, people came to question whether the Industrial Revolution really represented progress. Locked into the drudgery and grime of manufacturing communities, more and more people followed poets and philosophers in embracing nature as the avenue of escape. The Romantic Movement, for example, in its praise for the strange and mysterious in nature, by definition preferred landscapes only suggestive of human occupation. Thus ruined castles or crumbling fortresses were valued because of what they implied; a concern for detail would have destroyed the enjoyment of trying to recall their former grandeur through one's own imagination. Others held that the ultimate state of nature might be the absence of civilization altogether. So argued deists and primitivists, at least, the former because man's works supposedly obscured God's truths, the latter in the conviction that man seemed happiest in direct proportion to the absence of his own creations. [4]

The egalitarian ideals of the American and French revolutions further joined urbanization and industrialization in undermining traditional beliefs. As a result, throughout Europe royalty finally lost the power to dictate solely when and how parklands were to be opened to the public at large. In 1852, for example, the city of Paris took over the popular Bois de Boulogne from the crown, with the agreement that its woods and promenades would be cared for and improved. London's royal parks, initially opened to the populace during the eighteenth century at the discretion of the monarch, similarly were enlarged and maintained for public benefit. Another important milestone on the road to landscape democracy in Great Britain was Victoria Park, carved from London's crowded East End. Authorized in 1842, it was the first reserve not only managed, but expressly purchased, for public instead of private use. Its counterpart in Liverpool, Birkenhead Park, likewise was to remain, in the words of one American admirer, Frederick Law Olmsted, "entirely, unreservedly, and for ever, the people's own. The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen. ... Is it not," he concluded, "a grand, good thing?" [5]

Olmsted, the son of a prosperous Connecticut family, returned home from his first visit to the Continent in 1850. He was then twenty-eight years old, and his career as America's foremost designer and proponent of urban parks lay some years in the future. [6] Yet even as he praised Great Britain's commitment to provide urban refuges for the common man, the climate of opinion in the United States was already swinging decidedly in favor of the city park idea. As early as 1831 the Massachusetts legislature approved a "rural cemetery" on the outskirts of Boston, to be known as Mount Auburn. Shortly after its completion urban residents favored the site for picnicking, strolling, and solitude. Rural cemeteries caught on throughout the Northeast. By 1836 Brooklyn and Philadelphia, among other cities, were equally renowned for this popular, if unconventional, means of providing open space. [7]

If the nation could provide parklands for the dead, parklands for the living might also be realized. Two of the earliest proponents of the city park idea were Andrew Jackson Downing, a horticulturist, and the poet William Cullen Bryant. During the 1840s they called for the establishment of a large reserve within easy reach of New York City. Finally, in 1853 the New York legislature agreed to the plan by purchasing a rectangular site (the equivalent of approximately one square mile) on the outskirts of the metropolis. To be known as Central Park once the city had built up around it, the project launched Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, on their distinguished careers. [8]

Central Park set a precedent for preservation in the common interest more than a decade before realization of the national park idea. Still, while its debt to the city park is obvious, the national park evolved in response to environmental perceptions of a dramatically different kind. City parks were an eastern phenomenon, a refuge from the noise and pace of urban living. City dwellers wanted facilities for recreation, not scenic protection per se. Convenient access was of primary concern; a city park could be located anywhere, however distasteful the site. Portions of Central Park itself replaced run down farms, pig sties, and garbage dumps. Once a site had been obtained, the landscape architect readily made it pleasing to the eye by adding lakes, walkways, gardens, or playing fields as public demand warranted.

Later, of course, the placement of roads, trails, and over night lodgings in the national parks called upon similar artistry and sensitivity to existing natural features. Yet beyond these concessions to access and convenience, from the outset Americans understood intuitively that the national parks were different.

The striking dissimilarity was topographical. Unlike those who sought relief from the crowdedness and monotony of city streets, proponents of the national parks unveiled their idea against the backdrop of the American West. Grand, monumental scenery was the physical catalyst. The pioneers and explorers who emerged from the more subdued environments of the East found the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada overpowering in every respect. Cliffs and waterfalls thousands of feet high, canyons a mile deep, and soaring mountains covered with great conifers were awesome to people born and bred within reach of the Atlantic seaboard. It is therefore understandable why many national parks, as distinct from urban parks, were established long before their potential for recreation could be realized. In the West the protection of scenery by itself was justification enough for modifying the park idea.

As a visual experience, national parks went beyond the need for physical fitness or outdoor recreation. Indeed, the parks did not emerge merely as the end product of landscape appreciation for its own sake. Simply admiring the natural world was nothing unique to the people of the United States; the transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, themselves followed the example of the likes of Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Keats. The intellectual subtleties of transcendentalism, in any case, could hardly sustain the national park idea in a country as firmly committed to material progress as the United States.

The decision not only to admire nature but to preserve it required stronger incentives. Specifically, the impulse to bridge the gap between appreciation and protection needed catalysts of unquestionable drama and visibility. In the fate of Niagara Falls Americans found a compelling reason to give preservation more than a passing thought. Although then recognized both at home and abroad as the nation's most magnificent natural spectacle, as early as 1830 the falls suffered the insults of so-called sharpers and hucksters of every kind. While some located adjacent to the cataract to tap its endless stream of power, still more came to fleece the growing number of tourists attracted by completion of the Erie Canal, and, close behind, the railroads. The mixed blessings of Niagara's popularity were soon apparent. Private developers quickly acquired the best overlooks, then forced travelers to pay handsomely for the privilege of using them. By 1860 gatehouses and fences rimmed the falls from every angle. No less offensive were hackmen, curio hawkers, and tour guides, who matched their dishonesty with annoying persistence. [9]

A continuous parade of European visitors and commentators embarrassed the nation by condemning the commercialization of Niagara. [10] To be sure, although half the falls belonged to Canada, few mentioned this fact in defense of the United States; if Americans had no pride in their portion of the falls, they deserved no excuse. Among the earliest critics to write in this vein was Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1831, during the extended visit to the United States that led to his classic work, Democracy in America, he urged a friend to "hasten" to Niagara if he wished "to see this place in its grandeur. If you delay," he warned, "your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared... . I don't give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the cataract." [11]

By 1834 Tocqueville's worst fears had been confirmed, most memorably in the observations of a pair of English Congregational ministers, Andrew Reed and James Matheson. They noted that the American side now boasted the "shabby town" of Manchester. "Manchester and the falls of Niagara!" They made no effort to veil their disgust. "One has hardly the patience to record these things." Surely some "universal voice ought to interfere and prevent the money-seekers." The divines followed with nothing less than an appeal for international protection of the cataract. "Niagara does not belong to [individuals]; Niagara does not belong to Canada or America," they asserted. Rather "such spots should be deemed the property of civilized mankind." Their destruction, after all, compromised "the tastes, the morals, and the enjoyments of all men." [12]

If Reed and Matheson could have inspired their own countrymen to take action, perhaps England, and not the United States, would now be credited as the inventor of the national park idea. England certainly had a comparable opportunity, until Canada won its independence in 1867; the provinces boasted a variety of natural wonders, many on a par with those of the western United States. European countries simply lacked an equal provocation to originate the national park idea. If not for Great Britain, whose cultural identity was secure, for the United States each disparagement about its indifference to the fate of its natural wonders hit home. Although only verbal barbs, they unmistakably accused Americans of having no pride in themselves or in their past. "By George, you would think so indeed, if you had the chance of seeing the Falls of Niagara twice in ten years," said another English traveler, Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle, repeating the popular charge in 1849. Granted, by now the fate of the falls was "a well-worn tale." Yet "so old a friend as the Falls of Niagara; for you must have read about those before you read Robinson Crusoe," surely deserved better than injury "by the Utilitarian mania." But "the Yankees [have] put an ugly shot tower on the brink of the Horseshoe," he lamented, "and they are about to consummate the barbarism by throwing a wire bridge ... over the river just below the American Fall.... What they will not do next in their freaks it is difficult to surmise," he concluded, then echoed Reed's and Matheson's disgust: "but it requires very little more to show that patriotism, taste, and self-esteem, are not the leading features in the character of the inhabitants of this part of the world." [13]

Later in United States history, when intellectuals had greater confidence in their nation's achievements, such derision would be more easily discounted. But now the United States agonized in the shadow of European standards. Unlike the Old World, the new nation lacked an established past, particularly as expressed in art, architecture, and literature. In the Romantic tradition nationalists looked to scenery as one form of compensation. Yet even the landscapes of the United States, knowledge of which was then confined to those in the eastern half of the continent, were nothing extraordinary. Confronted with the obvious, Americans had little choice but to admit that the landmarks of Europe, especially the Alps, were no less magnificent. Prior to 1850 America's best claim to scenic superiority was Niagara Falls, which, most Europeans themselves conceded, surpassed comparable examples in the Old World. But the onslaught of commercialism robbed the cataract of credibility as a cultural legacy. A monument, whether human or natural in origin, implies some semblance of public control over its fate. But the private ownership of the land adjoining Niagara Falls compromised that ideal, as noted by Tocqueville, Reed, Matheson, Bonnycastle, and their contemporaries.

Redemption for the United States lay in westward expansion. As if reprieved, between 1846 and 1848 the nation acquired the most spectacular portions of the continent, including the Rocky Mountains and Pacific slope. Distance magnified their appeal, the more so as easterners endured urban drudgery, crowdedness, and monotony. This dichotomy between the settled East and frontier West further explains the timing of the national park idea. In effect the East was the audience to frontier events. For the West was a stage, a setting for the adventure stories, travel accounts, and dramatic paintings that characterized so much of the period. Indeed, Americans conquered the region precisely as popular literature, art, and professional journalism came of age. While the last frontier passed into history, the nation watched intently, if not in the field then through its dime novelists, newspaper correspondents, engravers, artists, and explorers. [14]

As each of these groups glorified the West, Americans became aware that here the nation could redeem itself of the shame of Niagara Falls and prove its citizens worthy of great landmarks. Much as Europe retained custody of the artifacts of Western Civilization, so in the West the United States had one final opportunity to protect a truly convincing semblance of historical continuity through landscape. Niagara Falls, as the lesson of past indifference, warned Americans about the need to guard against similar encroachments on their new-found wonderland. For although the grandeur of the Far West inspired the national park idea, eastern men invented and shaped it. Thus as the nation moved west, the specter of Niagara remained fresh in the minds of those many people who had witnessed its disfigurement firsthand. These included Frederick Law Olmsted, whose familiarity with the cataract dated as far back as boyhood visits in 1828 and 1834. [15] Between 1879 and 1885 he and a few close associates aroused the nation in support of efforts by the state of New York to restore the cataract and its environs to their natural condition. [16] (Ontario followed suit with dedication of its provincial park in 1888.) Still, having opened the West, Americans finally could admit that the East as a whole was too commonplace to surpass the scenic landmarks of Europe. The likes of Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone, by way of contrast, needed no apologies. But only if they were faithfully preserved from abuse (the fate of Niagara still aroused the nation's conscience) would they be truly convincing proof of the New World's cultural promise. Here at last—in the blending of the eastern mind and the western experience—was the enduring spark for the American inspiration of national parks.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/prologue.htm — 17-Mar-2004