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NPS Expansion: 1930s







New Deal



NPS 1933-39




Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s:
Administrative History

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This scholarly study by historians Unrau and Williss deals with a bewildering but exciting time approximately a half century ago when an extraordinary combination of circumstances occurred, having profound and lasting effect upon the National Park Service and leading, moreover, to sweeping changes in the Nation's ways of conserving and using its important historic places.

Horace Albright became the second director of the Service in the same year (1929) in which Herbert Hoover was inaugurated President of the United States. Also it happened in that year that the stock market collapsed and the Great Depression descended upon the country, forcing public attention to shift abruptly from international matters where it so long had been centered to urgent new economic and social issues.

The new public mood, demanding positive governmental action in dealing with the many problems now arising, fitted nicely the natural inclinations of the incoming director, who! skillful administrator in the Service as he had already demonstrated, was nevertheless a man of unusual imagination and daring, quick to seize upon innovative solutions to unusually complicated problems. Intuitively, too, Mr. Albright sensed the fact that the President, despite a certain cautious nature, greatly desired to do whatever he could to alleviate the harsh realities of the Depression- -even to the extent of putting into operation his own special kind of "New Deal."

So the director had scarcely taken up his new duties in the Service before he was involved in the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, extending from above Georgetown all the way to Mount Vernon; also in the development with congressional approval of two new major parks, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, with connecting links, the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway; and, as if all this were not enough, Mr. Albright had persuaded those just then engaged in the program for George Washington's birthplace to turn over the site to the Service along with sufficient funds to complete the "restoration" and to ensure its temporary custody and maintenance.

Last but certainly not least among the interests demanding the director's attention was the tremendous plan for a new "monument'' to be called Colonial, including Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg in Virginia. All three historic sites were to be connected by a parkway, and in this connection was the astonishing proposal of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to "restore" in its entirety colonial Williamsburg. Mr. Rockefeller, already a warm friend of the Service and of Mr. Albright himself, was ready to help acquire the lands necessary for the Service's construction of the proposed parkway, just as he had recently helped in the Grand Teton-Jackson Hole park project in Wyoming and earlier at Acadia National Park in Maine.

A busy Albright could still find time to plan in 1931 the giant celebration and pageant at Yorktown, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the surrender there of Lord Cornwallis to General Washington. Among the thousands in attendance that bright October day were President Herbert Hoover himself and his cabinet as well as the thirteen governors of states representing the original colonies. One of these was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and another distinguished guest was the grand old warrior of World War One fame, General John J. Pershing. The Yorktown affair proved to be an unqualified success, let it be noted, and it had the effect of putting the Service very high in the public mind as an agency concerned with the protection and skillful use of a major historic site. With the momentum thus engendered, it was perhaps less difficult in 1932-33 to persuade Congress to set aside under Service jurisdiction another great historic shrine, to be known henceforth as the Morristown (New Jersey) National Historical Park.

The emergence in 1933 of a full scale Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings, the product of a series of "New Deal" measures and therefore at first temporary in nature, followed logically certain earlier steps taken by the National Park Service in the field of historical preservation and use. In this connection, the creation in 1930 of Colonial and George Washington's birthplace "monument" in Virginia as well as the passage by Congress of the Morristown National Historical Park bill in 1933 naturally deserve attention. Then, too, in 1931, linked with plans for the never-to-be-forgotten Yorktown pageant and celebration, there had been organized within the Branch of Education and Interpretation a so-called "Division of History," and that in turn had given rise to the appointment of a chief historian and two field park historians.

Plans for the new historical branch were underway almost as soon as the chief historian entered upon his duties! but, lacking at that juncture the necessary funds for the project, it remained for developments transpiring in the first year of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to make possible the decision to proceed. First, with the far-reaching reorganization of government, there were transferred that year to the Service from several other departments and agencies a great galaxy of historic places including the national military parks and monuments, the Statue of Liberty, the Spanish forts of St. Augustine, Florida, and Fort McHenry at Baltimore, the scene of the writing of the National Anthem.

The second major development at that time was the launching of numerous "New Deal" programs (like the "alphabet series," beginning with the CCC and followed by projects such as the PWA, the FERA, and WPA), designed in each case to give government employment to people out of work. It may require a bit of imagination out of the ordinary to find a logical connection between a CCC operation in a newly acquired military park, placed there to develop trails and markers or for maintenance purposes, and the realization of a new Branch of History and the appointment of large numbers of individuals designated as "historical technicians'' to perform a variety of duties within the Service. Nevertheless, the connecting link, however tenuous and difficult to see, was established.

As a result, the chief historian, now placed in administrative charge of the new branch, sought to fill a myriad of new positions; and in the weeks and months that followed, hectic in the extreme though they were, this task was fulfilled, as well as the responsibility for training scores of new recruits ("academic greenhorns" they sometimes were called), so that eventually they might look forward to becoming bona fide Park Service professionals.

Then, of course, there were many other demands upon the acting chief of the new branch. He was expected to visit each of the newly acquired historical areas and overlook the work of the personnel there; he was also expected to visit and investigate many places being suggested by members of Congress and their clients for possible inclusion in the Service; and then there were numerous calls for special appearances at meetings on the "Hill" and before congressional committees, as well as requests to speak upon the theme of history within the Service; and in certain instances, too, the chief historian might be expected merely to act as an official representative of his organization at whatever occasion there might be. On a certain Fourth of July, for example, the "chief" traveled to Antietam and delivered the principal address of the day, after which with a police escort leading the way he was taken all the way to Gettysburg, where, being the official representative of the Department of the Interior, he sat directly behind the President (Mr. Roosevelt) while listening to the speech there being delivered. Each "chore," while certainly interesting and challenging, could be time consuming, too, so that on many occasions there just did not seem to be enough hours and days in which to get the work done.

Nevertheless, the time came in 1935 to design and write, and then to persuade Congress to enact, a Historic Sites Act, providing a formal and legal basis for the branch within the Service and laying the foundation for a national program of permanent nature in the field of historic site preservation, all of course under National Park Service leadership. With this task accomplished, the moment had come for the realization finally of the grand design envisioned by Horace Albright and shared by him with this writer in their first legendary encounter so long ago in a railroad station in Omaha, Nebraska.

By Dr. Verne E. Chatelain,
the first chief historian of the National Park Service,
Department of the Interior

Dr. Verne Chatelain
Dr. Verne E. Chatelain, ca. 1930s


Last Modified: Tues, Mar 14 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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