Walter Fry: Ambassador of Nature

Walter Fry, the parks' first naturalist
Walter Fry helped start the first nature guide service in the parks.

NPS Photo


By Malinee Crapsey (This article first appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of The Sequoia Bark)

"When I first met Judge Fry, under his own grand old trees, I knew that I was meeting a man of rare distinction..."

And this from Colonel John White, a man of no small distinction himself who was superintendent and guiding force of these parks for 25 years. The object of his esteem, Walter Fry, not only knew these mountains and their famous trees intimately, but significantly influenced their fate.

In 1888 Walter Fry came to know the sequoias as a logger, having left hardship in the Midwest for a new life in the Sierra. After spending five days with a team of five men sawing a single sequoia, he counted the growth rings on the fallen giant. The answer shocked him into changing careers. In just a few days they had ended 3,266 years of growth.

Two years later a petition was circulating, calling for a new national park to protect the sequoias. The third signature was Walter Fry's.

Fry moved his family from the San Joaquin Valley to Three Rivers after the park was created in 1890, making it easier to pursue his interest in this beautiful area. Although the military ran the park then, in 1901 civilian Fry was hired as road foreman. In 1905 he became a park ranger.

By 1910 Fry was Chief Ranger, managing the parks for the military superintendents that were appointed to supervise each summer. When the Army gave up caretaking the parks in 1914, the choice for civilian superintendent was a clear one. Fry went on to lead the parks through challenging times—a world war and the creation of the National Park Service.

When Col. White became superintendent in 1920, Fry shifted jobs again, becoming U.S. Commissioner, or federal judge, in the parks. White recognized his worth immediately: "It would be almost impossible to overstate the affection and esteem in which Judge Fry is held by both Park employees and visitors. He has been able to enforce park regulations with such sympathetic insight into the needs of visitors and residents that the enforcement has won friends for the Park Service."

It was in 1922 that Fry got involved with what may have been his most enduring contribution, the first Nature Guide Service for the public. Again, the obvious leader for the program was the man who had spent countless hours outdoors, observing the intricacies of life here. Now he influenced the park by influencing visitors, passing on his deep appreciation of the place.

Until he retired in 1930 at age 71, Fry offered walks, wrote nature bulletins and organized visitor centers; the thousands of visitors he touched in turn became ambassadors for the landscape he loved so much.

It is for this reason that the nature center at Lodgepole Campground was rededicated as the "Walter Fry Nature Center" in the summer of 1994. To this building children come by the thousands each summer for hands-on involvement with the stuff of these parks: monster trees, awesome geology and fascinating wildlife. Each child takes home a sense of the Sierra, and in so doing, carries on a bit of Judge Walter Fry's distinctive legacy.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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