Walter Fry: Ambassador of Nature

An elderly man wearing a double-breasted suit coat and tie and a flat-brimmed park ranger hat stands among ferns and other forest plants. Only his upper body is visible.
Walter Fry's lasting legacy was the creation of the first nature guide service in the parks.

NPS Photo


A Life Changed by Sequoias

Walter Fry’s life was intertwined with giant sequoias for a half-century. Thirty of those years were in service to Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park, the predecessor of today’s Kings Canyon National Park.

Born in 1859, Fry first heard of giant sequoias as a boy in Kansas in the 1860s. Hard times in the American Midwest led to Fry moving his family to California in the 1880s in search of better fortunes. The first chapter of his life in California was as a farmer near Tulare, California.

In 1888 giant sequoias entered Fry’s life when he took a job logging giant sequoias near Grant Grove. 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 the life of a 3,266 year old sequoia.

Two years later, in 1890, a petition was circulating calling for a new national park to protect the sequoias. The third signature was Walter Fry's. In September of that year the park was established by Congress, and in 1895 Fry relocated to the small community of Three Rivers, California, near the entry points to Sequoia National Park, where he would live for the remainder of his life.

A man with a mustache, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a jacket sits in a saddle on the back of a horse while holding the horse's reins. The horse stands in front of a large sequoia trunk. A dog stands in the foreground looking away from the camera.
Walter Fry riding horseback on patrol in a sequoia grove during his time as a ranger, probably between 1905-1914.

NPS photo

The First Civilian Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks

Fry’s career with the parks began in July 1901, when he signed on as road construction foreman for Sequoia National Park. Over the next three summers, working under the direction of army officers, Fry led on-the-ground efforts to repair and re-establish the Colony Mill Road, which was the first road into the Giant Forest.

In July 1905, Fry became a civilian park ranger, one of a handful appointed to assist the cavalry troops then in charge of the parks. From this position, he became the chief park ranger in 1912, a position that made him acting superintendent of the park during the winter months when the troops were not present.

When the Army gave up caretaking the parks in 1914, the choice for civilian superintendent was a clear one. Fry became superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, a position he would hold for the next six years.
Ranger work in the early 20th Century had a very different character than in more recent times, and Fry’s primary duty was to keep an eye on all corners of the two parks. He later calculated that during the early years of his government employment, he rode over 50,000 miles on horseback on mountain trails. During that time, he observed the natural world carefully andkept extensive notes about the parks’ flora and fauna. These observations laid the foundation for the later phase of his career.

Fry became an employee of the National Park Service when the agency was created in 1916, but it was not until the World War I had ended that the new agency began to make changes in how the parks were run. Sequoia’s moment of change arrived in the summer of 1920, when Director Steven Mather replaced him with a man of his own choosing: John White.

Yet another life chapter began as Fry shifted jobs, becoming a U.S. Commissioner, or federal magistrate 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." He retained this responsibility for the next 22 years, eventually pre-siding over more than 200 misdemeanor-level court cases within the two parks.

A portion of a typed page dated June 12, 1922, that describes the creation of the Nature Guide Service at Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. It designates Walter Fry as the first director of the service at the park.
Introductory page from "Sequoia National Park Nature News Notes," explaining the origin of the Nature Guide Service at Sequoia National Park and identifying Walter Fry as the director of the program.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Archives

A Lasting Legacy

The magistrate job did not weigh heavily on Fry’s time, and he used the resulting opportunity to open another life chapter. In 1922 Fry became involved with what may have been his most enduring contribution, the first Nature Guide Service at Sequoia National Park. He led nature walks, wrote nature bulletins, organized the first public museum in Sequoia National Park (housed in a tent), and spoke often at campfire programs. Although not working directly for the parks, he influenced the park by influencing visitors, passing on his deep appreciation of the place. The Nature Guide Service was the foundation of the ranger programs and talks that millions of visitors have participated in at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks over the decades.

In the late 1920s, Fry worked closely with Superintendent White to draft the book Big Trees, published by Stanford University Press in 1930. The contents of the book reflected Fry’s careful observation of nature. For example, earlier in his career he had caged individual sequoia cones in wire screen and, each year for twenty years, had recorded how many seeds fell out of each cone.

Even after Fry 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. In the 1930s the park published a volume of his “nature notes” that captured important stories of the park’s earliest days.

Fry died in 1941, aged 82 years. He remained active until the end, leaving his home for the hospital only three days before he passed away. Park rangers carried his coffin to the grave.

Last updated: April 29, 2024

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