Be sure to say happy birthday to your favorite national park, for 136 years ago, on March 1, 1872, the very first national park in the world was born. Yellowstone National Park was created on this day in green history when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that created the park.
The U.S. is well known for producing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, two documents that so famously incorporate the ideals of democracy. These documents have been used as models for many other nations. Perhaps less famously, the U.S. incorporated the ideals of “landscape democracy” when lawmakers created the first national park. In its fullest extent, “landscape democracy” is the concept that the most scenic parts of the landscape belong to all citizens, and that all citizens have the duty to protect these landscapes. Like the idea of democracy, the idea of the national park has also been copied by many nations. Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, wrote that “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
But how did the concept of the national park come into being? Well, that is a more complicated question than you may think, and one that involves some surprising players.
Prior to the birth of Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. government had set aside natural areas for protection. Yosemite was ceded to the State of California for preservation in 1864, and the Hot Springs National Reservation was established as early as 1832. However, these areas were not formed into national parks until several years later; as a result, most historians consider Yellowstone to be the first national park.
Just as today, environmental activists and key politicians were instrumental in the development of the earliest national parks. John Muir and the Sierra Club he founded worked hard to convince key members of Congress to approve the earliest national parks.
What may be more surprising is the role of what was at that time one of the largest corporate powers in the nation: the railroad industry. Many of the railroad companies of the late 1800s were crucial in the development, financing, and marketing of the national parks.
The reason is simple. Railroads made money from tourism. From the beginning of the national park system until about 1960, Americans were not completely dependent on the automobile, and used rail as a form of transport while vacationing. Many railroad companies also believed that increased tourism would lead some visitors to become settlers, leading to even more business for the railroads, as the population of the East slowly started to drift to the West.
The first railroad to get involved was the Northern Pacific Railroad, which eventually brought visitors to Yellowstone. Before the law creating Yellowstone National Park was even written, Jay Cooke, the promoter and financer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, was financing expeditions to the Yellowstone area. Cooke even paid for a famous artist, Thomas Moran, to join a geological expedition. Moran went on to paint “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” a picture that helped inspire Congress to pass the bill creating Yellowstone National Park.
In addition to sponsoring expeditions to the area, Cooke and others from the Northern Pacific Railroad are also credited with proposing the legislation to protect Yellowstone as a national park. Although the railroad executives eventually found others to take up the cause in the halls of Congress, they provided the initial impetus. In the meantime, the Northern Pacific built a series of hotels so that tourists would have a place to stay while in or near the park. The railroad then created a steady stream of marketing materials to ‚Äòsell’ Yellowstone and their own hotels and lodges to the American people.
It worked. Yellowstone National Park was created, and the Northern Pacific started taking wanderlusted tourists to see the famous geysers and other attractions of the park that had been so romantically advertised. Following the success of the Northern Pacific, other railroads began to advocate for national parks located near their routes and right-of-ways. For example, the Great Northern Railway was instrumental in the creation of Glacier National Park, and the Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied for the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks. (General Grant National Park later became part of Kings Canyon National Park.) The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad pushed for the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park, and built a luxury hotel on the South Rim. So successful were the railroads in lobbying for national parks, the environmentalists of the time began to partner with the railroad companies. Although their ideals were far from the same, both groups realized that they were working towards the same goals. Both the environmentalists and the railroad companies also lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service (established in 1916); prior to the formation of the NPS, the national parks were administered by various federal agencies, including the army!
In spite of the role that railroads played in developing our earliest national parks, they were far from sustainable enterprises. Many of the railroad companies’ laborers who built the tracks were underpaid and overworked, especially the Chinese workers. In addition, some Native American lands were taken for the creation of the national parks, without compensation to the tribal groups who had been living on or near the park lands for centuries. Also, all American citizens were not able to benefit from the national parks and the railroads that traveled to them. At the time, only the wealthiest Americans were able to afford a cross-country train trip or a stay in a luxurious hotel in a national park. Ironically, middle-class Americans only gained access to the parks with the advent of the automobile in the early and mid-twentieth century.
Despite these major flaws, the railroads were instrumental in the creation of some of our most beautiful national parks, as well as the National Park Service, established to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein.” The mission of the National Park Service is also to “provide for the enjoyment of [the national parks] … by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Finally, you may be surprised to learn that some of our nation’s railroad-national park legacy still exists. In fact, you can still leave your car at home and take a train to some of our national parks! The old Empire Builder line once run by the Great Northern Railway is now run by Amtrak, and goes directly to Glacier National Park in Montana. You can take the Amtrak San Joaquin line to Merced, and then take a special Amtrak bus into Yosemite Valley, the heart of Yosemite National Park. You can also take Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train to Williams, Arizona, and connect to the Grand Canyon Railway, a spur line that travels to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Regardless of how and when you visit one of our 58 national parks, they are there, preserved in perpetuity, waiting for you.
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Amy is a Sustainability Scientist with a large engineering and environmental consulting firm in Oakland, California. She has a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, and earned her B.A. in Psychology at Columbia University. Amy writes about the history of sustainability as it relates to modern times.