Thursday, September 1, 2016

History and the National Park Service

The National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday on August 25, 2016. There are two ways to look at history and the NPS. First, there is the history of the founding of the NPS and the stories associated with the establishment of each of the parks, monuments, and sites. Second, there is the history of our country that the NPS preserves at its numerous historical sites.

The first officially designated National Park was Yellowstone, established in 1872. In the years immediately following its creation, civilian superintendents oversaw the protection of Yellowstone; but they lacked the resources to fend off poachers, souvenir hunters, and developers. In 1886, the US Army sent troops to provide muscle to the protective efforts. Today, the Army’s installation there is designated Fort Yellowstone National Historic Landmark and serves as headquarters for Yellowstone National Park. The army relinquished its responsibilities when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916, creating the National Park Service, a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior.

Theodore Roosevelt with John Muir
John Muir, a famous naturalist, was a staunch advocate of creating national parks at Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rainier. President Theodore Roosevelt toured Yosemite with Muir on a camping trip in 1903. Yosemite had been protected by the state of California since 1864 based upon a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln. It was Muir and Roosevelt, however, who worked with California Governor George Pardee to turn Yosemite into a national park in 1906. Theodore Roosevelt also signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, allowing the president to set aside "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" in order to stop their destruction. This act has led to the creation of more than fifty national monuments, and the act is being used even now by President Barack Obama. 

This website contains a complete listing of the facilities maintained by the National Park Service:

Cavalry Barracks, Fort Laramie, Wyoming
This bring us to the second way of relating history to the NPS. As a writer of historical fiction, primarily oriented toward the middle grade reader, I have relied on personal visits to many NPS historic sites in my research travels. In The Iron Horse Chronicles, many of Will Braddock’s scenes occur at the military forts built to protect the railroad and its workers from attacks by the Indians. Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming provides the visitor with the ability to see how soldiers lived on the frontier during the time when the first transcontinental railroad was under construction. My frequent visits to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, though a long way from the frontier, gave me a better understanding of what it would have been like to be a soldier following the Civil War.

Union Pacific Engine #119
An important research site for The Iron Horse Chronicles is the Golden Spike National Historical Site in Utah. Here, the visitor witnesses replicas of two locomotives touch cowcatchers after the reenactment of the driving of the golden spike. To stand near one of these engines when they steam past puts the viewer right into the action—the imagination becomes real life. Walking the ground where history occurred at any such site is worthwhile for students, teachers, and writers.

Although calling it a "kid's" guide might be a turn-off for some middle grade students, the book National Parks: A Kid's Guide to America's Parks, Monuments, and Landmarks, by Erin McHugh, provides an excellent introduction for planning a family visit or school outing. The writing is listed on Amazon and Barnes & Noble as appropriate for ages 8 to 12, but the middle grade student can benefit from reading it. The book concentrates on the environmental parks, but it does include information for some historical sites. For the middle grade teacher, the National Park Service provides lesson plans and other aids at this site:

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, environmentalist, historian, Wallace Stegner said: "National parks are the best idea we ever had."

Happy Birthday National Park Service!


  1. I remember reading some of the Mysteries in Our National Parks series by Gloria Skurzynski for middle graders. They also touched on the history of the parks.