Library of Congress > Collections with Maps > Mapping the National Parks

Brief History of the National Parks

Many of America's most scenic and historic places have been set aside for the use of the public as national parks. "National Parks are spacious land . . . areas essentially in their primeval condition and so outstandingly superior in beauty to average examples of their several types as to demand preservation intact and in their entirety for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of all the people for all time."1 The concept of a "national park" is an American innovation that, in part, grew out of the conservation movement that began in the nineteenth century. When Yellowstone was designated a national park in 1872, it became the first such park in the world.

The burgeoning of American national parks reflected contemporary intellectual, social, and economic changes that to a growing appreciation for wilderness and wildlife, a desire to escape the increasingly urban places that resulted from industrialization, and the popularization of the automobile. With increased awareness of and sensitivity toward nature came the desire to preserve some of the most spectacular landscapes and significant historical and cultural sites for the enjoyment of future generations. Americans wanted to visit these places to experience their beauty firsthand, whether they traveled by train, steamship, or, increasingly, by automobile.

It is no coincidence that the first national park was explored and established in the same decade that saw publication of a great variety of articles and books about nature and wilderness. Several of the writers associated with the national park movement, including Clarence Dutton, Ferdinand V. Hayden, Clarence King, Nathaniel P. Langford, John Muir, and John Wesley Powell, described the spectacular scenery of the western United States. The Appalachian Mountain Club, one of the first private conservation organizations, was founded in 1876 to protect and preserve eastern wilderness areas. The United States Geological Survey, which undertook responsibility for surveying and mapping lands in the national domain, was established as a separate bureau within the Department of the Interior in 1879.

Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, but the National Park Service was not established until 1916. For four decades the nation's parks, reserves, and monuments were supervised at different times by the departments of War, Agriculture, and the Interior. Although the idea of national parks enjoyed broad popular and congressional support by the early twentieth century, there was some resistance to converting reserves and monuments into new national parks. This was partially the result of a lack of coordinated policy and leadership in financing and administering the parks that already existed. Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane's appointment of Stephen Tyng Mather as the first Superintendent of Parks (1915-29) did much to alter the situation. Mather was a leader in the transformation of the poorly managed and underfinanced national parks and monuments into the centrally administered National Park Service. Under his dynamic leadership, Grand Canyon, Acadia, Bryce, Zion, Lassen, Hawaii, and Mount McKinley National Parks were established. He successfully lobbied for enabling legislation that ensured the future creation of other parks, including those that involved purchase from private owners in the eastern United States, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave.

The national parks of today are public resources for recreation, education, scholarship, and the preservation of endangered landscapes, natural communities, and species. They exist in twenty-five states as well as the Virgin Islands, and include areas as diverse as the "river of grass" that makes up the Everglades, the mountains and valleys of Yosemite, the volcanoes of Hawaii, and the Denali Wilderness of Alaska. Some of them were purchased by private individuals who then generously gave them to the nation; others were taken from the public domain in order to protect them from agricultural or commercial development and exploitation.

An important part of each national park's story is reflected in its maps. Each park went through the initial stage of discovery, then exploration, and finally accurate mapping. In the first stages, physical and cultural features were often inaccurately portrayed and some were completely absent from the earliest maps.

Maps tell the story of when and how each park was established, and record physical growth as boundaries were established and expanded. Government mapping, frequently beginning in the discovery and exploration phase, provided an increased understanding of the unique features of an area, such as the locations of bodies of land and water, topographic and geological attributes, and the presence of historic and cultural artifacts.

Commercial mapping, often based on geographic data obtained from government surveys and products, enhances access to and use of the parks. Excellent trail maps and other kinds of thematic maps are produced primarily by commercial firms. Much of the commercial material is protected by copyright and could not be included in this online collection.

Among the most current maps of the national parks are those produced by the National Park Service for official park brochures. Roads, trails, campsites, and other amenities that enable the public to experience more fully the unique features of the park are shown on these maps, which are frequently updated to reflect changes in land use. The close relationship between map and park is symbolized and reinforced by the presentation of a Park Service map to visitors as they pass through the park gateway to explore a special place that has been set aside and preserved for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

1. Devereux Butcher, Exploring our National Parks and Monuments, 6th ed. rev. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p.356.

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