From the Desk of Dennis Drabelle: The Origin of National Parks

Dennis Drabelle is a writer and former attorney. During the 1970s he was an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of the Interior and counsel to the assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks. Drabelle was a contributing editor of the Washington Post Book World for more than thirty years. His books include Mile High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode and The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad. His articles on the environment and national parks have appeared in Outside, Smithsonian, Sierra, Wilderness, Backpacker, and many other magazines. His most recent book, The Power of Scenery (Bison Books, 2021), was published this month.

One of the best things that can happen to a writer of nonfiction is for material you think you know well to spring a surprise on you. I was lucky enough to have that experience during the runup to my new book, The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks.

The Power of Scenery grew out of a magazine article I wrote about the 19th-century American geologist, explorer, and lobbyist Ferdinand Hayden. Among Hayden’s many accomplishments was the crucial influence he had on Congressional passage of the bill setting aside Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872. As a former lawyer specializing in national-park issues at the U.S. Department of the Interior, I thought I knew a thing or two about the parks and how they came to be. But in preparing the Hayden piece, I happened upon something new, at least to me: while the Yellowstone bill was pending, Niagara Falls was in effect roaring through the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Again and again lawmakers cited the great cataracts along the American-Canadian border—but as a counterexample. Do you want Yellowstone, the bill’s proponents asked, with its spouting geysers and sculpted terraces of minerals from inside the earth, to suffer the same fate that has befallen Niagara, with its tumultuous cascades and awe-inspiring vantage points?

The reason for citing Niagara Falls as what should not be allowed to happen to spectacular natural scenery was simple: by the mid-19th century, the place was a mess. Divided among multiple landowners, each eager to rake in as much money from their holding as possible, the banks on both sides of the Niagara River were riddled with viewpoints, activities, and goods for rent or sale. And because so many entrepreneurs offered much the same thing, they hired touts and hawkers to lure the tourist to their overlook, their boat ride, their restaurant, their shop full of knickknacks. Seeing the falls became akin to running a gauntlet.

At the same time, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, in no small part because of eye-popping feats performed there by tightrope walkers—the most sure-footed of them all, Blondin, once cooked and ate a meal while balancing on a rope stretched across the river. Less athletic daredevils went over the falls in barrels. As for the relationship between what the shops sold and what the falls could teach visitors, Mark Twain recalled asking where the Indian moccasins for sale in one emporium came from. The answer was Limerick, Ireland. In 1856, an American weekly summed up the falls’ plight as follows: “Turn which way you will at Niagara, you find the money-changers are indeed profaning the great temple.”

Charles Blondin crosses a tightrope over the Niagara River.

Hayden was well aware of how tawdry and costly a visit to Niagara Falls had become, and while exploring Yellowstone country in 1871 he noticed that commercialization was about to take hold there, too. “Persons are now waiting for the spring to open to enter in and take possession of these remarkable curiosities,” he warned in the latest in his series of geological surveys, “to make merchandise of these beautiful specimens, to fence in these rare wonders, so as to charge visitors a fee, as is now done at Niagara Falls, for the sight of that which ought to be as free as the air or water.”

Hayden was such a towering figure at the time that the relevant House committee used a condensed version of his report on Yellowstone as its own official report. The Senate passed the bill without a roll call, the House passed it by a 2-1 margin, President Grant signed the bill into law, and Yellowstone’s rare wonders were spared Niagara’s fate.

By then conservationists were trying to salvage the falls themselves. Led by another hero of my book, the preeminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a bi-national campaign to clean up Niagara Falls came to fruition in the 1880s. The private owners were bought out; a state park was created on the New York side, a provincial park on the Canadian side; and a policy of international cooperation went into effect.

One can still make a case for Yellowstone and Niagara Falls as having the showiest scenery on the North American continent, and it’s good to keep in mind what I learned to my surprise while working on my book. The geysers out west might not be so well protected if the falls back east hadn’t been so badly neglected.

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