5. Perpetuating the Thrill of the Old Time Road A Historical Perspective on Park Road Preservation


I want to thank Mary, and Debbie, and Kirk
and all the others who made this conference possible. I don’t want to get too involved in expounding
the significance of national park roads, of roads in the National Park experience, which
is the subject of the book that you got an announcement about that’s going to be coming
out this summer. If I go off on that, I’ll be on a two hour
tangent. But just to put things in terms of this morning’s
presentation, I’ll just say I’ll see Ethan’s bid on traditional landscape park design and
raise him a stack of pleasure roads, which if you noticed was what Olmsted was actually
talking about in that letter to Charles Eliot, that he quoted; and perhaps Sierra Club leader
Hal Bradley said it best when he noted in 1950, “That park roads determine park history.” Park road preservation is one of the most
contentious issues facing National Park Service culture resource managers today. From Glacier and Yellowstone to Blue Ridge
Parkway and a myriad of other units, historical values have been threatened by calls to upgrade
old roads to new standards. Most of these efforts entail well intentioned
attempts to make roads safer and more efficient by easing curves, widening road beds and constructing
stronger and longer guard walls. While these standard engineering solutions
may be appropriate in many non-park situations, they can compromise the scenic beauty and
historic integrity of national park roads designed in different eras and for different
purposes. Disagreements over the degree to which park
roads should be upgraded have created a conflicts between NPS personnel, federal engineers,
and stakeholders ranging from environmentalists and historic preservationists to gateway communities
and motorists themselves. Given the enormous roles roads play in shaping
the visitors’ experience and influencing the broader course of park development, discussions
about appropriate levels of improvement are not matters of tactical and aesthetic hair
splitting, but debates about the nature and purpose of national parks. This presentation will trace the rising interests
in historic road preservation, highlighting key projects such as the rehabilitation of
Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road and Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. We’ll also explore some of the roots of national
park road preservation, demonstrating that efforts to commemorate and conserve park roads
began much earlier than is generally realized and played a vital role in some of the most
significant episodes in NPS history. In order to appreciate these early iterations,
it’s necessary to expand one’s perceptions of historic preservation, since they rarely
involved self-identified preservationists, this more in vogue contemporary terminology. Throughout most of national park history,
concerns about preserving the historic qualities of park roads were expressed by landscape
architects, park superintendents, environmental advocates, and yes, even engineers. The current emphasis on cataloging and curating
individual features was also absent. With notable exceptions, those we might now
categorize as preservationists spoke in general terms about the need to protect the unique
character of the park road experience, which was predicated on the leisurely enjoyment
of natural scenery. Many policy directives and design practices
cited as evidence of the NPS’s embrace of landscape architecture, thank you, could just
as easily be seen as efforts to retain the historical character of reconstructed roads
and ensure that new roads conform to historical ideals. While the scope and sophistication of recent
efforts might make the impression that the reverence of park roads is a new phenomenon,
the recognition that park roads were historic achievements possessing unique qualities worthy
of commemoration and preservation is almost as old as the national park idea itself. Pioneering Yellowstone superintendent Nathaniel
Langford and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted emphasized the importance of roads
in making the national parks fulfill their designated functions. While Olmsted’s adjunction to preserve the
Yosemite scenery is endlessly cited, he was equally adamant about the need for better
access. “Without improving the dismal stage roads
of the valley rim and extending them down into the heart of the park,” He maintained,
“Visitors would be too exhausted to benefit from the uplifting exposure to Yosemite scenery.” Langford was equally adamant, having created
the park for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people, the federal government was
obligated to ensure the public could experience it with a reasonable degree of safety and
comfort. Railroad companies and others who sought to
reap the financial rewards of park recreation and also clamored for improvements, as did
the slowly growing stream of tourists who braved dangerous bridle paths and other trying
conditions to visit the remote wonderlands. In the case that you’re under the impression
that park travel was accident-free before the days of the automobile, look at the equine
casualty in the bottom of the right there. Progress came slowly, hampered by meager funding,
challenging conditions and primitive technology. Since the National Park Service did not exist
until 1916, the first national park roads were constructed by private entrepreneurs
and the US Army Corp of Engineers. The construction crews labored with picks,
shovels and horse-drawn equipment to carve rudimentary road beds out of steep mountainsides. Black powder was used to blast away the worst
obstacles, but road builders followed the dictates of the terrain, zig-zagging up slopes
with dramatic switchbacks and hazardous hair-pinned turns. Despite these challenges, park road builders
accomplished impressive feats. In Yellowstone, the Army Corps of Engineers
constructed several entrance roads and completed the circuit linking the park’s major features. Between 1883 and 1905, they built or improved
approximately three hundred miles of roadway along with several impressive bridges. I don’t know if you can read this or not,
but note how this turn of the century tourism brochure, not only praises the view from the
road, but observes that the work constituted a very fine piece of engineering and entailed
a tremendously heavy expenditure by the federal government. In Yosemite, which was initially administered
by the State of California, private toll roads provided the first vehicular access. During the 1870s, rival concerns from outlying
communities constructed the stage roads that replaced the hazardous trails leading to the
valley floor. The completion of these roadways was greeted
with grand celebrations replete with brass bands, fireworks, and ample libations. Along with improving access, these roads conferred
impressive examples of road building, such as the Big Oak Flat Road zig-zag turn, which
was as viscerally thrilling as it was visually stunning, embodying temporary enthusiasm for
the union of the natural and technological sublime. At Mount Rainier, the Army Corps of Engineers
built Nisqually Road between 1900 and 1910, upgrading the existing toll road and extending
it to the alluring meadows of Paradise Valley. The Corps also constructed some of the first
roads at Crater Lake, and eventually assumed control of road building in Yosemite. Not only did these roads provide access to
America’s Western wonderlands but they established precedence for the development, use, and public
perception of parks that influenced NPS policies throughout the 20th century and continue to
resonate today. Long before the first automobile chugged and
wheezed its way into Yosemite’s vaunted valley, these minimalistic wagon tracks firmly established
the expectation that the national park experience was primarily a park road experience, where
vehicular travel through attractive scenery was punctuated with brief pauses at its signature
attractions and iconic vistas; such as Yosemite’s Inspiration Point where tourists got their
first glimpse of the Monumental Valley. While this might offend latter day critics,
Ninetheenth Century visitors would have expected nothing less, as Ethan has described the predominant
roles played in useful parks and the enjoyment of eastern tourist destinations, another factor
that doesn’t get brought up as much. Not only did the Yellowstone’s Grand Loop
exemplify the adaptation of traditional park development in the national park setting,
but the identification of the park with its transportation infrastructure was so strong
that roads and stagecoaches vied with geysers and bears as icons of the park experience. As primitive trails and crude lodgings gave
way to graded roads and elaborate hotels, the stagecoach tour was celebrated as an attraction
in its own right, where it has become a trip in elaborate detail regaling readers with
the rigors and rewards of stagecoach travel. Road related images appeared on a wide range
of souvenirs, such as the stereo views, spoons, postcards, and ceramics visitors purchased
to preserve their memories of the park. Yosemite’s tunnel trees and Wawona Road’s
Inspiration Point afford similar juxtapositions of natural and man-made wonders, which were
memorialized in postcards, stereo views, and other talismans of the park experience. While characterizing these mementos as preservation
might seem like a stretch, but by canonizing key features and establishing a traditional
of veneration that underscored the centrality of roads to the park experience and laid the
groundwork for the subsequent preservation efforts and as Ethan also noticed, public
history and public memory are becoming more entwined with physical historic preservation
these days. The Golden Gate Viaduct is generally what
might be considered the first clash between engineering standards and preservation sentiments. In 1884 construction crews, under Lieutenant
Daniel Kingman encountered an imposing cliff at the crux of the climb through a dramatic
cleft known as the Golden Gate. Since blasting a passage across the rock face
would have been inordinately expensive, Kingman constructed wooden trestles supporting a 16
foot wide deck. At the lower end, workmen discovered a stone
pillar split off from the mountain from the main outcrop. Kingman’s pragmatic advice as an engineer
was to send it crashing in to the canyon. But Yellowstone’s assistant superintendent
suggested that tourists might enjoy the picturesque feature. A narrow passageway was excavated to provide
a scenically natural gateway just wide enough for one coach to pass. Even at stagecoach speeds the stone stub posed
a clear danger, but the tourist and guidebook riders quickly embraced it as a signature
element of the Yellowstone tour. As stagecoach traffic became heavier and tourists
less adventurous, Kingman’s successor Hiram Chittenden faced a similar dilemma, knowing
that the trestle remained structurally sound but its precarious appearance generated what
he diplomatically described as “Uneasiness and concern among the traveling public.” Chittenden set about replacing it with a wider
and more substantial concrete viaduct. Questions arose about the fate of the stone
column which is now not just a picturesque embellishment, but a celebrated aspect of
the Yellowstone experience. With the wider road bed and altered grade,
the obstructive pillar was even greater affront to engineering expectations. Chittenden also initially insisted safely
and efficiency should trump what he called, “sentimentalism.” But park photographer F.J. Hanes convinced
him the public would lament the landmark’s loss. Preserving the pillar was an engineering achievement
in its own right, the 26 ton monolith was jacked up six feet to meet the new grade and
shifted six feet sideways, where it rested on a stout concrete column. These efforts were carefully concealed so
that tourists could continue to marvel at the propitious location of this natural gateway. When thinking about the role of the roads,
the awareness of the role of roads, here’s a stereo view of construction of the Chittenden
Viaduct, showing it under construction. Similar slights of hands occurred when the
structure widened and strengthened in 1933 and again in 1977, at which time the pillar
was so firmly ensconced in Yellowstone lore that there was no question about its preservation. Despite his hesitation about the Golden Gate
Pillar, Chittenden was an early advocate of what we now characterize as flexibility in
highway design and context sensitive solutions, key concepts for contemporary preservationists. While he embraced and expanded on existing
guidelines for park road development, he maintained that deviations were permissible to avoid
compromising important features. The signature bridge above the Yellowstone’s
upper falls fell a foot and a half short of the reigning standards, which he excused by
the need for delicacy in the highly picturesque setting. Noting the folly of attempting to widen and
straighten the road through a series of outcrops known as the Hoodoos, he insisted the stage
drivers should alter their behavior instead. “It would be better to require all teams to
come to a walk there,” He pronounced, “Than to remedy the defect by blasting out those
picturesque rocks.” Most visitors hailed the engineer’s achievements,
but as early as 1894, Chittenden noticed that an occasional crank lamented the impact of
improved roads. While they acknowledged the need for basic
access, critics complained that additional development would “Convert the grand domain
from the wild state in which nature gave it to man, to a crowded summer resort.” Presaging sentiments of twentieth century
opponents, they insisted the government should leave things as they were because further
enhancements would attract a hoard of the idle curious whom it would be better to keep
away. You can’t drive quite so close these days. The advent of automotive tourism generated
wide support for the improvement of park roads. Between the popular insistence on making parks
accessible, to automobiles and the newly formed National Park Service belief that catering
to the motoring public was both a civic duty and a means of generating support for the
protection and expansion of the park system, there was no question that the outdated wagon
tracks would be updated to accommodate America’s newest national pastime. NPS leaders joined the auto clubs, tourism
interests, and outraged motorists, insisting that dangerous, narrowly steep, and torturous
roads be improved to promote access and enhance safety. The biggest question, how to pay for system-wide
improvements, was answered in 1924 with a passage of a three year, $7.5 million funding
bill, following by an even more generous multi-year allotment and the munificence of FDR’s new
deal. While the NPS gained rapid renown for its
landscape architecture expertise, there were considerable questions about its engineering
capabilities. NPS Director Stephen Mather had doubts about
the abilities of his irascible chief George Goodwin and the joint scope and complexity
of the park road construction through the agency’s shortcomings in stark in stark relief. I like the body language in this 1921 photograph
that shows a worn-down looking Mather, chief landscape architect kind of blending in to
the background on the left, and Goodwin standing imperiously in the center. He really felt he was that juck-jawed man
there, and I think that’s a young Ethan Carr on the right. Doesn’t he kind of? I just thought of that. Assessing an opportunity to expand his own
agency’s influence BPR chief Thomas McDonald, Bureau of Public Roads chief Thomas McDonald,
put heavy pressure on Mather to transfer engineering responsibilities to the BPR. While the ensuing 1926 Memorandum of Agreement
has long been heralded as a model of collaboration, NPS officials had deep reservations about
the partnership, many of which presage contemporary conflicts between the two agencies. Goodwin and Horace Albright cautioned the
BPR insistence on the rigid application of higher standards was inconsistent with the
preservation of park road values. Excessive widening, grading, and straightening
would destroy the charm of existing roads and cause undue damage in the construction
of new ones. I don’t know if you can see here but the NPS
road which is on the bottom left, they’re not only much narrower but they’re explicitly
flexible, eight to sixteen feet to accommodate the different conditions. The BPR’s decision to cut down a 400-year
old sugar pine on the approach to California’s Calaveras Big Tree Grove, outside of the park,
underscored the danger and further elided the distinction between natural and historic
preservation. This was a brilliant piece of propaganda. Mather brought journalists to the spot. That’s actually a picture of him. There are photographs of this trip, where
he’s generating support to keep engineers at bay. Criticizing one of the earliest collaborative
efforts, NPS landscape architect Daniel Hull, characterized the BPR’s attempt to upgrade
Yosemite’s El Portal Road as an example of �standardization run riot.� He prepared
a detailed account of the transgressions. In a narrow and valiant pursuit of what he
called “A so-called better alignment,” BPR engineers ignored the NPS directives to preserve
the unfolding trees and crops that contributed to the roadway’s picturesque appeal. “The very charm the tourist seeks may be destroyed
by holding too strongly to standard specifications,” he admonished. Insisting that the park roads improvement
should not be governed by engineering concerns alone. Hull also criticized that BPR’s blasting techniques,
and the way that contractors leave rocks and other construction debris scattered along
the roadside. If you’ve ever wondered about the NPS steaming
fixation with borrow pit regulations, on the upper right you can see the kind of thing
they were dealing with. When you built a road you just went six feet
off to the side, dug a big hole and through it, and there you had your gravel. In another first precursor to contemporary
debates, NPS officials rejected the BPR’s claim that wider and straighter roads were
inherently safer, noting that the supposed deficiency of low standard roads encouraged
motorists to proceed at slower speeds and the transparent danger of poorly protected
precipices induced ample caution. Higher standard roads promoted higher speeds
and the misplaced sense of confidence that could lead to more serious accidents. The NPS and BPR resolved most of their differences
in the period between the mid-twenties to Americas entrance World War II, it is generally
regarded as the golden age of national park roads for the balance it achieved in the construction,
or re-construction of a hundred miles of roadways, including such masterpieces as Going-to-the-Sun
Road, Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Trail Ridge Roads. While agency officials were justly proud of
these accomplishments and publicly presented united front, internal documents reveal pointed
conflicts over preservation issues along with expressions of regret about the impact of
improvements on specific features and the park road experience in general. Two of the most significant controversies
involved hallowed highlights of Yosemite’s historic entrance roads. When the BPR inserted that upgrading Wawona
Road to accommodate automobile traffic would entail bypassing Inspiration Point, NPS officials
mounted strenuous opposition. Albright, Chief Engineer Frank Kittredge,
and other senior staff insisted on retaining the iconic view. Frantic efforts to find a feasible alternative
failed however, and Mather endorsed the BPR’s proposal. Deciding that the specific viewpoint was not
as significant as the suddenly appearing scenic panorama, the two agencies worked together
to replicate the sensation by constructing a tunnel at a lower grade that culminated
in a similarly striking introduction to Yosemite’s stunning scenery. That’s a clip from a BPR film about the accomplishment. Having lost the battle over Inspiration Point,
Kittredge fought even harder to retain the Big Oak Flat Road’s historic alignment with
its signature switch-back and cathedral like enfilade of towering trees. Albright and Yosemite superintendent Charles
Goff were equally appalled at the idea of sacrificing the storied approach. But chief landscape architect, Tom Vint, endorsed
the BPR’s proposal to forsake the historic route in favor of a more commodious roadway
through less scenic terrain. Vint expressed regret that the NPS was, as
he said, “Gradually eliminating all the old time mountain roads,” but insisted traffic
concerns and the need to protect the view from the outlook mandated the change. Kittredge’s suggestion of preserving the historic
road as a downhill road and building a second one later on for uphill traffic was rejected,
on both counts. Goff reluctantly acquiesced characterizing
the loss as the penalty exacted by the commitment to public access and warning that if utilitarian
values were allowed to predominate, the NPS would be savagely criticized, not only now
but throughout the years by the large influential and correct elements who oppose engineering
parks to death. Contemporary National Register guidelines
acknowledge the difficulty of incorporating the concept of feeling in historic integrity
evaluations. By the 1930s both visitors and NPS officials
expressed concerns that the widespread improvements have reduced the romance of park travel, eliminating
the sense of adventure encountered on primitive park roads. Kittredge cast his resistance to the BPR’s
Big Oak Flat Road as an attempt to �perpetuate the thrill of the old time road.� While
Associate Director Demarary sympathized with a writer’s request to leave some roads improved
and long-time Sequoia superintendent, John White, shared a visitor’s lament that “the
old roads, or at least some of the advantages of the old roads in the national parks are
no longer to be had.” White waged a successful campaign against
BPR efforts to replace Sequoia’s narrow, winding Generals Highway with a wider and straighter
roadway that would be easier to drive and accommodate additional traffic. White’s resistance has long been cast in environmentalist
terms as opposition to replacing the road’s twenty-six switchbacks, with a single long
loop extending in to unsullied regions of the park. But it is motivated at least as much by the
desire to preserve the roadway’s unique contribution to the park experience. White acknowledged that the road was challenging
to drive as it snaked �like a brown ribbon� toward the park’s premier outlook, but maintains
that these hallmarks of pre-NPS/BPR design were assets rather than liabilities. “No matter how good a road we might build
up to the Middle Fork,” he insisted, “it would be a pity to do away with the thrill people
get climbing up the switchback grade and later looking down on it from the Moro Rock.” Albright initially embraced the BPR’s proposal
but eventually changed his stance, adding an overtly historical dimension. Given the seemingly inexorable march towards
higher engineering standards, he observed that “the time will soon come when the road
like the switchback sections of Generals Highway will be extremely unique.” Employing a favorite term of its discredited
designer George Goodwin, he phrased it as a spectacular contribution of the park experience
and predicted, “People will come to the park to travel over this road because of its interest.” The proliferation of park roads of on postcards
hailing the highly visible alignment suggests that the popular opinion accorded with their
assessments, though the deification of Going-to-the-Sun Road’s self-effacing esthetic suppressed appreciation
for its status as an example of this transitional era of national park road design. White also fought to retain an iconic alignment
between towering sequoias that was well below BPR specifications for pavement width and
hazard clearance. When his successor succumbed to the pressures
to improve circulation, the NPS and BPR collaborated to make a single lane through the stand in
a manner that retained effective visual arrangement. I’m going to have to zip through the rest
of this really quickly ad hoc, as I bit off more than I can chew. In Mission 66, what you found was again, a
lot of things that were presented as attempts to …about landscape architecture were actually
phrased in terms of “preserving the thrill of the old time park road,” including the
debate over the Tioga Road, which Ethan covered in detail. Connie Worth was brilliant at playing both
sides against each other, the environmentalist versus the BPR, to get what he wanted. There was also the sense here, very much,
that by keeping the historic park roads, you would keep out the riffraff who didn’t really
belong in the parks, that wouldn’t put up with park road driving. There was this park road preservation effort,
what we called Motor Nature Trails, saving old roads, and actually probably the first
to drive for the thrill. Really one of the first preservation efforts,
which was to save the Wawona Covered Bridge. The Chittenden Bridge did not last so well,
you can see it was pretty well deteriorated. Hartzog we talked about, took great pride
in his efforts to reduce dependence on the automobile, you know, which really came at
a time, as Ethan talked about, where society was changing and the idea that a road could
be historic and valuable was not a particularly popular one. Closing parts of Yosemite Valley, jack-hammering
parking lots and instituting alternate transportation, skip over that. This kind of culminated with the Yosemite
General Management Plan which went on for about twenty years, and culminated in this
view of, you want to look at that, the Leopold view of park roads. These photo-shopping out roads to show the
advantages of restoring nature and clearing us from our automobile addiction, including
removing some National Register bridges. This was fought over time and eliminated. Ironically, Hartzog also presided over the
creation of park road standards that were the most park road preservation friendly of
all time. Again, we can’t really exempt, but they came
over debate on whether to preserve this road at the top or to adopt BPR standards and they
created a committee with nobody on the BPR on it, with people like Ansel Adams, under
the theory that as the chairman of the committee said, “park roads are too important to be
designed by engineers.” Again, we’re gonna have to skip through this. Then there’s this reawakening to the appeal
of roads and roadside culture, both popular and academic, and as we talked a little bit
with the fifty year rule, and all these things that came out of that, and the fact that park
roads were deteriorating significantly, they don’t meet the AASHTO standards, the road
standards, those kind of things that give engineers heart attacks. Engineers became more flexible, they started
adopting flexibility, some of the things like one lane roads, vehicle restrictions, and
also realizing that like Goodwin and Albright were saying at the beginning, scary roads
are safe roads. Also that people, a new bumper sticker, people
enjoy the thrill of old time roads still. We also collaborated on some ways to do some
rehabilitations that met standards, some more preservation friendly than others. Simulated stone is not generally admired,
but it’s quick and efficient. Then Yellowstone was really the first park,
one of the major parks, to develop a comprehensive road improvement plan along with what they
considered to be historic preservation principles, which were largely about preserving historic
structures and maintaining a sense of park roadness. It was a very vague, early definition of park
roads, of what the historical significance of park roads was. As a result, eh, a lot of engineers even think
it was overdone. The safety issue came up again too. I’ve hit triple digits there for research
purposes. When you run into charismatic mega fauna,
or tourists, it’s much, much worse than if you want a slow, narrow road that’ll keep
you at 20 miles an hour. Glaciers, generally considered a much more
successful example. It was in terrible shape. A lot of collaboration with the FWHA to come
up with solutions that were both historical looking and met contemporary standards, but
by vehicle size and speed regulations, they were able to keep the semblance of the road. The latest thing we’re doing now is climate
change and other ecological issues. As you can see, you see the results of Tropical
Storm Sandy, flooding of Mount Rainier; or catastrophic storms and rising sea levels
in places like Gulf Islands National Seashore. I just want to get to our last page so we
don’t miss that. We also see in Yellowstone another victory
of historic, this is a sort of an unholy alliance between engineers and environmentalists where
they move the historic road, which Chittenden put down there for its picturesque effect,
they moved that out of the picturesque river because it was hard to maintain, dangerous,
and bad for the river. They moved it back up into the boring pine
forest where Chittenden had taken it out years ago. To conclude, I just want to again emphasize
that it’s not simply a matter of preserving historic fabric, that our park roads, sorry,
again I bit off more than I could chew here; That it’s a matter of preserving an essential
element of the national park experience, and again, as Ethan talked about and a lot of
others, it’s not necessarily about the physical fabric, it’s about the people. This is the way people enjoy the roads of
the park experience and I’ll just leave it at that for now.

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