YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - Tuesday, March 1, 2022, marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Yellowstone National Park which was the world’s first national park when created in 1872.
American novelist Wallace Stegner called the national park system, America’s best idea. Filmmaker Ken Burns helped make the quote famous, in his film on the national parks.
But who came up with the idea of creating a National Park to protect and preserve special places? Well, it’s an old story.
In 1870, a group of explorers, gathered around a campfire near the junction of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, in Yellowstone, were so moved by what they saw in the region, that they proposed preserving it as a national park.
That certainly sounds like a truly American story. In fact, it was repeated time and again by the National Park Service right through the 1960s. The problem? It’s not really true.
“You know there’s sort of a myth that they sat around a campfire and they said, ‘hey let’s preserve this as a national park,’ and went on their merry way," Yellowstone National Park Historian Alicia Murphy said.
Historian Lee Whittlesey reviewed 20 first-hand accounts left by members of that Washburn Expedition into Yellowstone. Only four left diary entries for the night when the campfire story is supposed to have happened. None of them mentioned the discussion or the idea.
In fact, it wasn’t until 35 years later, that Yellowstone explorer — and the park’s first superintendent — Philetus Norris described the campfire story, attributing the park idea to Cornelius Hedges.
After Norris made that assertion, others on the trip verified the account. But that required some of them to go back and change diary entries that failed to record the event. In one case, a published diary was re-released with the campfire account added.
That’s not to say Norris and others on the expedition didn’t embrace the idea which would lead to the creation of the park. It’s just that the thought didn’t spring up around a nostalgic campfire in the center of Yellowstone.
“I think that they did have some discussions about what it would look like to maybe not leave this open to settlement, but it was really over the following year that the men really kind of evolved their thinking about this,” said Murphy.
It took some time for the national park idea to bubble up. During the year after the expedition returned to Helena, more than 15 articles and letters appeared, and none even mentioned the great idea that expedition members supposedly pledged to champion, as they sat around the campfire.
But once the idea did surface, and was promoted by Norris, Hedges, and others, it raced through the national consciousness like a wildfire in the west. Less than two years later, in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law, creating the park.