National parks throughout the United States have at least one thing in common: someone interesting had a hand in making that park what it is today. Some of these people are well-known, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, and others are fairly obscure, such as Thomas Moran, an artist whose sketches of Yellowstone persuaded Congress to create the first national park.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates concessions at a number of national parks, has compiled a list of some of the more colorful characters. Dave Hartvigsen, Xanterra’s vice president of sales and marketing, said “The parks are full of examples of driven individuals who truly embraced the idea that parks should be preserved so they could be enjoyed by future generations.”
Here are just a few of the people who helped make our national park system what it is today:
Gutzon Borglum—Although his name hardly rolls off the tongue, Borglum’s talent was making tons of rock roll off a mountain. The sculptor of South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Borglum was a planner, a politician, an artist…and a baseball fan. When hiring his team of blasters for the 14-year project to sculpt the 60-foot-high faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson, Borglum and his son Lincoln looked for men who were young, fit and extremely tough. These men spent their weekdays hanging in a sling over the side of a mountain and their weekends playing baseball and drinking moonshine. The Mount Rushmore team did so well playing against other company teams from around the area that in 1939 they made it to the South Dakota State Championships.
Theodore Roosevelt—A sickly child, Theodore Roosevelt spent his entire adult life engaging in robust activities such as hunting and hiking whenever possible. In fact, his friends called him a bull in a china shop. He was the first U. S. president with a keen interest in conservation, and spent his eight years as chief executive promoting the national parks. During his tenure he signed legislation establishing five national parks and four national monuments as well as the Antiquities Act of 1906, which enabled the later establishment of historic landmarks. His name and personality are reflected throughout today’s national park system. Most prominent is Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Another example is the rustic Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone. Although he never visited the lodge, he enjoyed exploring the Northern Yellowstone area where the lodge is located. And a small private dining room situated next to the El Tovar Dining Room at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was reportedly built with him in mind. Apparently, he liked to show up for dinner at the elegant hotel still dirty from his adventures in the canyon.
President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of what is now called the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The top of the arch is inscribed with a quote from the Organic Act of 1872, the legislation that established Yellowstone as a national park. The quote reads: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
Thomas Moran—Although he started painting as a young man in Philadelphia, Thomas Moran suspected even before he joined the famous 1871 Hayden Expedition of Yellowstone that the West would inspire his life’s greatest work. Moran’s field sketches made during the expedition were the first color works the world had ever seen of the land. Upon his return to his studio in the East, the artist created full-color watercolors from those field sketches as well as from the photographs of expedition photographer William Henry Jackson. Those exquisite works depicting Yellowstone’s hot springs, waterfalls, geysers and valleys were largely responsible for providing the visual proof of the area’s beauty and helped Ferdinand Hayden and others convince Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant to designate Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.
Walter Scott—He was an engaging, off-key singing, rough-and-tumble swindler who said he had discovered a gold mine. He found a wealthy investor to finance the gold mine, and when it was revealed that there was, in fact, no gold mine, convinced the same investor to build a 25-room castle directly above the non-existent gold mine. The story of Death Valley Scotty is a testament to the saying that “truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”
Part of his legacy at Death Valley National Park is Scotty’s Castle, a never-finished 25-room Moorish-style castle that was built between 1922 and 1931. Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson and his wife, Bessie, built the vacation residence with a strategically placed room for Scott. When entertaining society and church friends, they often invited Scott to regale their guests with his tall tales. A favorite activity was to show off his room, located off the main living room, and point to a metal contraption affixed on the outside of the door to his bedroom. Inside his room was a peephole. When the robbers came to steal from his (non-existent) gold mine, he explained, he would fire his shotgun through the peephole. The shot would be split in two by the shot-splitter, thus killing two robbers with just one shell.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter—Apparently, no one ever told Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter that being a woman in the late 1800s and early 1900s meant that she could not do certain things, like become an architect. But Colter did become an architect and by incorporating natural landscape into buildings became the mother of the architectural style known as “parkitecture.” She was hired at the age of 33 by the Fred Harvey Company and continued to work for the company for 46 years. Her creations at the Grand Canyon are some of the most remarkable structures in national parks today and include the Desert View Watchtower, Bright Angel Lodge, Lookout Studio, Phantom Ranch, Hermit’s Rest and Hopi House.
Colter was a chain-smoking perfectionist who bossed around workers and National Park Service management alike. Incredibly detail-focused, Colter traveled to a Hopi village seeking inspiration for Hopi House, which is located in one of the world’s most spectacular settings and now serves as a gift store specializing in exquisite Native American artwork and jewelry. Colter liked to develop stories surrounding each of her buildings. She named one building Hermit’s Rest after being inspired by a true story of a mountain man who lived at nearby Hermit Canyon and guided tourists around the Grand Canyon in the 1890s. Hermit’s Rest was developed as a rest stop for travelers on a stagecoach tour. Visitors to the stonewalled, rustic Hermit’s Rest then—and today— can easily imagine a ragged old hermit climbing out of the canyon at day’s end and settling in for the night inside the rugged structure.
Truman Everts—The Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition of 1870 was formed to explore the northwestern region of Wyoming that would become Yellowstone National Park two years later. Along on the expedition was a former assessor for the state of Montana named Truman Everts, who had joined the expedition in search of adventure. He found it. Everts became separated from his companions while they were exploring the lodgepole pine forest near Yellowstone Lake. He spent one night in the forest convinced he would find his companions in the morning. The next day, something spooked his horse and it ran away, taking with it all of his supplies, including blankets, guns and food. At that point, Everts was concerned. Over the next 37 days, Everts experienced severe hunger and hypothermia. Early snow convinced him he would need fire, which he cleverly started by using his opera glass and a knife fashioned from a buckle and fishhook. The fire began to burn out of control while he was sleeping and burned off most of his hair before he woke up.
With few choices for sustenance, Everts survived on the roots of elk thistle, now often called Everts thistle. Everts managed to make his way around Yellowstone Lake and down the Yellowstone River and was finally found far north of his starting point by two men who were searching for him so they could claim the $600 award offered by his friends. Weighing only 50 pounds, Everts was suffering from frostbite, burn wounds and severe malnutrition, yet he maintained that he could have made it out of the mountains alone, thus denying his rescuers the reward money. Everts recovered fully and later married a 14-year-old girl and fathered a child while in his mid-sixties. He died in 1901 at the age of 85.
Fred Harvey—He was an opportunistic visionary who saw the need for quality hotels and restaurants for weary travelers making their way west on the Santa Fe Railroad. The ambitious entrepreneur devised an ingenious system of warning restaurant kitchen staff of the imminent arrival of train passengers via the telegraph wire, thus allowing kitchens to feed hundreds of travelers in a short period of time.
Harvey Houses along the railway were staffed by “Harvey Girls,” adventurous young women from the East recruited to provide impeccable service at the Fred Harvey Company’s restaurants. Harvey Girls had to agree to work for the company for an established period of time. Yet many young men in the remote Western towns quickly became enamored of the young women. Of Fred Harvey, Will Rogers once said, “He kept the West in food and wives.” Numerous boys born in the late 1800s and early 1900s were named either Fred or Harvey. Amfac Parks & Resorts purchased the Fred Harvey Company in 1968. Amfac was renamed Xanterra Parks & Resorts in 2002.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.
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