Perpetuating the Thrill of the Old-Time Road: A Historical Perspective on Park Road Preservation

This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Timothy David, National Park Service

Timothy Davis: 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.

Going-to-the-Sun Road Rehabilitation, Glacier National Park, 2004 (Photograph: Glacier National Park)

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.

The Zigzag on Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat Road (photograph by Julius Boysen, 1903: Yosemite National Park)

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.

Golden Gate Viaduct, original version, Yellowstone National Park

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.”

Generals Highway from Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park

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.

Rehabilitated roadway, Yellowstone National Park, 1996 (author photograph)

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, 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.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]nps.gov
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119