When we think of the 63 American National Parks, our thoughts usually turn to the natural beauty and the stunning wilderness environments that the parks were created to protect. But there is another side to the parks that inspires wonder, imagination, creativity, and inspiration, and that's the history of the National Parks.
In a three-part series, we began exploring America's "Lost" National Parks, seven National Parks that were created many decades ago but were either changed into a different type of protected land, renamed, or absorbed into another park.
In the first part of the series, we explored the stories behind ancient relics of American history like Mackinac National Park, General Grant National Park, and Platt National Park. In the second installment, we dove into Sullys Hill National Park and Hawaii National Park. This week, we conclude the trilogy by embarking on a journey through time and space. To do so, we'll travel across the U.S. from the northwest in Alaska all the way to the northeast in Maine.
Mt. McKinley National Park - Alaska's First National Park
In the year 1917, Mt. McKinley National Park joined the roster of American National Parks. Not only was it the first National Park to be designated in Alaska, but it was also one of the first parks in the country ever to be designated, (as only a handful of National Parks had been created prior). The park centered around Mt. McKinley, which, at over 20,000 feet above sea level, is North America's tallest mountain peak.
But the controversy over what to name the park and the mountain that acts as the focal point for the park began even before the park was designated. According to the National Park Service, the team of mountaineers, naturalists, and state officials tasked with creating the park had been engaged in a debate over what to name the park for quite some time.
While Mt. McKinley had been known by that name for years, naturalists and mountaineers like Charles Sheldon and Belmore Browne wanted to use the upcoming designation of the National Park as a chance to rename the mountain (and the park) to Denali National Park. They felt "Denali," an Indigenous word for "The Great One," was more appropriate than a U.S. president from Ohio who never visited Alaska. In an open letter to his peers, Sheldon wrote:
"I hope that in the bill you will call it ‘Mt Denali National Park’ so that the true old Indian [sic] name of Mt McKinley (meaning ‘the Great One’) will thus be preserved."
Thomas Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission disagreed with Sheldon and Browne. He wrote:
"I don’t like the name of Denali. It is not descriptive. Everybody in the United States knows of Mt. McKinley and the various efforts made to climb it. In consequence, both Mr. Yard and I think that the name McKinley should stick."
Riggs and Yard succeeded in keeping the name "McKinley" on the park and mountain, and Mt. McKinley National Park was officially designated on February 26th, 1917.
But the debate to give the mountain and park a name more reflective of the park and its Indigenous inhabitants did not cease after the park was designated. In fact, in the decades that followed, park enthusiasts, state officials, naturalists, mountaineers, even park visitors continued to debate the issue. In his 1930 memoir, Sheldon again wrote:
“The Indians [sic] who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate . . . Can it be denied that the names they gave to the most imposing features of their country should be preserved? Can it be too late to make an exception to current geographic rules and restore these beautiful names—names so expressive of the mountains themselves, and so symbolic of the Indians who bestowed them?”
It took several decades, but in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park. And in 2016, on the eve of the National Park Service's 100th anniversary, President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell took action to restore the name Denali to the mountain as well.
Today, about 600,000 people visit Denali National Park each year. They can enjoy the natural beauty of the park and learn something about the Indigenous history of the mountain. And like with so many other things in life, that history all begins with the name.
To learn more about Denali National Park and the history behind its name and designation, check out the website for the National Park Service. And if you have Denali National Park on your bucket list or have been there before, why not add some unique, vintage National Park art to your home or office? At the time of this writing, Anderson Design Group poster artists have hand-rendered eight original designs celebrating the natural beauty of Denali National Park.
Lafayette National Park - Maine Joins the Roster with the First National Park East of the Mississippi
Acadia National Park, the Gem of Maine and arguably one of the most visually stunning parks on the roster, was not initially designated as "Acadia" National Park. In fact, the region that is now Acadia National Park was originally a National Monument called Sieur de Monts National Monument. It earned this designation in 1916 and was then expanded and renamed Lafayette National Park in 1919. Then, a decade later, it was renamed Acadia National Park.
Congress's redesignation of the National Monument to a National Park made sense, as a National Park designation comes with additional protections and conservation measures. But why the interim period as Lafayette National Park?
When Congress redesignated the monument as a National Park, they named it Lafayette National Park after the Marquis de Lafayette, an influential French participant in the American Revolution. But in 1929, Congress decided to rename the park again, this time calling it Acadia National Park. The reason? Congress wanted to honor the former French colony of Acadia that once included Maine. Even though the park no longer honors a French individual, the park still honors the rich French heritage that is alive and well in Maine.
To learn more about Congress's move to change the name of Lafayette National Park to Acadia National Park and the politics of that decision, you can visit the website for the Friends of Acadia, a conservation group that publishes historical pieces about the park. And if you've been to Acadia National Park or are planning on going there, why not liven up your home or office with some handcrafted, vintage National Park art by Anderson Design Group? At the time of this writing, our award-winning poster artists have created nine original pieces of Acadia National Park and some of the natural beauty and wildlife of the region.
The National Parks - Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
As much as we enjoy learning about National Park history and as much excitement as we get out of visiting the National Parks in the present, it's important to consider the future of the parks. America's National Parks require preservation, conservation, and ongoing efforts to protect and maintain these national treasures. That's why, here at Anderson Design Group, we donate a portion of our profits each year to the National Parks Foundation. Every time you buy our art products, you're helping to preserve these national wonderlands for generations to come.
The National Park Service is a little over a century old. Here's to another century of park conservation and protection!
Anderson Design Group Writing Staff