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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

July 19, 2022: UtahStudying: National Parks

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On striking stories behind a few of the state’s truly stunning landscapes.

1)      Arches: While it’s vital to note (apropos of yesterday’s post) that no white arrivals “discovered” the amazing natural wonders that would become Arches National Park, the story of how the region came to the attention of the National Park Service is still strikingly representative of early 20th century Western US histories. It’s a story that features a railroad executive (Frank Wadleigh), a photographer (George Beam), a Hungarian immigrant turned prospector (Alexander Ringhoffer), a grad student in geology and future Arctic explorer (Laurence Gould), and a local doctor (J.W. “Doc” Williams), without every one of whom it’s quite possible the site would not have been designated a National Monument in 1929. If that ain’t a miniseries waiting to happen, I don’t know what is.

2)      Bryce Canyon: When my family took our Southwestern National Parks trip in the spring of 1990, we weren’t able to make it to Arches, but we did get to visit the other two parks I’ll highlight in this post. Everything we saw on that trip was quite literally awesome to me, but definitely a highlight were the hoodoos of Bryce, one of the more spectacular natural wonders I’ve ever been around. But that’s apparently not what the park’s namesake felt—Scottish immigrant farmer Ebenezer Bryce, who was sent by the Mormons with his wife to initially settle the area, supposedly said of the hoodoo amphitheaters that they were “a helluva place to lose a cow.” I’ve often been struck by the image of a teenage Ben Franklin tending his family’s cows on Boston Common, but I think that Ebenezer Bryce frustratedly searching for a cow amidst the grandeur of the hoodoos might be even more striking still.

3)      Zion: Zion and Bryce are close together, at least for the incredibly wide-open spaces of the Southwest, and share similar natural formations as well as some parallel Mormon histories. But Zion’s name developed much less organically, and reflects a frustrating reality underlying pretty much all of America’s National Parks (and certainly all those in the west). When President Taft designated the area a National Monument in 1909 (making it Utah’s first such site), it was known as Mukuntuweap, after explorer John Wesley Powell’s tribute to the Paiute people and their language. But in 1919, National Park Service Director Horace Albright designated the site a National Park and changed the name to Zion in the process, ostensibly because it was the Mormon term for the region but also because it would be more palatable to white tourists. We can’t tell the story of Utah’s parks, no more than any others, without recognizing their fraught and too often destructive relationship to native communities and voices.

Next Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

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