P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica, Missouri Botanical Garden
July 22, 2003




by P. M. Eckel
Missouri Botanical Garden
PO. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299
email: patricia.Eckel@mobot.org

Although many people contributed to the complex process of establishment of the Reservation at Niagara, the interest of the distinguished American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the keystone, the vital interest. He was the nucleus round which efforts to protect the cataracts of Niagara from development by private interests were concentrated. After the Niagara Reservation was established, it was his and his partner, Calvert Vaux's, conception of appropriate action toward improvement of this property that has been the source of guidance through a century of park administration.

Olmsted was and is primarily known for creating pastoral landscapes in city environments and articulating the doctrine of the public park. His celebrated designed parks, beginning with Central Park in New York City, enriched the urban lives of people living in many of the larger cities in the United States. This enrichment was deliberate and inherent in Olmsted's concept of urban reform, the democratization of the ownership or stewardship of natural areas by government.

Perhaps it was because Olmsted was the best, or most successful, craftsman of his time in the art of landscape architecture in this country that he could appreciate the value of the most breath-taking scenery of North America - the outcome of natural processes. Olmsted, who could weigh the practicalities of design implementation and design effectiveness in the artificial environments of cities, could see the irreplaceable, unattainable grandeur of natural design inherent in the native ecosystems and physiography of the great aboriginal landscapes of the United States. Olmsted's urban parks were the antithesis of or the balance with the urban industrial environment, just as natural landscapes were of the city landscape. They were necessary to a balanced set of opportunity for the well-being of society.

Olmsted's opportunity to participate in the movement to make the preservation of North America's best natural landscapes a government concern came after President Abraham Lincoln, in 1864 during the Civil War, signed into law the first designated state park in the United States. The proposal was submitted to Lincoln by California Senator John Conness with respect to the Mariposa Big Tree Grove and Yosemite Valley. "The United States national parks were born at that moment although Yosemite was not yet national, but state-owned" (Todd, 1982). Olmsted was appointed as one of the commissioners authorized by Governor Low of California to develop policy regarding this land. This would be the first time such a policy would have been formulated. Olmsted's fellow commissioners elected him their chairman.

Inspired by his new authority, Olmsted "had the territory surveyed and mapped in order that roads to and through it could be planned according to his detailed instructions." This was accomplished by Clarence King and James Gardner, employees of the California State Geological Survey", authorized by one of the commissioners, J. D. Whitney (Roper, 1973). Olmsted personally advanced money to have this done (Todd, 1982) prior to the State's designation of funding. The next thing Olmsted did was to write the preliminary report on the management of Yosemite, the authorship of which "logically fell to Olmsted," (Todd, 1982), perhaps because he was "the man best qualified on the commission, and probably in the country, for this unprecedented task" (Roper, 1973), presumably because of his earlier association with the design and purpose of Central Park.

Roper (1973) declared, in the publishing of this document in 1952, using italics for emphasis, that with "this single report, in short, Olmsted formulated a philosophic base for the creation of state and national parks." It is a very interesting document and did indeed embody philosophic principles; it did attempt to establish a land use policy for areas of scenic grandeur for the public good. In this document, Olmsted had "demonstrated the qualities of a conservative social reformer with a distinctive theory about the role that public parks ought to play in a democratic society." The report was "the first systematic exposition in America of the individual's right to enjoy large, impressive public reservations of natural scenery, and, also, the government's obligation to protect him in the exercise of that right" (Todd, 1982).

The present writer has found some difficulty in finding justification for giving this document the momentous historic influence attributed to it, and the "landmark" role the document is suggested to have played in the continuation of the movement to preserve significant natural areas in the United States. As far as I can see, in the two publications examined with respect to the Yosemite report (Roper, 1973; Todd, 1982) the only exposure this document ever had was private: to the initial Yosemite Park commissioners who later were supposed to have suppressed it, and several visitors, including the editors of two important eastern newspapers, the lieutenant governor of Illinois, the attorney general of Massachusetts, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to whom the report was presented around a campfire in Yosemite Valley. Then it disappeared for nearly a century (Todd, 1982). Perhaps it would have been a landmark if the document had been made public, and if other documents and legislation, could be demonstrated to have evolved from it. It is possible that such may not have been the case and the important concepts forming the content of the Yosemite report were more powerfully disseminated in Olmsted's inspiring conversations with influential colleagues.

Todd (1982) suggested this was the case when he indicated that when Olmsted was actively working to establish the Niagara Reservation by developing a proposal and petition to impress the Governor of New York State, Olmsted made no use of the Yosemite report, which "had had no real impact ... because of its suppression ...." It is odd that, although Olmsted appeared to have the proper audience later at Niagara before which to reissue the substance of the Yosemite proposal, he appeared to choose not to do so.

Not only did Olmsted's report never become generally circulated where it could do the greatest good, but he himself returned East to continue his career while still chairman of the commission of Yosemite. Without strong leadership, Yosemite began to disintegrate as a preserve of natural scenery. No one, commissioner or otherwise, fought to give Yosemite the government funds required to operate (Todd, 1982). Olmsted, back in the East and accepting architectural commissions, knew how his report was being suppressed and that Yosemite was being compromised, but rather "than involve ... [himself] in a public quarrel ... he chose to let the alleged injustice pass and paid no public attention to it. Governor Low officially acknowledged [Olmsted's] resignation from the Yosemite Commission in 1867" (Todd, 1982).

It seems less ironic, as Todd suggested, that Olmsted's report disappeared than that Olmsted abandoned the first state park, of the commission of which he was chairman, in order to pursue his own career. Private exploitation, so well displayed in the evolution of Central Park and other cultural achievements in New York City, and which continually plague government-sponsored preserves, increased in the preserve at Yosemite after Olmsted abandoned its leadership. According to Todd, 1982, it was the state of California that "allowed it to fall into neglect." It was the naturalist John Muir who "launched a relentless campaign to save Yosemite from logging, grazing, and many other kinds of misuse," (Todd, 1982). If only Olmsted had pursued his leadership at Yosemite, and Muir had had such a plan as Olmsted's in his own arsenal, the Yosemite outcome might have been much different. In 1906, however, the State of California relinquished its title to Yosemite and it became Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Park was a very important precedent and probably can lay claim to being both the first state park (1864), but the first national park as well, as long as one does not quibble about legislation. The federal government had made Yosemite a state park when it had no program of its own. Yellowstone, the first legally unambiguous national park was established later, in 1872. Yosemite was to continue to be the sacrificial lamb of the national lands movement when the Hetch Hetchy Act permitted damming of the river to supply additional water to San Francisco in 1913 during the Woodrow Wilson administration (Albright, 1985), and in 1917 when it was proposed to permit fifty thousand sheep to graze there. The Sierra Club had continued and still continues to block these decisions to destroy native ecosystems in national lands.

Niagara Falls, New York, was much closer to Olmsted's center of operations, occurring in the state in which he, together with his partner, Calvert Vaux, had established his reputation. Niagara was closer to where most of his influence was concentrated, and where his powerful friends in the eastern establishment were located. Still thinking of Yosemite, it was in the east where "Olmsted worked, frequently behind the scenes, to obtain signatures from influential friends for a petition to Congress on behalf of the sanctity of Yosemite" (Todd, 1982). Niagara became Olmsted's "second great opportunity to champion the cause of conservation." It would be a chance "to save the natural scenery around Niagara Falls from the commercialization and blight into which it had fallen," (Todd, 1982).

Niagara Falls had by around 1865 become "the most popular tourist attraction in the United States" (Todd, 1982). The tourists were a large unorganized constituency; many of the most influential and articulate had been victimized and exploited by those who made money from their intense interest in seeing and experiencing one of nature's greatest phenomena. Visitors who wrote of their experiences deplored the abuses there and many suggested remedies. The painter Frederick Church, for example, "warned of the rapidly approaching ruin of the scenery," (Todd, 1982). It was a situation only looking for leadership.

Since one of the new commissions Olmsted had received upon return to the east coast was the design of several urban parks in the city of Buffalo, New York, Olmsted was in a position to observe first-hand the urgency of the situation at the Falls, some twenty miles north of Buffalo. Olmsted met with his friends the architect H. H. Richardson and William Dorsheimer, both also with professional interests in Buffalo, "to discuss what might be done to combat the desecration" (Todd, 1982). Richardson and Dorsheimer were both Harvard graduates. Richardson was highly regarded then and was to become known as the greatest architect in America in the nineteenth century (Fox, 1986). Dorsheimer was an important factor in this meeting. He was a prominent Buffalo lawyer, and was to be twice lieutenant-governor of New York State, and an advisor to Governor Grover Cleveland at the critical time when legislation was to be passed to set the land at Niagara into the public domain. Dorsheimer was later appointed one of the first Commissioners of the State Reservation, and its first President and was instrumental in promoting Richardson and Olmsted's careers in Buffalo and the State, and both city and state are richer for that patronage.

Perhaps it is indicative of the general mobility of professionals in the United States in the nineteenth century that James Gardner (later spelled Gardiner), who assisted with the surveying of Yosemite under Olmsted and Whitney, the latter a commissioner of that park and Gardner's superior in the California State Geological Survey, was now director of the New York State Survey. Gardner had studied at the Yale Scientific School (Roper, 1973). Ten years after the Olmsted-Dorsheimer-Richardson meeting at Niagara Falls, Governor Robinson of New York appointed the commission to create a plan for a reservation at the Falls, with the collaboration of representatives from Ontario. Gardner completed the survey of the American side which accompanied the preliminary report for the year 1879, published in 1880 (Gardner, 1880).

Olmsted organized the famous petition for establishment of the Reservation, with the help of friends Dorsheimer, Frederick Church and Charles Eliot Norton, and supported by 700 signators: "some of the most distinguished members of the Anglo-American community who supported the preservation of Niagara" (Todd, 1982; for a partial list and an excellent history of the movement to preserve Niagara and the significance of its administration for the first twenty years of its existence see 19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903). Alonzo B. Cornell, the Governor succeeding Robinson, made no move to establish Niagara Falls in the public domain in spite of these activities.

Blocked politically, recourse to educating the public on the issues and involving them in the debate was made. Olmsted and Norton employed Henry Norman, a Harvard graduate, and Jonathan B. Harrison, who, previous to being a journalist, was a Unitarian minister (Todd, 1982), to provide copy for newspapers in Buffalo, New York City and Boston regarding the Niagara theme. Harrison later became secretary of the Niagara Falls Association, formed in New York City in 1883, and he was responsible for "flooding New York State with letters, pamphlets, and petitions" with respect to creation of a State Reservation at the Falls (Todd, 1982). Norman, for example, wrote a series of letters to the New York Tribune, the New York Herald, the New York Evening Post and the Boston Daily Advertiser (19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903).

Olmsted had many New England connections at Boston and Harvard University, where Dr. Asa Gray was developing the botany department. Olmsted was probably the one who captured the useful botanical testimonial from Gray's good colleague, Dr. Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens, both distinguished plant geographers, regarding the scientific value of Goat Island with its extraordinary plant diversity. This testimonial was paraphrased by Olmsted in the Gardner survey of 1880 (see section on Hooker), and has been paraphrased by Reservation advocates to this day.

In the creation of the Reservation at Niagara, Olmsted showed his ability and commitment, skillfully using his social theories, his friendships and ability to inspire as the cement holding together a group of colleagues and professionals with a mutual interest in preserving Niagara. Olmsted was the force behind the momentum of their progress. His theories were the plausible hypotheses with which to move ahead in the great experiment of a protected Niagara. They were theories only, but the anticipated results were of too great a value to ignore.

Grover Cleveland was next to succeed to the governorship of New York, and perhaps it is an example of his presidential caliber that it was his administration that established in law the State Park at Niagara, now the oldest State Park in the United States.

"At the time, no tradition of great scenic parks existed anywhere in the world: to protect an area and conserve it for recreational enjoyment was a policy that had never before been adopted for the management of land from the public domain. Surprisingly, there was no strong organized public movement in favor of such parks, and Congress did not seem to have any special interest in the idea," (Todd, 1982). Niagara was to provide an example of "organized public movement in favor of such parks." The federal government recognized Olmsted's contribution in using his achievement as the basis for awarding the Reservation its placement in the United States Registry of National Places (Fox, 1986). For an excellent review of the steps taken to preserve Niagara see 19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903.

The establishment of Yellowstone in 1872 was the first instance of "the principle of governmental authority to protect and preserve extraordinary phenomena in natural scenery" (19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903) (rhetorically speaking, for Yosemite had that distinction). In 1899 New York State Governor Roosevelt visited the Reservation (16 Ann Rep Comm, 1900). At first reference was made to "the indifference of the State of New York to this first far note of a coming doctrine" (19 Ann Rep Com, 1903). The campaign to protect Niagara had required lots of public addresses, newspaper and magazine articles, as such a concept had not been thought of before: "the campaign of education conducted by the advocates of the Reservation ... have done a great deal toward forming a more intelligent public opinion on this subject, and have materially advanced the movement for the protection of American scenery throughout the country" (19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903).

The Niagara Reservation was also an experiment in the ability of state government to develop departments or offices to oversee the protection of additional significant natural areas in New York State, and their regulation, and its integration into other critical areas of state stewardship - the management of the natural richness that is the heritage of each of the fifty states in the Union. "There are in this State not a few such places and objects that might with general approval be taken by the State and made public possessions for all time. Money expended in fostering a love for natural scenery and stimulating a popular interest in national or local history must be regarded as money well invested" (15 Ann Rep Comm, 1899). The eyes of the Nation, and possibly also of Canada, would be on New York State, which had legislatively devised much enlightened state legislation in many issues throughout its history. The problems that would beset this Reservation would be models for problems and their solution in future policy in the development of public lands.

It was this legacy of Frederick Olmsted, his colleagues and the Niagara Association, an organization he helped found, that prompted the Commissioners to protest later, when the integrity of the Reservation at Niagara was under attack by local industrial interests competing for the natural resources the Reservation was to protect that "it should not be forgotten that the Reservation really belongs to the State, to the whole State and not to any portion or section of it. The organized movement for the protection of the scenery of the Falls had its origin in the great city at the mouth of the Hudson. The same city is assessed for more than one half of the State taxes. Local interest in the Reservation is entirely subordinate to the interest of the State" (15 Ann Rep Comm, 1899).

The first Commissioners of the new State Reservation at Niagara appointed by Cleveland were William Dorsheimer, M. B. Anderson, J. Hampden Robb, Sherman S. Rogers and Andrew Haswell Green (for list of Commissioners, Presidents, Secretaries and Treasurers, their home-towns and terms of office till 1903 see 19 Ann Rep Comm, 1903).

Thomas V. Welch was appointed first Superintendent of the Niagara Reservation. Mr. Welch was responsible for overseeing the implementation of policy in the new State Park. His dedication and skill are detailed in the series of annual reports made by the Commissioners appointed to regulate the new Reservation, and printed by and for the State Legislature. Each report had a section written by the Superintendent.

Perhaps it is because the Commissioners asked David Day, a botanist with the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. to conduct a floristic survey of the new Reservation and adjacent lands at Niagara Falls that lead Welch to donate a series of his copies of the annual reports to the research library of that institution, which was to become the Buffalo Museum of Science. It is Welch's copies, signed "Compliments of Thomas V. Welch", which were consulted for this paper.

Mr. Welch served "upon many of the most prominent committees of the [New York State] Assembly and took an active and prominent part in a great deal of important legislative business, but the legislation to which he devoted himself heart and soul and into which he threw himself with an all-absorbing energy and purpose, and that with which his name will ever be inseparably associated, was that which had to do with the creation of the New York State Reservation...if it had not been for the work of Mr. Welch the measure would not then have become law..." (20 Ann Rep Comm, 1904). Mr. Welch had been clerk of the village of Niagara Falls, a member of the board of supervisors, then chairman of the board, then member of the New York State Assembly. He served as Superintendent from 1885 to the year of his death in 1903.

"In The Woods of Goat Island"
published with Olmsted's "Notes" from the Report of
the New York State Survey (1880)


Albright, H. M. (as told to R. Cahn). 1985. The Birth of the National Park Service. Howe Brothers, Chicago.

Fox, A. M. 1986. Designated Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier. Meyer Enterprises, Buffalo.

Gardner, J. T., Director. 1880. New York State Survey. Special report on the preservation of the scenery of Niagara Falls, and fourth annual report on the triangulation of the state for the year 1879. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen and Sons, pp. 27-31

Roper, L. W. 1973. A biography of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Todd, J. E. 1982. Frederick Law Olmsted. Twayne Publishers, Boston.