OLMSTED, YOSEMITE AND THE NIAGARA RESERVATION
YOSEMITE AND THE
Although many people contributed to the
complex process of establishment of the Reservation at
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
Olmsted had many New England connections
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
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.
The Woods of Goat Island"
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.