Last Thursday (March 1), Yellowstone National Park marked its 140th year of existence. It’s also a perfect excuse to remind everyone that, despite our name, the New-York Historical Society’s collections document the history of the entire United States, not just of New York and its neighbors.
In his 2008 television series documenting his tour of the United States, English actor Stephen Fry mused “It’s the curse of tourism to destroy what it most desires”, an observation that would certainly have resonated among conservation-minded Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century. By then, the pristine grandeur of a national treasure such as Niagara Falls had devolved into a disturbing example of what overzealous tourism could do to nature’s sublime landscapes.
Niagara’s folly set the backdrop for those who sought to preserve the Yellowstone region from similar desecration. Among the developments which helped solidify support for the preservation of Yellowstone were the fruits of the 1871 geological survey led by Ferdinand V. Hayden. With the support of railroad financier Jay Cooke (who hoped to drum up interest in his own project, the Northern Pacific Railway), Hayden brought along photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran.
This decision would prove influential as the exhibition of their Yellowstone scenes helped sway the debate in favor of preserving Yellowstone. While Congress had entrusted Yosemite to California as a state park, Yellowstone, not yet within the borders of an established state or states, became a national park. As a result, when Ulysses Grant signed the act into law on March 1, 1872 he inaugurated what is believed to be the first national park in the world.
Being reproduced in a multitude of later works, the now iconic depictions of Yellowstone by Jackson, Moran and other artists would also serve to introduce the park’s extraordinary beauty to the wider public.