In Texas, 16 National Park Service sites represent an archive of America’s past as well as a vision for its future, honoring and conserving natural and cultural history. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of our national parks, as President Woodrow Wilson authorized the creation of the National Park Service in August 1916. In most cases, individuals have guided the transformation of a wild or historically significant place to national park status, recognizing its importance before official designation came to pass. The centennial spotlights accomplishments by Texans responsible for some of the state’s national parks.
Congress established Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a desert mountain environment with more than half its 86,000-plus acres designated as wilderness, in 1972. The park lies along the northwestern edge of the state and shares a border with New Mexico, combining a 1959 land gift from geologist Wallace Pratt with the purchase of J.C. Hunter Jr.’s Guadalupe Mountain Ranch. Pratt built two summer homes on his ruggedly beautiful McKittrick Canyon property, a riparian landscape where bigtooth maples turn saffron and crimson in the fall. Thanks to Pratt’s generosity, the McKittrick Canyon Trail has become one of the park’s premiere autumn destinations. Hunter’s ranch holdings comprise the lion’s share of the national park, forged from several smaller ranches in the surrounding sierras and foothills. Pratt and Hunter, both conservationists, recognized the intrinsic natural beauty of the Guadalupe Mountains, and their enthusiasm spurred the national park’s creation.
Park staff has planned plenty of activities throughout the centennial year, but Park Superintendent Eric Brunnemann says he believes every day is a great day to visit the park. “For me,” he says, “the Guadalupes are alive with strength and beauty. The massive Guadalupe Peak towers above the state line, visible for almost 100 miles.” At more than 8,700 feet, the peak is the highest natural point in Texas.
South of the Guadalupes, Fort Davis National Historic Site highlights the state’s military history. The post, established in 1854, served the frontier until 1891 by protecting settlers, mail coaches and wagon trains. Abandoned after the Civil War, Fort Davis was reoccupied by the 9th U.S. Cavalry in 1867. Today, the fort is one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post. Twenty-four roofed buildings remain, along with more than 100 ruins and foundations.
Most of the fort’s structures were in ruins until 1953, when Fort Davis locals Malcolm “Bish” and Sally Tweedy established the Fort Davis Historical Society. The group quickly organized a celebration of the fort’s own centennial to draw attention to its plight. Their efforts brought much-needed resources to the historic area, and less than a decade later, President John F. Kennedy signed the bill designating the fort as a National Historic Site.
For this year’s centennial celebration, the park held its first-ever 5K fun run/walk, says John Heiner, Fort Davis National Historic Site’s chief of interpretation. “The race started with the firing of the park’s 3-inch ordnance rifle,” he said. The historic site is also sponsoring a Healthy Parks, Healthy People program for the centennial, promoting a combination of hiking and history.
About 100 miles south of Fort Davis, Big Bend National Park is the largest national park in the state and, with more than 750,000 acres, the 14th largest in the country. Mountains, mesas, canyons and the Rio Grande occupy this expanse, which is part of the larger Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. The region’s beauty came to light early in the 20th century courtesy of Everett Townsend, state Rep. Robert M. Wagstaff from Abilene and Texas writer J. Frank Dobie. All three were enthusiastic about Big Bend’s standout qualities and wanted to preserve as much of the rugged, undeveloped region as possible.
Townsend, considered the “father” of Big Bend National Park, joined the Texas Rangers at age 19 in 1890. He was elected sheriff of Brewster County, home to Big Bend, in 1918. By 1932, Townsend was serving in the Texas Legislature alongside Wagstaff. Together they shepherded a bill through the Legislature to designate 150,000 acres of Big Bend country as a state park. A decade later, Townsend watched as Texas Gov. Coke R. Stevenson deeded 750,000 acres to the National Park Service, creating Big Bend National Park.
“Big Bend National Park is a wildness of panoramic landscapes, biologic diversity and a cultural history spanning thousands of years,” says David Elkowitz, the park’s chief of interpretation. “One of our goals for the park service’s centennial is to connect today’s visitors with its rich and varied tapestry.”
To do so, the national park, now almost 75 years old, is using some very modern techniques. “To help get the word out about this fantastic area and these special events, we’ve developed a social media team to help share this park with Texas and the rest of the world,” says Cindy Ott-Jones, Big Bend National Park superintendent. “We are experiencing what looks like our busiest spring on record.”
Across the state, in the Rio Grande Valley, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park honors the memories of American and Mexican soldiers who fought and died in the first battle of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846. Brownsville historian Walter Plitt, chairman of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park Committee, championed a 15-year effort to establish the park, helping to acquire national park status for the battlefield in 2009. Today, the park features groomed trails leading out to the U.S. and Mexican battle lines, a visitor center with interactive exhibits and artifacts, and a living history program.
“The park provides an understanding of this conflict and offers a chance to reflect on its causes,” says Mark Spier, Palo Alto park superintendent. “It was a war that literally shaped two nations, and it changed the map of North America.”
East of Palo Alto, Padre Island National Seashore graces the longest barrier island in the world. The park encompasses 70 of the island’s 113 miles, protecting coastal prairies, dunes, tidal flats and nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and 380 species of birds.
By the 1920s, Padre Island began to see a considerable number of visitors along its shores despite its remoteness. Texans were determined to enjoy their beaches and did so by whatever means necessary. Two of Padre Island’s earliest advocates were David E. Colp, one of Gov. Pat Neff’s appointees to the newly established State Parks Board in 1923, and Colp’s longtime associate, Cameron County Judge Oscar Dancy.
Dancy’s lifelong dream was to create a national park on the island, complete with access and infrastructure. That project required 40 years, and in September 1962, Kennedy made Dancy’s dream a reality when he signed the bill creating Padre Island National Seashore.
“In our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, I en-courage all Texans to come out to Padre Island,” Spier says. “Visitors can witness the release of hatchling sea turtles into the Gulf, fly a kite, bird-watch, fish on the beach, learn about ranching and cowboys at Novillo Line Camp, or just walk in the surf and relax.”
Spier’s list features activities that are remarkably similar to those that Texans engaged in 100 years ago along the same seashores. Today, thanks to the National Park Service, opportunities such as these are granted, whether on Texas beaches or across the state’s wild lands.
E. Dan Klepper is a photographer, author and artist who lives in Marathon.