On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law that established Rocky Mountain National Park. That legislation laid out the coordinates of the park, and set aside the land for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” In recognition of the centennial anniversary, the National Archives’ Special Media Division has gathered records related to the iconic landscape.
The National Archives is fortunate to have a substantial collection of photos by Ansel Adams. In 1941 Adams was recruited by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to photograph the national parks. Ickes intended to select a number of these photos to be printed as murals and hung around the Department of Interior building. Adams would later claim this was “one of the best ideas ever to come out of Washington.”
Adams had first met Harold Ickes while lobbying for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1936. Both Adams and Ickes hoped to increase traction within the environmentalist movement. Ickes later showed Adams’ book, The Sierra Nevada and the John Muir Trail, to President Roosevelt. FDR kept the book for himself, and subsequently joined Ickes and Adams in their crusade to pass the Kings River National Park bill in 1940.
Adams’ project for the Department of the Interior began in October 1941. Adams was granted the maximum annual salary for any position not subject to congressional approval, twenty-two dollars and twenty cents a day. In the nine months that followed, Adams traveled between parks, capturing photos of the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, Boulder Dam, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and many others. Unfortunately, the project was terminated on July 1, 1942 due to pressures of World War II. These photos are now public records and available at the National Archives.
In addition to the Ansel Adams collection, the Cartographic division at the National Archives maintains the master plans for parks and monuments. These plans are often original pen-and-ink, crayon, wash, and watercolor drawings of area plans. The maps often show potential roads, trail plans, fire-control plans, vegetation maps, and utility areas. An excerpt from the Rocky Mountain National Park plan can be viewed in the slideshow below. Click on the images to view larger versions in a new window. Select “view full size” to zoom in.
To study the last one hundred years of the Rocky Mountains’ history neglects the vast majority of the land’s past. Geologists study the land to interpret how North America has changed over tens of millions of years. Sea fossils at the top of the peaks indicate the mountains were once under water, and remnants from glacial slides lead many to suspect that the mountains were once twice the size they are today. The Rockies have been inhabited by Native American tribes for more than 10,000 years, and by wildlife for even longer. They were explored by Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century, and continue to be explored by climbers today.
These topics and more are explored in a film produced by the National Park Service in 1984, Fountain of Life: Rocky Mountain National Park. The film is now preserved within the National Archives’ Motion Picture holdings, and has been recently digitized in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Fountain of Life: Rocky Mountain National Park, Local ID: 79-HFC-103
The Rocky Mountains are an American treasure. The legislation passed one hundred years ago ensured that future generations will always have access to this majestic land. It is with great pleasure that we wish Rocky Mountain National Park a happy 100th Birthday!