On Feb. 26, on a spot overlooking one of the country’s most majestic spectacles, visitors will gather to celebrate the Grand Canyon’s 100th anniversary as a national park.
As befitting such a momentous occasion, choirs will sing, speeches will be made, and cake will be served.
Yet the day-long festivities honoring a national treasure will be in stark contrast to the day exactly a century ago when President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill to make the Grand Canyon the 14th member of the young national-park system.
In the days after the signing, there was scant mention of it in The Arizona Republican, an indication editors had no idea that such a remote locale would one day define their state.
Looking back it’s odd, almost shocking, how Arizona’s pride and joy — an awe-inspiring place that draws millions of visitors from around the world and spurred the state’s nickname — slipped quietly through the national-park back door and into preservation history.
But in context, it made perfect sense.
An occasion barely noted
Located within the historic archives of the Grand Canyon National Park is the pen Woodrow Wilson used to sign Senate Bill 390, “An Act to Establish the Grand Canyon National Park in the State of Arizona.”
The archives also hold a formal portrait of Wilson, as well as a copy of the legislation proclaiming the Grand Canyon a national park, according to spokesperson Emily Davis. But officials do not have a photo of Wilson signing the bill, nor the document itself.
The Congressional Record from Feb. 26, 1919, includes a brief mention of the approved bill, listed among such mundane measures as board vacancies and program funding. On that day, Wilson also signed the bill creating what would become Acadia National Park in Maine.
What may have seemed like a bit of legislative housekeeping 100 years ago would have a far-ranging impact on the Grand Canyon, as well as Arizona. The act preserved the canyon for future generations, creating a park that now draws more than 6 million visitors per year.
At the time, Wilson’s signing was treated for what it was, a culmination of decades of effort to conserve an environment that had been taken for granted, even considered a hindrance.
By the time of the signing, it wasn’t the miners or loggers or the usual entrepreneurs of the day who threatened the Grand Canyon. It was the very people who came to admire it.
The early opportunists
By the middle of the 19th century, European-Americans knew very little about the canyon other than that it was impossible to cross and blocked north-south travel.
Inevitably, east-west wagon routes approached ever closer, bringing along those hoping to profit from the area’s natural resources. Still, initial reports weren’t good, based on the cost of transportation, the lack of a labor pool and the rightfully unwelcoming native people.
Prospectors were among the first to arrive, mining along the canyon’s eastern and western edges in the 1860s and ’70s. They found deposits of copper, lead and zinc, but digging further into the canyon’s depths was problematic because there was no easy way of transporting the ore.
Settlers in the 1870s and ’80s snatched large swaths of land thanks to mining and homesteading laws. Farms, ranches and logging operations slowly approached the canyon’s southern rim.
By the early 1880s, word of an unearthly land reached the desk of a conservation-minded Indiana senator. Benjamin Harrison introduced bills in 1882, 1883 and 1886 to protect the canyon as a public park. Each time, his effort failed.
In 1893, as President Harrison, he established the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve, the first tangible step in preserving the land. The designation still allowed mining, logging and grazing, but within limits.
While those industries loomed as potential perils to an area still largely pristine, an industry just getting its footing in the late 1880s would prove to be the greatest challenge to keeping the canyon a timeless treasure.
As mining ventures failed, pioneering entrepreneurs were discovering the gold and silver deep in the pockets of tourists.
The first tourists arrive
To the adventurous travelers who ventured for days to peer into the chasm’s depths, William Wallace Bass was as much a part of the landscape as the layers of sediment.
He settled in Williams in 1883, having moved from New York for his health. Within two years he carved the first road to the canyon, setting up camp at Havasupai Point and befriending the Havasupai people. Over the next two decades, he built other roads and more than 60 miles of trails, opening up the canyon to a slim tourist trade in the remote wilderness.
For 35 years Bass plied that tourist trade. Other entrepreneurial spirits arrived as well, offering tours and trinkets to adventurous travelers.
At first the only way to reach the South Rim was by stagecoach, which took 12 hours from Flagstaff.
A November 1899 dispatch in The Republican described the 65-mile trek, the writer arriving at a camp that appeared as a “tiny tent village.” The tents fit in well with the experience, the writer noted, though “pretentious accommodations” (likely a hotel) awaited.
Bass initially hosted visitors at a camp he set up 27 miles west of present-day Grand Canyon Village. In 1901, he was lured east when the railroad arrived at the South Rim.
The railroad was a boon to business. Bass built two homes that doubled as hotels not far from the terminus. But the railroad also was his undoing: The now-accessible canyon increased in popularity, leading the government to step in to protect it. Individual entrepreneurs would be shut out.
“All the concessions at the Grand Canyon are to be let to the highest bidder,” Bass told The Republican a week after Wilson signed the fateful bill, “and it is understood that the intention is to give them all to one person or one company…
“I would like to see the concessions go to the men who actually developed the park, have opened the trails and made it accessible.”
Bass sold his holdings to the Santa Fe Land and Improvement Company in 1926, but his days at the Grand Canyon weren’t quite over. Upon his death in 1933, his ashes were put aboard an airplane and sprinkled over the areas he most loved.
As the railroad began to civilize tourism in this now less-remote area, it brought a particular traveler who would change the Grand Canyon’s path forever.
‘Keep it for your children’
Prior to September 1901, the only way to get to the vistas, impossible to imagine, was on horseback or by stagecoach. Tourists chose the latter, taking the train to Flagstaff or Williams before embarking on the most difficult part of the journey, one that could last a day or two depending on trail conditions.
Word of the otherworldly scenery slowly spread, but bills to designate the region a national park failed in 1882, 1883 and 1886. It wasn’t until the railroad arrived that the Grand Canyon entered the spotlight.
On Sept. 17, 1901, the first Grand Canyon Railway cars arrived from Williams. Rather than pay $10-$20 (roughly $300-$600 in today’s dollars) for a lengthy stagecoach ride, tourists could travel in comfort for just $3.75 (about $110).
The most important passenger arrived in 1903. Someone determined — and in a position — to protect the canyon.
As with those before him, President Theodore Roosevelt was stirred by the sight. It was his first time in Arizona.
“Man cannot improve on it; not a bit,” he said in a planned speech. “The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”
Finally, a national park
By this time the canyon had been designated a national forest reserve, although some ranching, mining and grazing were still permitted. Roosevelt was determined to go further. In 1906, he declared much of the canyon a federal game preserve, which restricted, but did not prohibit, grazing.
Two years later, he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, ending private claims within the 1,279-square-mile area.
Efforts to protect the Grand Canyon grew with every photo and first-person account of its rugged beauty. By 1917, it seemed inevitable that national-park status was at hand.
In April, 1917, Sen. Henry Ashurst (D-AZ), whose father once prospected in the canyon, introduced Senate Bill 390 to establish the Grand Canyon National Park. The Senate passed the bill a month later, but red tape involving boundaries and rights of private interests snagged it. America’s entry into World War I also was a factor.
Once details were ironed out, SB 390 was passed by the House and Senate in February 1919 and quickly signed by Woodrow Wilson.
With a stroke of a pen, a national treasure was created, even if there were no choirs or cake to celebrate the occasion.
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