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The Way We Used To Describe And Enjoy National Parks


The way it was: Camping in Acadia National Park in August 1934. Photo by Allan Rinehart, National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

The written word is a marvelous thing, so much more so when it's used to describe a place. In the early part of the 20th century, those employed by the Government Printing Office had a stylish way to describe national parks. Perhaps not as eloquent as some of today's finer writers, but stylish just the same.

Take, for instance, these opening passages from Acadia National Park, Maine, written for the summer season of June 15-October 15 1931, back when Horace M. Albright was the National Park Service director:

Our national parks are areas of superlative scenery which are set apart and maintained by the Federal Government for the use and enjoyment of the people. They are the people's property; the Government, the people's agent and trustee.

Few in number, but covering an extraordinary range of landscape interest, they have all, with a single exception, been formed by setting aside for park purposes lands already held in ownership by the United States and lie in the nationally younger regions of the country to the westward of the Mississippi.

The single exception is Acadia National Park, occupying old French territory on the coast of Maine and created in 1919 from lands collected during the previous decade and presented to the Government. The name it bears commemorates the ancient French possession of the land the part it had in the long congest to control the destinies and development of North America. The park is unique as a member of the national system in its contact with the ocean and inclusion of nationally owned coastal waters in its recreational territory.

Acadia National Park lies surrounded by the sea, occupying as its nucleus and central feature the bold range of the Mount Desert Mountains, whose ancient uplift, worn by immeasurable time and recent ice erosion, remains to form the largest rock-built island on our Atlantic Coast; 'l'Isle des Monts deserts," as Champlain named it, with the keen descriptive sense of the early French explorers.

What was important to the Interior Department and the National Park Service when compiling this 22-page pamphlet on Acadia?

Well, before addressing Acadia there was an entire page -- yes, one entire page -- that listed the country's "National Parks at a Glance." In 1931, this list could indeed fill just one page: Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Crater Lake, General Grant, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains (proposed, the authors noted), Hawaii (no clear delineation among the parks that now exist in that state), Hot Springs, Lassen Volcanic, Mesa Verde, Mount McKinley (you know it as Denali), Mount Rainier, Platt (no longer a separate park unit), Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Sullys Hill (also no longer a park unit), Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion.

Alongside each of those parks was a sentence or two of "distinctive characteristics." For instance, Bryce Canyon was described as holding "Box canyons filled with countless array of fantastically eroded pinnacles -- Best exhibit of vivid coloring of earth's materials."

Crater Lake, meanwhile, was a "Lake of extraordinary blue in crater of extinct volcano -- Sides 1,000 feet high -- Interesting lava formations -- Fine fishing."

Yosemite harbored "Valley of world-famed beauty -- Lofty cliffs -- Romantic vistas -- Many waterfalls of extraordinary height -- 3 groves of Big Trees -- High Sierra -- Waterwheel Falls -- Good trout fishing."

Here are some other interesting snippets from the pamphlet. Keep in mind when they were written, how society then viewed nature, and where we stand today.

On Acadia being a "Wild-Life Sanctuary"

One important aspect of our national parks and monuments is that they -- unlike the forests, devised to follow economic lines -- are absolute sanctuaries, islands of shelter for the native life in all but noxious forms. Like the monasteries in the Middle Ages that sheltered -- all too fragmentarily -- the literature and learning of the classic period, they are a means of incalculable value for preserving in this destructive time the wealth of forms and species we have inherited from the past and have a duty to hand on undiminished to the future, so far as that be possible.

In this aspect of a wild-life sanctuary, plant and animal, Acadia National Park is remarkable. Land and sea, woodland, lake, and mountain all are represented in it in wonderful concentration. In it, too, the northern and temperature zone floras meet and overlap, and land climate meets sea climate, each tempering the other. It lies directly in the coast migration route of birds and exhibits at its fullest the Acadian forest, made famous by Evangeline, and the northernmost extension of that great Appalachian forest which at the landing of De Monts stretched without a break from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf and is the oldest, by the record of the rocks, and richest in existing species of any mingled hardwood and coniferous forest in the Temperate Zone. And it possesses, also, a rich biologic field in the neighboring ocean, the parent habitat of life.

On "Motor Travel" in the park

No place in the East offers an objective point of greater interest for motor travel than Acadia National Park and its surrounding coast resorts, which provide accommodations for its visitors. In addition to the park roads, there is an excellent system of State and town roads encircling and traversing Mount Desert Island which reaches every point of interest. These roads have a combined length of over 200 miles, and exhibit a combination of seashore and inland scenery not found elsewhere on the eastern coast.

On "Motor Camping"

A public camp ground is maintained in the park for motorists bringing their own camping outfits. The ground is equipped with running water, modern sanitary conveniences, outdoor fireplaces, electric lights, and places to wash clothes. It is under the close supervision of the park authorities, and safety and freedom from annoyance is assured. No charge is made for the camping privilege.

Selected "Rules and Regulations"

Camping -- No camp shall be made except at designated localities, and when made must be kept neat and orderly. Blankets, clothing, hammocks, or any other articles of camp equipment shall not be hung or exhibited near any public road or trail. Camp grounds must be thoroughly cleaned before they are abandoned. Cans, bottles, cast-off clothing, and all other debris shall be placed in garbage receptacles or buried in pits provided for the purpose.

Fires -- Fires constitute one of the greatest perils to a park. They shall not be kindled except with the express permission of the superintendent or his representatives, and in designated localities; they shall be lighted only when necessary, and when no longer needed shall be completely extinguished, all embers and ash beds being smother with earth or water so that no possibility remains of their again becoming alive. No lighted match, cigar, or cigarette shall be dropped in grass, twigs, leaves, or tree mold, or thrown away unextinguished.

Hunting -- The park is a sanctuary for wild life of every sort, and hunting, killing, wounding, capturing, or frightening any bird or wild animal in the park is strictly prohibited.

Gambling -- Gambling in any form, or the operation of gambling devices, whether for merchandise or otherwise, is prohibited.

Dogs and cats -- Cats are not permitted in the park and dogs only when under leash.

More evidence of the simpler, comparatively less-expensive time is found in the pamphlet's listing of hotels and boarding houses. Rooms ranged from $2 and up, some with three meals a day. Telephone numbers for the establishments were three digits. Imagine that.


There was a time once when English was a flourishing language and even fairly common people were well educated. Probably won't be long until our park pamphlets are written in texting code. Cya ltr - don't B l8

Thank you for this charming and most interesting post. As someone who's enchanted by Acadia today, I love reading about how others viewed Mount Desert Island in the past. For example, I was delighted to learn that the first guidebook about Mount Desert was written by a woman, Mrs. Clara Barnes Martin, in 1867. Like the writer of the GPO pamphlet -- and myself -- she was taken by where the mountains meet the sea.

Lynn Fantom
Publisher, OUR ACADIA


I can't imagine anyone not being taken by Acadia. It was, I believe, the very first national park I visited, and remains one of my top two today!

I find it instructional that in both the Organic Act in 1916, and now in this language in 1931, the term "wild life" is used. Not wildlife. I think this speaks to the purpose of the parks: to protect life in its wild state.

This is like poetry..I think handwriting was neat and readable and we were closer to the earth in a number of ways, and I think this condition existed until just recently in time. Say right around the time of computers and tv. Go camping today and relive this time..leave your cell phone at home and don't bring a tv or laptop. These are the new rules if you would like to return to peace and quite and become close to nature again.

Extremely fun article to read. Your posts about the parks are always interesting and educational. Thanks!

Nice to be able to compare then and how it is now. I love climbing the mountain and hiking the trails - Very commercial at present but there are still some quiet spots to visit. Grandchildren love to go pick up "critters" at ocean edge:)

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