Living History: Zion National Park, from railroad attraction to Utah treasure
Watching for the first time the Ken Burns series "America's Best Idea" about the creation of the national parks, I was reminded that Utah is unusually blessed in that department. Utah boasts five of the brightest gems in the national crown jewels: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef.
Add to that seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, a national historic site and six national forests and Utah appears to have won the awesome vistas lottery.
Some grumble that you can't eat scenery and the people of Utah would be better served if more of the land were open to development. Our lawmakers tell each other, without foundation, that we are missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in possible revenue because the feds own so dang much of the state.
Yet a hundred years ago, the only thing southern Utah really had going for it commercially was its ruggedly pretty face. It would be the stunning landscapes that built the roads, bridges and railroads and still bring people from all over the world to pay to see what we have in our backyard.
Zion is a good example. The first white settlers did only marginally better than the American Indians who first inhabited the canyon. By the time the national government showed interest in the colossally gorgeous canyon, only a few Mormon settler families had set down stakes.
When offered compensation for their land, they happily took the money. The place was remote and hard to get to. The government was welcome to it.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft designated the area Mukuntuweap National Monument, using the name John Wesley Powell had given the canyon in 1872. The locals disliked the name and continued to call it Zion Canyon.
Park officials assiduously courted the local Mormon communities, recognizing that good relations would be a boon to both the park and the people. The first superintendent of Zion, Eviend T. Scoyen, counted local Mormon leaders as park boosters, as well as church leaders Heber J. Grant, Anthony Ivins and George Albert Smith.
By 1919, the monument had expanded and Congress upgraded it to a national park. In a nod to local sensibilities, it was called Zion National Park.
In the early '20s, the sole right to operate concessions in the park was granted to the Union Pacific railroad. Through a subsidiary, The Utah Parks Company, the railroad put nearly $2 million into improving access and building accommodations for people wishing to view the natural wonders of Zion Canyon.
But the railroad didn't pour money into southern Utah out of patriotism and preservation.
Zion was the bait to lure people to hop on trains, and the railroad treated the park like a company town. People who instead came to the park by car, bypassing the railroads and company-operated bus tours, were treated as nuisances and found it hard, if not impossible, to secure reservations for rooms and dining.
Still the people came. In 1920, Zion had 4,000 visitors, and by 1930 there were 55,000. In 1941, 190,000 visitors passed through the park.
Friction developed between the National Park Service, which was appalled at the way independent visitors were being discriminated against, and Union Pacific officials, who refused to relax their grip on park commerce. Incredibly, the standoff would last until the '60s, when the ubiquity of automobiles and popularity of car travel couldn't be denied.
In 1972, Union Pacific finally sold its concession and got out of the business of running national parks. Since then the Park Service has done well at seeing that the public is accommodated while at the same time protecting the park from being loved to death. With some 3 million visitors a year, it's still not an easy task.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Some of the information for this column came from Wayne K. Hinton's "The Development of Zion National Park" in the Utah Historical Quarterly.