Jan. 1, 2020
On a day when most of us are looking ahead to a new year and a new decade, I’m taking a glance back a hundred years, to when Utahns were proudly pointing to their state’s first national park – Zion – and were already anticipating their second, at Bryce Canyon.
Zion National Park was established on November 19, 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that had been cosponsored by Utah senator Reed Smoot. What had been a small national monument with the unwieldy name of Mukuntuweap would take its place alongside such wonders as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Newspapers in the state heralded the move with headlines such as “Utah’s Scenery at Last Recognized” and “Fight for Wonderland Is Won.”
It was a moment of great pride for the Beehive State’s scenery boosters, but foremost on their minds was to build a tourism industry that could compete with neighboring states. Newspaper editors and commercial clubs lost no time in trumpeting the great wonder of Utah’s southlands. “The way is open to you,” exulted the Salt Lake Tribune. “Modern service opened by roads of steel, allied by the distance-defying motor car and the building of good highways, has rendered all this possible.”
The St. George Washington County News, taking a more realistic view of the primitive transportation infrastructure of southwestern Utah, called for building a new rail spur to Cedar City from the distant desert stop at Lund, on the Union Pacific’s Salt Lake-Los Angeles route, and a new hotel to accommodate the thousands of tourists it expected to arrive.
A map of the new Zion National Park, printed in the Salt Lake Tribune (see below), hints at the lack of good access and accommodations. A dirt road, often muddy and rutted, led up from Rockville and Springdale into the canyon as far as Weeping Rock, beyond which a trail continued up into the Narrows of the Virgin River. The Wylie tent camp, located in a shady grove of cottonwood trees just south of the present-day Zion Lodge, offered the only overnight accommodations. To get to the park by car was a real adventure, and tales abounded of motorists getting stuck or suffering breakdowns.
Map of the newly created Zion National Park, from the Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 25, 1919
Road improvements were not long in coming: by 1924 a gravel-surfaced road had been built from the park’s south entrance to the Temple of Sinawava, a mile below the mouth of the Zion Narrows. Funds for the $70,000 project came from the federal government, thanks to the 1921 Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided a fifty percent share of costs for the states’ highway building programs. National parks such as Zion thus became a means for money-starved rural areas to fund transportation improvements, which benefitted everyday commerce as well as tourism. This helped to cement a close association between local business interests, the road construction industry, and the federal government – a so-called “iron triangle” which would persist throughout much of the twentieth century, and help pave the way (almost literally) for new park acquisitions throughout the West. By the 1930s, in fact, auto travel to Utah’s national park units would outstrip the numbers of passengers arriving on railroad-sponsored tours.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, however, the Union Pacific, through its Utah Parks Company subsidiary, held a tight hold on travel to Zion, and later to Bryce Canyon, which was established as a national monument in 1923 and upgraded to a national park the following year. The UPC’s long, powerful touring cars, some equipped with open tops for sightseeing, delivered passengers to the Wylie camp in Zion until 1924, when the railroad completed the rustic-but-elegant Zion Lodge, designed by Los Angeles architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Another Underwood-designed lodge opened at Bryce Canyon in 1925. The way was now clear for the thousands of tourists to see these twin wonders of the desert, as part of a five- or six-day auto tour from the newly built railhead in Cedar City. The tour included a two-night stop at another Underwood lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, newly accessible via a long road across the dusty, windswept Arizona Strip. The return leg from Bryce Canyon included a lunch stop at Cedar Breaks, soon to become a national monument.
Utah Parks Company motor coaches line up outside the original Zion Lodge, around 1929.
Library of Congress
Travel to these remote but scenic locations remained arduous, but the UPC's tour guests knew that at the end of the day they would be welcomed by friendly hotel staff, a good meal, and some of the most stupendous vistas on tap anywhere. This long-overlooked corner of the American West was heading into the big time, thanks to the cooperative relationships forged by the National Park Service, the railroads, the road lobby, and the hospitality industry. National parks were for many decades considered “business friendly” and a means to boost local economies. This supportive attitude persisted in Utah until the mid 1970s, when a great change in the management philosophy of the National Park Service began to create dissension over the role that parks would play in southern Utah’s economy.
More later in this series of “lookbacks” at Utah’s national park system, in advance of my next book, Wonders of Sand and Stone, to be out this spring.
Zion auto decal, 1923. National Park Service