Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society
We all love a campfire, don’t we? To pull a log close to the flames, share some food or a drink, and swap a few stories—there’s no better way to end a day outdoors. Later on, when the fire has burned down to coals, one begins to dream a little. Perhaps that’s what the three figures in this photograph were doing on this October evening in 1919, as they sat at the foot of the huge sandstone wall known as the Temple of Sinawava in Zion Canyon. That November, Zion would become Utah’s first national park. These three surely realized (as millions of visitors do today) that they were in the midst of a truly unique and magnificent place.
There’s little documentation to go with this historical image, beyond the names of the three individuals and their photographer. But that’s enough to flesh out the story, for each of these folks played a role in bringing Zion to the attention of the outside world. On the left, dressed as though for a New York salon, is Robert Sterling Yard, executive secretary of the National Parks Association and a prolific publicist for the recently formed National Park Service. Yard was paying a visit to Zion along with his daughter, Margaret, who is seen here tending the skillet. Between them, gazing solemnly at something or someone beyond the campfire, is William W. Wylie, founder of the famous “Wylie Way” camps in Yellowstone National Park.
The photographer was a press man named Eyrie Powell, who recorded this campfire gathering for the Union Pacific Railroad. UP officials were taking a keen interest in Zion as a potential tourist attraction, and two years earlier they had offered to help Wylie and his wife, Mary Ann, to open a tent camp in Zion Canyon, then a 15,200-acre national monument. The camp was located in a shady cottonwood grove just north of today’s Zion Lodge, and that’s probably where these four individuals retired for the night, there being no hotels in the vicinity.
For now, though, they seem to be enjoying the warmth of the flickering flames. This campfire never became the stuff of legend, as did the historic fireside gathering of the Washburn party by the Madison River in the fall of 1872, which supposedly gave birth to the idea of Yellowstone National Park. That story is likely apocryphal, but it helped lend a certain mythos to America’s first national park.
Yellowstone established the idea of setting aside outstanding examples of the nation’s scenery, and by 1919 America could boast of sixteen national parks and a slew of national monuments. For this we can thank the scores of writers, photographers, artists, travelers, and scientists who depicted the wonders found in places such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier and Mesa Verde. Robert Sterling Yard played a central role in this publicity barrage. After he and Margaret returned home to Washington, D.C., filled with impressions of Zion, he put together a 32-page booklet titled The New Zion National Park: Rainbow of the Desert, which the National Parks Association published the following January.
Yard takes the would-be visitor on the long road trip from Cedar City, Utah, up the valley of the Virgin River to Springdale and the entrance to the new park. (Nearly all
visitors to Zion followed this route before the National Park Service opened the East Rim tunnel in 1929.) Upon reaching the canyon itself, Yard unleashes a torrent of imagery that certainly must have piqued interest in this little-visited new park on the North Fork of the Virgin River:
Several miles northward, up a winding brook, two lofty white pyramids gleam theatrically against the sky. The name Guardian Angels seems appropriate, though what they guard is not apparent unless it be the deep canyon between them. The picture holds the eye. It is one of strange beauty, a prophecy of the great canyon . . . . A few miles further, and another spectacle provokes a shout of astonishment, for the vast edifice which swings into view ahead upon the left of the road suggests nothing seen before in fact or dream. It is the West Temple of the Virgin at the Gates of Zion.
And on he goes up the canyon, past the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Organ Rock, Raspberry Bend, to the “mystic Temple of Sinawava . . . curiously Egyptian and idol-like.” Then come the Narrows of the North Fork, whose “crimson walls leap sheer from the water on both sides.” This was a “valley of enchantment,” Yard concludes, and most travelers who sought out this remote destination probably agreed.
Temple of Sinawava. Courtesy Zion National Park, Museum Catalog Number ZION 15933
Yard's language appears a little old-fashioned to us today, but this was how word was spread of these wonders in the desert. Besides his National Parks Association, there was well-funded advertising by Union Pacific Railroad, which had set up a touring operation that took visitors to the Wylie camps at Zion and at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Numerous newspaper articles appeared during Zion’s first years, including one featuring Margaret Yard's adventures in the canyon which was published shortly after their visit.
Not least in importance were first-hand accounts from happy travelers returning from a restful stay in this amazing canyon. Here the Wylies’ contribution was evident, for before 1917 a visit to Zion meant camping out—something many tourists were unwilling to do. But by 1920, with a decent road constructed and a well-run tent camp awaiting travelers, the canyon could be enjoyed in relative comfort. Zion was ready to take its place among western America’s most popular destinations.
Next: William Wylie and the National Parks Transportation and Camping Company