With Utah’s national parks starting to reopen this spring, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what was going on in these marvelous places a hundred years ago.
February 2020--A stroll on the Fairyland Loop trail, shortly before the park closed.
In 1920 Utah was celebrating the opening of its first national park, Zion, which Congress had established the previous November. Stephen Mather, director of the recently formed National Park Service, visited the new park that same month, making a detour from a staff meeting in Denver along with a photographer and a representative of the Salt Lake Commercial Club. After visiting Zion, the party drove out to the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, where they took in the stupendous views of the colorful spires and pinnacles below the rim.
Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, visited Zion National Park often and was one of its biggest proponents. He and his successor, Horace Albright, went on to establish Bryce Canyon National Park and put Utah on the road to being a tourism powerhouse.
NPS photo from Zion National Park Museum Archives, ZION 1134-02-40206-01-02.
“Bryce’s Canyon,” as it was known to local folks, was just beginning to attract attention outside of Utah. This "fairy wonderland," as many newspaper accounts called it, was featured for the first time in the national press in 1918, when a mountaineer and world traveler named Le Roy Jeffers contributed an article titled “The Temple of the Gods in Utah,” in the October 5 issue of Scientific American. Jeffers extolled the amazing views from the Paunsaugunt Plateau's rim, reaching deep into his bag of metaphors to describe the strange pinnacles, colonnades and other erosional forms on display. These formed “a vast city of prehistoric ruins,” he wrote, a veritable “stage setting for a fairy opera.”
The stupendous view from the eastern rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau inspired many early visitors to what would become Bryce Canyon National Park. This early silver nitrate photo was taken by Maurice Cope, Bryce's first park ranger. NPS photo from Bryce Canyon NP Museum, BRCA 532 001-206.
Bryce Canyon was not an easy place to find: it appeared on few maps and a traveler had to navigate a maze of roads leading across the plateau. J. W. Humphrey, the local forest supervisor, worked tirelessly to improve access and gain publicity for the area. The Forest Service was trying to enhance its recreational offerings on the national forests and Humphrey foresaw Bryce as a wonder likely to attract much attention. But Steven Mather’s visit in the late fall of 1919 foretold a different future for the area. Back in Salt Lake City, he announced to members of the city’s Commercial Club that Bryce Canyon was a good candidate for designation as a national monument. Such action required only the signature of the President and was widely considered a first step toward achieving national park status.
When it came to expanding and developing the National Park System, Mather, who had made his millions promoting California mining properties, was thinking big. He envisioned Zion and Bryce Canyon becoming key links in a highway tour circuit of the western national parks. Enroute to Zion’s formal dedication ceremony in September 1920, he stopped by Salt Lake City once again to promote the idea of roads linking Zion with the as-yet undesignated scenic wonders at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks. Nowhere in the world, he told members of the Commercial Club, were there so many “strange and wonderfully beautiful forms of grandeur” within such a comparatively small radius. (Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 16, 1920.)
"Tourists' Rest," the homey lodge built by Reuben and Minnie Syrett in 1920 to accommodate guests arriving at the rim of Bryce Canyon. Note the pine tree growing through the porch roof. NPS photo.
As word of the wonders at Bryce Canyon slowly spread among the traveling public, an enterprising couple from Panguitch, Utah, opened a rustic lodge at the edge of Bryce’s spectacular rim, just north of Sunrise Point. Reuben and Minnie Syrett welcomed a trickle of visitors to their “Tourists’ Rest,” which featured a pine tree growing through the porch and a door on which guests could carve their initials. Overnight accommodations were in a cluster of nearby cabins. Homecooked meals added to the cozy atmosphere. The Syrett’s simple hospitality was typical of early tourist operations in the West, which attracted individual travelers and families with a sense of adventure.
The Syretts had asked the State of Utah for permission to build their lodge on a section of state-owned land, but they failed to get the agreement in writing, much to their detriment. Soon the Union Pacific Railroad--the big player in Utah tourism in those days--set its sights on this prime property. By 1924 the railroad, having obtained the proper lease, forced the Syretts to sell, and the couple moved their operation to some land they had homesteaded earlier, located just to the north of the future national park. This, of course, became the start of Ruby’s Inn, which today is the largest tourist operation in all of Garfield County.
In 1925 the Union Pacific Railroad opened the rustic but elegant Bryce Canyon Lodge close to the rim, on land leased from the State of Utah. NPS photo.
Within a year of obtaining the rights to the state land inholding, the Union Pacific erected the elegant Bryce Canyon Lodge, located among towering ponderosa pines a short distance back from the rim. By 1925 the railroad was ready to receive visitors to Utah’s newest national park, which was designated in 1924 under an unusual two-stage agreement. The year before, President Warren designated Bryce as a national monument, with the proviso that it would become a national park once the federal government obtained the section of State land close to the rim. The Union Pacific agreed to relinquish its lease in 1928, whereupon Bryce gained its official status as Utah’s second national park. The railroad continued to operate its lodge, which still stands today, under an agreement with the National Park Service. Bryce Canyon was now ready to receive visitors in much greater numbers, pleasing business people in Garfield County and Salt Lake City. The Syrett family would go on to develop and operate Ruby's Inn at the northern boundary of the park, ultimately eclipsing the Union Pacific lodge as the hub of tourism to Bryce Canyon.
Sources: Utah Digital Newspapers, https://digitalnewspapers.org/; Nicholas Scrattish, “Historic Resource Study, Bryce Canyon National Park,” National Park Service, 1985.