Denali Park History, Part 2 8/31/2012

I mentioned the history of the park in my last blog, but didn’t get into the process. I thought I’d backtrack a little and give you more information this week.


The park idea started with Charles Sheldon. He went into the Denali area to study the Dall sheep. He fell in love with the unique ecosystem and its beauty. As he worked in the area, he became aware of the market hunters, who killed Dall sheep and caribou to sell the meat to others. As the Alaska Railroad construction drew closer, he knew there would be more demand and the animals could be wiped out, just as the buffalo were in the lower 48 states. He and Alaskan Harry Karstens discussed the idea of a national park as a game refuge when he was in Denali in 1906 and 1907. No work was able to be done until a few years later. He introduced the concept to the Boone and Crockett Club, an influential conservation group interested in game refuges, in 1915.


Belmore Browne came to Denali to climb the mountain in 1906, 1910, and 1912. (See my post “Belmore Browne 7/27/2012” for more about him.) He also thought a national park was a good idea, and started raising awareness through the conservation group the Campfire Club. When Sheldon began campaigning for a park, he found that Browne was also working on it, and they joined forces. Soon, Judge James Wickersham was involved. (A circuit judge, Wickersham attempted to climb the mountain in 1903 and discovered signs of gold in Kantishna, which led to the Kantishna Mining District. He became the Alaska delegate to Congress in 1908.)


The three men were largely responsible for the campaign to create the national park, with help from others. Friends with many of the miners and recognizing the history of the area, they wrote the bill to exclude the Kantishna Mining District and give prospectors the right to mine and practice subsistence hunting in the park “but in no case shall animals or birds be killed in said park for sale or removal therefrom, or wantonly.” This was the only time provisions like these were part of a national park bill, but it addressed many of the Alaskans’ concern about the federal government infringing on their rights.


There were setbacks as Congress would only consider one national park a year, and members had to be convinced of the benefits while World War I loomed on the horizon. The name of the park was changed from Denali to Mt. McKinley (the official name of the mountain) as a strategy to gain support from Ohio, the late president’s home state. The ongoing construction of the Alaska Railroad provided urgency because of the market hunters, and also added another benefit in promising the railroad some tourist business. The Senate Committee of Territories heard the bill in May of 1916, when all three proponents made statements of support. Browne was eloquent describing the “awe-inspiring region of massive mountains and ice-capped peaks.” The full House and Senate passed the bill, and it was signed into law on February 26, 1917.


Mt. McKinley National Park existed until 1980, when the park boundaries were extended and it became Denali National Park and Preserve. Kantishna was added and miners were “grandfathered in” until the mid-1980s, when mining was shut down throughout the park.  Traces of the old mining history still remain. The National Park Service is reclaiming the land in the Kantishna area and restoring a few of the buildings, including Fannie Quigley’s last house near Friday Creek (pictured).


As you can tell, it is a very special place. I feel fortunate to know the park so well. Thanks to the following who helped me with research connected to my trip: Jenna and Simon Hamm and staff at Camp Denali; Mary at Kantishna Roadhouse; Kantishna residents Mike & Carol Conlin; Marianne Jakob at Deneki Lakes B & B; Jane Bryant, Kirk Dietz, and Kim Arthur from NPS.

I love to share my passion for Alaska and its history in my writing for young adults and their grown ups.

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