Today in History

Today in History: February 26

The mountain summits are all bare and rocky…I name it Isles des Monts Desert.

Journal of Samuel Champlain, September 5, 1604.

Mt. Desert Island
Surf at Great Head, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, circa 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Congress approved An Act to Establish the Lafayette National Park at Mt. Desert Island on the coast of Maine on February 26, 1919. The park, expanded and renamed Acadia National Park in 1929, was the first national park east of the Mississippi.

Claimed for a time by both France and England, Mt. Desert Island was the site of the first French mission in America, established by Jesuits in 1613. French explorer Samuel Champlain had visited the island in 1604, 16 years before the Pilgrims established a settlement at Plymouth. The British secured their claim to the island with their victory over the French at Quebec in 1759.

By the nineteenth century, farming, lumbering, fishing, and shipbuilding had developed into thriving industries on the island. In the mid-1800s, painters and journalists shared the scenic beauty of the island with outsiders, triggering a flood of well-heeled summer tourists, many of whom built lavish homes there in the 1880s and 1890s.

Along the shore
Along the Shore Path, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, circa 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

George B. Dorr, himself a member of this wealthy vacationing class, led the effort, begun in 1901, to conserve the landscape of Acadia. The Sieur de Monts National Monument was created by presidential proclamation in 1916 with 6,000 acres of land purchased and donated by Dorr and other private citizens intent upon preserving the region from lumbering and development interests. When the monument was designated a national park in 1919, Dorr became its first superintendent.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon
Rust Camp, Grand Canyon, Arizona, circa 1909.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Also on February 26, 1919, Congress passed An Act to Establish the Grand Canyon National Park in the State of Arizona. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona is one of the earth's greatest natural wonders.  Comprising over 1 million acres of northwestern Arizona, the park includes the most spectacular area of the 277-mile canyon cut by the Colorado River. Still inhabited by Native peoples with at least 2,000 years of history in the area, some of the tribes of Grand Canyon region are the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Paiute, Havasupai, and Hualapai.

The first bill to create Grand Canyon National Park was introduced in 1882, and again in 1883 and 1886 by Senator Benjamin Harrison. As president, Harrison established the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve in 1893. President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve by proclamation in 1906 and Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Senate bills to establish a national park were introduced and defeated in 1910 and 1911; the Grand Canyon National Park Act was finally signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The National Park Service, established in 1916, assumed administration of the park.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, very little was known about the geography of the Grand Canyon. Because of its remote location, the area in and around the canyon was not explored or mapped in detail by Europeans, although it was probably visited in 1540 by the Spanish expedition of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who searched with Vasques de Coronado for the seven legendary cities of Cibola. In 1776, two Spanish priests, Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre de Escalante, crossed the Colorado River while exploring the area, but little knowledge of the region was passed down in written form to later generations. The primary source of information about the magnificent canyon was an oral tradition sustained by the reports of fur trappers and traders and so-called "mountain men," most of whom were escorted through the rugged terrain by Native American guides.

Only one early visitor, Warren Augustus Ferris, is known to have produced a map showing the Grand Canyon. Drawn in 1836, it was not published until 1940, too late to be of use to the geographers and explorers who first traveled to the Colorado River and the canyon during the late nineteenth century. Ferris did, however, write and publish several articles in the 1840s, one of which described the canyon. His account added to the available information about the existence and approximate location of the Grand Canyon and helped to increase interest in further exploration of the area.

The Library of Congress has rich resources on the Grand Canyon.