Historic Resource Study
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The 35 years between 1928 and 1963 traced a shift from meeting McKinley Park's functional necessities to defining the ideals that should shape its future.

Harry Liek, Karstens' hand-picked successor as superintendent, devoted most of his energy to rounding out the early park's geography and completing its basic physical plant. During his tenure the park was enlarged to include Wonder Lake and buffer lands to the northwest, and the lands between the 149th Meridian and the Nenana River to the east. He oversaw completion of the park road, immediately followed by the ARC's construction of the short spur to Kantishna. The park hotel near McKinley Station was built and opened. Crews of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs) built the Wonder Lake Ranger Station—the park's operational anchor at the far end of the road—along with headquarters and other improvements.

Then came World War II. The park closed down its conventional operation and became an Army recreation center. The Park Service presence, severely cut in funds and manpower, was limited to critical maintenance and oversight of the Army occupation.

After the war—which gave Alaska a new transportation infrastructure—interest in Alaska development and tourism surged. National and territorial commissions and boards, expanding on Depression-era programs and studies, conceived Alaska as a giant reservoir of resources to expand the Nation's war-induced industrial might. The territory—visited during the war by a million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, plus unnumbered civilian workers on bases and roads—was now known throughout the land for its unparalleled recreational opportunities: hunting, fishing, and the wild beauty of the Last Frontier.

And this was a different nation from the depression-ridden one before the war: more populous, richer, more powerful, and victorious. Workers, not just the elite, had money and—after peacetime retooling of factories—the mobility of cars and paid vacations. After the deprivations of the past 15 years, they were ready to roll. So Alaska beckoned for industrial development, tourists, and pioneers.

The Park Service responded to these historical forces with development plans of its own, focused on Mount McKinley National Park. The Korean Conflict slowed these plans, but only for awhile.

The prospect of the park's direct connection with Alaska's expanding road system—now connected to the rest of the North American road network—both scared and inspired the park's stewards. That connection would break the pattern of limited and controlled access by rail. Here was a park whose facilities could host only a few thousand visitors a year (the highest prewar number had been 2,200 in 1939). What would happen when the lock of isolation was broken? On the one hand, unless the park's physical plant were expanded (the hotel had less than 100 rooms; campsites were extremely limited) the park would frustrate the expected deluge of visitors. On the other hand, that connection would make the park a democratic institution, a place accessible to working people from both Alaska and the States. Thus historical change brought both threat and opportunity to the Park Service in Alaska.

Responding to the drumbeat of development and tourism boomers—who were backed by high-level studies and proclamations urging Alaska's integration into the Nation's industrial and recreational systems—Park Service policy-makers and planners envisioned a conventional Stateside park with a lodge at Wonder Lake, more campgrounds, and an upgraded road to accommodate independent auto-borne visitors. The elite would continue to be served tour-and-hotel style; the average family could drive in and camp as at Yellowstone.

The park road—narrow and winding—had been adequate for the low levels of commercially conducted bus and touring-car traffic when visitors were fed into the park by the trains. But it would have to be widened and straightened to handle large numbers of private-car visitors whose eyes would wander in search of wildlife and scenery.

touring cars
Pulling a touring car out of Savage River. The tourist camp is in the background. Herbert Heller Collection, UAF.

Thus, an improved park road would become the transitional link between old times and new tunes, between old park and new park.

This planning concept—given funding impetus by the Park Service's MISSION 66 program (a nation-wide catch-up in visitor facilities to be completed by the Service's 50th anniversary)—kicked off a lively debate about the park's future both in and out of the Service. Thoughtful people in or closely associated with the Service saw the park's purpose as a wildlife refuge endangered by such plans. Should these plans go forward, they feared the loss of the park's chief charm for visitors: its wild, uncrowded naturalness, its regal animals near and viewable from the low-speed, light-trafficked road because it was that kind of a road.

These arguments within were echoed and amplified by a growing conservation constituency without By 1960 Alaska conservation organizations had become sophisticated and single-minded about not repeating the land-ravage mistakes that marked the end of frontier Down Below. Mount McKinley National Park became the line in the sand in this struggle. If Alaska's wilderness could not be protected at McKinley Park where would it be safe? National organizations joined this fight, abetting the pressures on the Park Service to rethink its planning concept.

In the end, the road-improvement project and its major accessory developments were scuttled. The park ideal—the combination of wildlife and scenery envisioned by Charles Sheldon—was reaffirmed. The interior of this park would remain a wildlife sanctuary where people came truly as visitors—joining for awhile their mammalian cousins in wilderness adventure.

In this way the early Sixties marked a turning point in the park's fate. The organizations and the ideals perfected and affirmed at that time would continue to influence the Nation's sentiments about Alaska's enduring values. This force of ideas would revive and largely prevail during the struggle over the National Interest Lands a decade later.

Still superintendent of Yellowstone and assistant field director of the National Park Service in late 1928, Horace Albright recommended his trusted ranger associate Harry Liek as the man to replace Karstens at McKinley. In letters to Director Mather, Albright sketched Liek's dependability and his skill as leader and administrator. Here was a man who could work both sides of the boundary and get the park on a firm footing. [1]

Mather endorsed Liek and got Secretarial approval rapidly. Both Mather and Albright wanted quick action because Alaska's delegate to Congress was pushing local men, including parties to the disputes of the Karstens era. [2]

The park staff greeted Harry Liek's arrival with a sigh of relief. Internal and external strife had frayed the bonds of the park community and relations with neighbors. Toward the end of Karstens' administration, he and Chief Ranger Fritz Nyberg had become enemies. Salvage of Nyberg's usefulness was high on Liek's list of priorities.

In April 1929 Liek sent his first personal report to now Director Albright. He recounted his and Nyberg's trip into the park and their plans to improve existing patrol cabins and build three more along the northwest boundary, as Nyberg had long recommended. Liek relayed concerns about an earlier proposed park-hotel site at Copper Mountain, recommending instead, with Nyberg, a site on Clearwater Creek nearer the mountain. He welcomed the proposed visit of Chief Landscape Architect Tom Vint. Resolution of such planning problems should get the jump on the park road (which would reach Copper Mountain in 1934) or the road's progress would determine park development. Liek ended with an invitation to Albright to visit the park at the same time as Vint. Albright replied that he couldn't make it, but he agreed with the need for Vint's visit and said that he would assure it. [3]

During the winter of 1929-30, Nyberg—a tough Norwegian with his own Sourdough credentials—became critical of the new superintendent. He charged nepotism rampant (Liek's brother and nephew were working at the park), continued miserable conditions for patrol rangers, and misallocation of rangers' time: too much construction work on headquarters and patrol cabins instead of patrols to stop poachers. Continued minuscule appropriations had caught Liek in the bind reflected by Nyberg's inconsistency over the need for, and opposition to ranger construction of, patrol cabins and quarters.

In due course, after Albright had investigated these charges, Nyberg was considered disloyal and suspended, eventually leaving his position. Albright reaffirmed his support for Liek, urging him to get past this episode and carry on. [4]

By January 1931, Albright was frank in his disillusionment with Liek. Why was he spending so much time at headquarters, so little in the park. Could he not drop office detail and get on with the important work? Nyberg had resigned, but Albright regretted that a man so suited to the park had not been salvaged and retained. Albright struck to the heart of the matter with these words to Liek:

I had hoped that you would not only do your work in Mt. McKinley Park in a satisfactory way, in which way I am sure you are doing it, but I had hoped that as an old associate of mine in Yellowstone you would do really conspicuous work that would be enthusiastically talked about by people who come in contact with you. As it is, I hear nothing particularly adverse to you just as I find no particular interest in you or enthusiasm for you. Consequently, I have the impression that while you are minding your own business, doing a fair job of administration and protection, you are doing nothing outstanding and that you are really spending a good deal of time at headquarters instead of moving about the park studying its problems, particularly those of wild life, making plans for the future, gathering data regarding the natural features of the park, etc.

Finally, the Director called for a personal response from Liek explaining "how you think you are getting along," both in the park and in the territory, written in the same spirit "as you would if you were still Assistant Chief Ranger at Yellowstone and I was Superintendent there." He reiterated his continuing interest and affection, and his hope that Liek could do the really big things expected of him. [5]

In another letter two weeks later, Albright referred to Nyberg's charge that rangers spent too much time on construction, particularly around headquarters. The Director recognized Liek's funding bind as the reason for such use of manpower. Nevertheless, discounting emergencies, it was not NPS policy to put rangers on construction work:

You should arrange your work this coming season so that your rangers are used in patrols all the time and you yourself should make all the patrols you can. Mount McKinley National Park is not far enough along to need much in the way of headquarters and aside from the clerk I see no reason why anyone should spend much time at headquarters. I am expecting your men to be on the go right along. If they don't make patrols we will have to assume that their living conditions in the park, in the way of cabins, equipment, etc., were not adequate to support and protect rangers while on patrol and that this was due to the fact that the rangers had no opportunity to get their buildings and equipment in shape for the winter. [6]

Under the gun of Albright's two letters, Harry Liek hastened to reply in early February 1931. His letter covered Albrights criticisms point for point:

  • Construction of the headquarters complex was the main project when Liek arrived at the park and he could not leave the buildings unfinished.

  • Funding shortages forced him to draft rangers for construction during a good part of the summer so that the park would be prepared for winter, which would be an emergency without new quarters.

  • The superintendent, lacking a construction foreman, as was standard in other parks, could not leave project supervision to his clerk; and as disbursing agent for the park, Liek had to be at headquarters periodically to sign checks and vouchers.

  • Despite these anchors he had tried to make at least one patrol every month to monitor the park's condition, and in fact had been on patrol when Albright's letters arrived, thus the delay in answering them.

  • The rangers had been in the field since August 15 and had carried out cabin and equipment repairs to facilitate winter patrols.

  • Both Nyberg and the park clerk had asserted themselves as the old timers who should run the park and tell the new superintendent what to do. When the honeymoon was over, Liek saw that this was not just advice but rather an attempt to usurp his authority as superintendent. Upon refusing further dictates from his subordinates, they got sullen and conspired with others to cause him grief. In this pattern Liek saw a replay of Karstens' troubles.

  • Liek challenged uncritical evaluations of Nyberg's value to park and Service, asserting that his brusque manner made many enemies.

  • Liek agreed that he had done nothing conspicuous to put the park on the Alaskan map. He could make little headway with Alaska public opinion because "Alaska people do not visit the park like the people in the states do." He concluded this subject with the remark: "Right now it would be hard for a person to do anything conspicuous here unless it was to climb Mt. McKinley."

  • Finally, Liek welcomed the Director's trip to the park, planned for summer 1931. Then he could see first hand what the country and the park were like and would not have to take somebody else's word for it. Meanwhile, Harry Liek would keep trying his best "to make a really big job" out of his superintendency. [7]

These exchanges of correspondence between Albright and Liek graphically portrayed McKinley Park's "rob Peter to pay Paul" problems. They also confirmed or set in train a series of important events in the park's history: 1) Tom Vint's 1929 visit and planning concept for the park; 2) Director Albright's 1931 visit; and 3) Liek's answer to Alaskan anonymity, the 1932 double ascent of Mount McKinley.

Upon his accession to the directorship, Horace Albright opened communications with Territorial Governor George Parks. His purpose was to reassure the governor that the NPS took seriously its charge at McKinley Park, including its contribution to the territory's economic progress. Issues important to the governor had been outlined in an earlier letter to Director Mather, before illness forced him to resign.

In that letter the governor summarized his discussions in Juneau with Service landscape architect Tom Vint and McKinley superintendent Harry Liek, who had just conducted a planning reconnaissance in the park. They had agreed that the park could contribute little to the territory's economy until provision of adequate hotels at Seward, McKinley Station, within the park, and Fairbanks. The governor assumed that the park concessioner could finance a hotel or lodge within the park. But the other three hotels would require Outside money. Investors would have to believe in Alaska's future as a tourist Mecca, which depended largely on the park's role as magnet for the pilgrims.

This chicken-and-egg conundrum repeated the usual pattern at McKinley: one could not do the first thing until the second thing was already in place.

The governor also mentioned park-boundary proposals broached by Vint and Liek. He rejected their idea of an easterly extension to the Nenana River. He stated that the strip between the current boundary (at the 149th Meridian) and the river was too busy with the railroad, landholdings, hunting and trapping, and mineral potential. Any attempt to take over this strip, even as a buffering game refuge, would enflame Alaskans against the government and cause endless administrative annoyance. He insisted that the existing park was big enough, and that development within existing boundaries should be the focus of NPS efforts. [8]

Responding to the governor, Albright touched on the need for adequate ship service to Alaska and the potentialities of a proposed international road through Canada. He was pessimistic about assurances to hotel investors that the park could be rapidly developed. The Service got only marginal appropriations for stateside parks already crowded with visitors. Remote McKinley Park's uncertain future, especially given the extremely short summer season, would make both Congress and business leery of investment. Albright added that he planned a visit to the park and direct discussions with the governor before pursuing the boundary issue further. [9] A month later, Albright wrote to the governor about McKinley Park boundary discussions in the Secretary's Office, where agreement was reached that the boundary should be extended eastward only as far as the railroad right-of-way. But no action would be taken pending the promised discussions with the governor. [10]

The park's economic contributions to the territory would continue to be adduced as a justification for its existence and further development. In an economic-benefits report in 1931, Harry Liek listed these benefits: tourist expenditures on the three main routes through Alaska and the Yukon; replenishment of wild game and furbearers from the protected park to surrounding areas; the park-road project as construction-materials purchaser and employer of about 200 men each year; and upon the road's completion, its expected stimulation of mining activity in the Kantishna district. [11] In 1935 the park attracted 665 railroad tourists who bought tickets and overnighted at the railroad hotel at Curry, 20 miles north of Talkeetna; they also bought lunch at the railroad's Healy lunch stop and made hotel and miscellaneous expenditures at Fairbanks, Nenana, Anchorage, and Seward—totalling an estimated $60,000 for the year. [12]

pack train
Adventurous tourists sought out areas not reached by the road system. This pack train visited Polychrome Pass in the 1920s. AMHA.

ice bridge
A few rugged tourists took trips to McGonagall Pass or to the ice formations at Muldrow Glacier. This photo of an Muldrow Glacier ice bridge was taken in 1931. J.C. Reed Collection, USGS.

Throughout the Thirties, because Katmai and Glacier Bay National Monuments (established in 1918 and 1925) were unmanned and rarely visited, there were no statistics from these areas. Sitka National Monument (1910), with only an intermittent custodian, attracted both local people and thousands of tourists from ships, but no expenditure figures were available. [13]

Landscape architect Tom Vint's 1929 reconnaissance at McKinley Park responded primarily to a substantive need: a professional overview to guide park planning and development. The trip also functioned as an earnest to the governor and other Alaskans that the Service wanted to develop the park for visitor use, which, as a side benefit, would bring dollars to Alaska. With a planning concept at hand the Service stood a better chance of getting funds from Congress. Moreover, lacking such a plan—designed around park principles—the park would fall prey to exploitative development schemes hatched elsewhere.

As previously demonstrated, even in the early days such schemes abounded. And they would continue to surface as the years rolled on. Funds incident to New Deal programs provided the means to do some work in the park, but by then the park's master plan—a direct result of Vint's and subsequent planning—helped screen and channel the projects. As World War II wound down—with victory certain—a whole new generation of Alaska development studies began to proliferate. In the main, through the immediate postwar period, such studies, plans, and petitions treated McKinley Park principally as an economic asset whose yet latent value to Territory and Nation would be measured by the degree of park development and the number of tourists thus attracted. [14]

A postwar letter from Alaska Governor Ernest Gruening to the Interior Department's Office of Territories expressed the frustration shared by many Alaskans over the lack of development in the territory's parks and monuments. The trigger for this letter was a notification from the department that "The National Park Service is taking an increasing interest in tourist development of the Territory of Alaska; they have several people in the field this year studying the area." Gruening exploded:

My own view is that we have been studied ad infinitum and that we know nearly everything there is to know about recreational facilities in Alaska, including and especially the fact that they continue year after year to be virtually non-existent. We also know that Park Service officials come year after year, survey, inspect, study, look us over, etc., etc. They are fine people, know their business, and we enjoy their company. But they are captains without a ship, officers in the Swiss navy. Their trips, while enjoyed by both us and them, result in nothing but pleasant memories for government officials—at public expense. What we need is some appropriations for facilities. If the money spent on these trips were accumulated we might in time have enough to build a small lodge in Glacier Bay National Monument, or we might be able to build one-half mile of road in Mt. McKinley Park from the long proposed, but non-existent, lodge at Wonder Lake to the Mountain. The trouble with these inspection trips, however, is that they emphasize and call attention to the continued lack of action in bringing about any park development. It is not surprising that a critical attitude had developed in Alaska at the great number of Federal officials who come to Alaska in the summer to "look the situation over."


Hence, while we shall continue to welcome these various Park Service officials at any time, I desire to emphasize with the urgency based on eleven years frustration in getting any favorable results—a frustration which however is much longer than my terms in office, that what we need is action at budgetary and Congressional levels before anything else.

Let us have something besides the wonders of nature for these Park Service inspectors to inspect. Let us provide some man-made achievements in Alaska's parks and monuments for their study. Let us finally have something in Alaska for the public that pays the bills and is entitled to some return in the way of service. [15]

In reality, beginning with Vint's planning concept and on through the postwar period, the Service was more ally than opponent of the economic rationale for park development—but within certain bounds defined by "the park ideal." The thwarting of additional visitor facilities at McKinley came not from the Service, but from lack of appropriations that only Congress could provide. Mounting frustration bred of no apparent developmental progress in the parks, compounded by Alaska's largely government-inspired boomer psychology in the postwar period, led even enlightened commentators like Governor Gruening to vent outrage against the very principle of preserved lands. Other public land agencies—the Forest Service and the General Land Office (later the Bureau of Land Management)—provided not only recreational uplift but solid economic benefits through timber leases, mining, and land disposals for homesteads, fox farms, and manufacturing sites. In contrast, the Park Service studied but did nothing; meanwhile the huge chunks of Alaska land that it managed produced nothing.

This attitude and perception had deeper roots. Frontier notions—still very much alive in Alaska—that wilderness is the enemy, that the shaping of landscapes to human purpose and profit is the greatest good, offered little support to an institution whose park ideal spoke the opposite. The Service's middle-ground response to development clamor—some development but not too much—suffered public rebuff in the frustration produced by funding deficiencies that aborted even these modest proposals. And by the time the Service did get some appropriations, beginning about 1960, such modest developments were viewed as "too much" by wilderness preservationists, by then coalesced as a national constituency.

So much for context. What of the plans themselves? When Tom Vint came to the park in 1929, he already had a recommendation for a permanent hotel site deep within the park. Following a summer 1927 trip partly to scout such a site, Harry Karstens championed the Clearwater Creek area south of Wonder Lake at the very foot of the mountain. He proclaimed it"... the most suitable scenic spot and there are many, many wonderful side trips to be made both for hikers, mountain-climbers or on horseback . . . also the fishing is very good." [16]

Determining the site and type for a permanent hotel or lodge under the loom of the great mountain would continue to occupy park planners and commentators-at-large until 1970 when the idea was finally rejected. Tom Vint's immediate purpose was to provide definitive data for resolution of this issue, but first he must establish the park's place in Alaska:

The Territory of Alaska is a big, new and practically undeveloped country. Some of it is still unexplored. Over 95% of the land area belongs to the Government. The larger portion of this is administered under some bureau of the Department of the Interior. The Government's activities, taken as a whole, form the greatest single influence on the life and the development of the Territory.

The commercial interests are Fishing, Mining, Furs, Pulp and Lumbering. Alaska's possibilities as a recreation area are coming to be a very important element in its development. At present it is generally conceded that commercially, recreation facilities take third place in relative importance in the list named above. It may within a few years creep ahead to second and possibly first place. The ouffitting and conducting of big game hunting parties has developed into quite a business. The general tourist trip business is, of course, the largest recreational factor. McKinley Park, it is generally conceded, is the big note of any trip which includes the interior of the territory.

The Park then holds a dominating place in the life of the territory. It contains the most important scenic area. It happens to be located where the park trip becomes the climax of any Alaska trip on which the park is included. This is a strategic position in a country where recreation plays such an important part.

On the other hand, few people will make the park the purpose of their trip. It will be the big note of a trip to Alaska. Its development will influence and equally be influenced by the development of all travel facilities that are used in making the trip from Seattle or Vancouver to the interior of Alaska. In planning and scheduling the development of McKinley Park we are obliged more than [at] any other place to work in accord with the development of the surrounding territory. If we progress too rapidly in providing accommodations, they will remain idle. If we are too slow, tourists will be denied the park trip. This dependence of the various developments is far reaching, for instance, if the steamship companies put on additional boats, hotels at the park and other points must be built and if the hotels are not provided, the additional boats cannot be put on. We find ourselves in one park where we are pioneering in a pioneer country. Our other parks came after the surrounding state was developed. [17]

This exceedingly intelligent statement illuminated much of the park's history and many of its troubles. The park, as a determining factor in the contextual development of Alaska, has never to this day achieved synchrony with its surroundings. In the early years, funding deficiencies held it back; later, and up to the present, preservation and wildlife concerns joined with continuing funding deficiencies to inhibit park developments that would match surrounding paces and pressures.

As "the big note" for Interior Alaska travelers, Mount McKinley/Denali National Park has been placed throughout its history in the incongruous position of commercial pace setter for much of Alaska and its tour and transportation links with the outer world. But should park development respond willy-nilly to match this external pressure—now at explosive levels—the park's intrinsic values would be lost, particularly in the old park-refuge interior traversed by the park road. As we shall see, modern planning concepts, based on the park's enlargement on the south side, sought an alternative to flooding the park interior with traffic and development. But yet again, funding and decision deficiencies have foiled initiation of conventional park developments on the less vulnerable south side. So the single road through the park, anchored on ever more powerful commercial winches at either end, stretches ever tauter between them.

Pending southside-development relief, designed to channel commercial pressures away from the park interior, Denali National Park will continue to be out of step with its encroaching commercial environment, and vulnerable to destruction of its historic purpose.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004