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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
National Park Service Arrowhead




On January 18, 1926, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads signed the interbureau agreement that established formal working procedures between the two agencies. The agreement rose out of years of working together on a more informal basis. Fifteen years after its inception, NPS Landscape Architect William Carnes recalled how the agreement developed behind the scenes:

The Service had little previous experience in making a location survey and commencing construction on new projects of this magnitude [Glacier's Trans-Mountain Highway] through rugged, mountain terrain. Dissatisfied with the location selected and progress made by the NPS engineer, a Mr. Goodwin,...Director Mather requested the Public Roads Administration to "kibitz" on this project in an attempt to develop a location less destructive to the park's natural features. The resulting location suggestions of the Bureau of Public Roads were so gratifying to Director Mather that he conceived the idea of utilizing this large, well-established engineering and highway building organization for all major park road project. He requested the Superintendent of Glacier National Park (Charles Krabel), the Service's Landscape Architect (Tom Vint), and the Public Roads Engineer to draft up an agreement which might be entered into by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads which would set fort the duties and responsibilities which would be performed by the two bureaus should other road projects of this type be undertaken as a joint task. [103]

In the interbureau agreement (see appendix C), the National Park Service was responsible for the aesthetics of park roads, and the Bureau of Public Roads was to survey, construct, reconstruct, and improve roads and trails within national parks by using the best construction practices of the time. The way the process worked was that NPS landscape engineers completed preliminary reports on proposed roads and identified significant landscape features. The bureau worked up cost estimates and preliminary construction data. After these reports went to the park superintendent, the bureau engineer supervised the project, ran the survey, and prepared the plans and specifications in close consultation with the park staff and landscape engineer. The contract then went to bid, and the secretary of the interior awarded it. The National Park Service programmed funds for the projects and constructed minor roads and service roads. The Bureau of Public Roads supervised contractors on major roads projects and drew up the engineer plans. NPS landscape architects inspected and supervised the construction of bridges and guardrails and ensured the preservation of natural features.

By the time the agreement was signed, certain elements had become standard practice in park road design. Djrector Mather, for instance, stressed that roads should be constructed in national parks with as little injury to a park's chief scientific features as possible, but also he emphasized "preservation of the forests and other natural features along the line of the roadbed, the cutting of vistas, and the harmonizing of the necessary culverts and bridges within the landscape." [104]

The landscape engineers also had made significant contributions to the enhancement of road design in the national parks, and these contributions also had evolved into standard practice. Following principles of naturalistic landscape architecture, the roads gently followed the topography and employed the use of native materials in structures adjacent to the roadway. The designers built the road to incorporate specific vistas and natural features such as bedrock outcrops, rivers, and waterfalls. [105]

The signing of the agreement between the Bureau of Public Roads and the National Park Service formalized the way in which the two bureaus cooperated. The National Park Service retained its upper hand in aesthetics, while the bureau controlled the physical activities of construction. Although the agreement was a significant event for the National Park Service, it amounted to such a small item for the Bureau of Public Roads that it was not even mentioned in the latter agency's annual report for fiscal year 1926.

two vehicles passing National Park Mountain, Yellowstone NP
Fig. 9. Bringing Congress to the parks always improved the rather meager financial coffers of the national parks because members received a firsthand look at conditions. Here the Appropriations Committee drove past National Park Mountain in Yellowstone. (National Archives, Record Group 79, Haynes Collection, n.d.)


In the early years of the National Park Service, Charles Punchard oversaw landscape issues in national parks. Punchard had been in charge of all landscape development in public parks and reservations in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. When hired by the National Park Service in 1918, he was detailed to analyze the conditions and landscape issues at each national park, and prioritize those according to ones needing immediate attention and those needing attention in the future. Punchard wrote an article for Landscape Architecture in which he stated that the job of the landscape engineer was to balance the aesthetics of scenery with development for visitor use; Punchard saw the landscape engineer as the arbiter of aesthetics in a national park, and the person responsible for choosing the location of roads, overseeing vista clearing, ensuring preservation of timber along the roads, as well as the person who defined a park's architectural character. In his eyes, the landscape engineer was the key member of a park's village planning commission, who oversaw the development of concessioner and NPService improvements.

Punchard wanted to achieve the balance between preserving natural scenery and developing facilities by adopting careful planning methods. During his short tenure with the national parks — Punchard died from tuberculosis in 1920 — he pushed for naturalizing borrow pits that had been used in construction, especially those along roadways. He urged that new ones be located out of visitors' sight. He stressed the importance of scenic details to the aesthetics of the park. He pushed for roadside cleanup and the removal of dead or downed timber around scenic features. He stressed framing vistas to present the scene to greatest effect. He screened things considered unsightly, such as utility areas. In short, he expanded on some of the principles that Andrew Jackson Downing had employed during the 19th century. [107] Following the death of Charles Punchard, Landscape Engineer Daniel Hull took his place.

The second strong personality to come into play in park design was an engineer named George Goodwin. Mather and Albright first met Engineer George Goodwin when he was working on a road-building project at Crater Lake in 1915. Goodwin's work impressed them so much that they hired him away from the Corps of Engineers, made him chief engineer of the National Park Service, and established his office in Portland. Goodwin served as a counterpoint to Charles Punchard, the head of the division of landscape engineering. Mather wanted to ensure that the national parks received adequate treatment for their scenic qualities, and that all improvements harmonized with the landscape. [108] He figured he could accomplish that with the team of Punchard and Goodwin.

During the 1920s additional changes occurred in the National Park Service. Thomas Chalmers Vint began working for the agency in 1922 as chief of planning, headquartered in Yosemite. The following year his office moved to Los Angeles, and in 1927 the office moved to San Francisco. Between 1927 and 1935 this branch — which became known as the Branch of Plans and Design — grew from three employees to 120. When the Emergency Conservation Work projects came into being in 1933, the branch took over responsibility for state park work in 1936, the number swelled to 220 men. The branch was responsible for preparing master plans governing development in the parks and monuments and providing advice to the director and superintendents on matters varying from architecture and landscape architecture to development policy. Also included in its duties was collaboration with the Public Roads Administration and the Bureau of Public Roads in the survey, planning, and construction of parkways and park roads. [109]

The field office that Mather established in San Francisco in 1927 contained a group of people to oversee park development and management. The branch of engineering programmed funds for roads and trails work and provided services to those parks without resident engineers. The landscape division produced landscape plans and architectural drawings for bridges and buildings, and they reviewed building proposals from concessionaires. By the late 1920s, the landscape division had grown to include broader-scoped park planning function based on the early design principles of the Park Service: design in harmony with the landscape. Under Vint's leadership the Branch of Plans and Design developed a design ethic that sometimes became idiomatic in its use and reuse of design with nature.

The Branch of Engineering had it roots under the guidance of George Goodwin, who continued working there through the passage of the 1924 Roads and Trails Act in which funds for park roads were first appropriated. When Goodwin resigned after a disagreement with the director of the National Park Service, the bureau put all major road-building activities in the hands of the Bureau of Public Roads, and Bert Burrell became acting chief engineer.

After the bureaus signed the interbureau agreement, Frank Kittredge took over responsibilities as chief engineer in 1927, and the small office moved out of Yellowstone to San Francisco where it shared space with the Landscape Division. Kittredge had worked as a special assistant to L.I. Hewes of the Bureau of Public Roads, and he had extensive experience in road construction. After 1930 a shift in the geographic emphasis occurred as congress proposed the establishment of more parks in the east. As a result, a field office for engineering was established in Washington to meet the demand posed by areas such as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Blue Ridge Parkway.

The gradual increase in eastern work for the engineering division continued through 1933, at which time a number of other areas including national military parks and monuments were transferred into the National Park Service. As a result, the workload grew tremendously. During the 1937 regionalization of the service the office of the chief engineer moved to Washington. [110]

road in Grand Canyon NP
Fig. 10. This road on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon exemplified some of the standards that had developed through the 1920s and 1930s. The crews revegetated the slopes with duff taken from the site and redistributed it following construction. As a result, the native grasses and wildflowers took hold. The road itself wound gently through the landscape, and the gutters and slopes had some gentle undulations. The edges of the aspen forest were cut back at varied distances to expose some of the shape of the land, to provide a longer vista, and to relieve the monotony of a uniform setback. (National Archives, Record Group 79, n.d.)

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