Preserving human history in a National Park


20 Responses to “Preserving human history in a National Park”

  1. traalfaz says:

    A lot of the mining area around Lake Superior is like this, both within national parks and outside.  No matter where you go, in the middle of the woods, whatever, you can find old ruins, hunks of gigantic cable lying around, capped mineshafts, huge tailings piles, all manner of abandoned stuff.

  2. ill lich says:

    This kind of thing is common throughout North America (and I’m sure a lot of the world.)  I have been 50 miles deep into parts of the Maine woods, miles from any paved road, impassable except for blazed trails, and suddenly there’s a stone wall stretching off in either direction as far as you can see, slowly being dismantled by tree roots and frost heaves.

  3. gravitysrainbow says:

    Always glad to see Cronon being talked about. There is still North American old growth forest—never logged, never built on, always traveled and live in by Natives—in Ontario and BC. I’m not sure about the US (maybe AK?). It’s pretty incredible.

    • CCinBmore says:

      Slightly tangential to the topic here, but it’s worth noting that there are stands of old growth forest remaining in the lower 48. The closest to me are in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. It’s absolutely true that differ significantly from the regrowth areas. Camping in  them is a reverential experience; the old wood is worth seeking out and working to preserve.

  4. Lex Luthor says:

    I worked for the Park Service as an archaeologist for a while, both in a park archaeologist’s office and as a contractor doing cultural resource management.  If an artifact or feature is over 50 years old, it’s considered archaeological, but that doesn’t mean it’s significant.
    The nature/culture divide in the Park Service psyche is deeply weird.  As is the assumption that Native Americans and the landscape they created were “natural.”  (That’s why they’re in the Natural History Museum and the white settlers aren’t.)  Levi-Strauss could have a field day. 
    I encountered a very similar sandstone quarry site while doing survey work on the C&O Canal Park north of DC.  At Tuscarora Creek, upstream of the lockhouse, there is a deer trail leading back around the turning basin to a red sandstone bluff with a quarry in its face.  There’s an old water-powered stonecutting mill with a deep saw pit and a millrace.  It’s pretty neat.  I think I heard it was state-of-the art because it could cut 6 inches an hour.  At the turning basin for the boats, you can still see the footings for the cranes.
    Like Hermit’s Island, the C&O canal park has been mostly allowed to go wild (except for the tow path, which is now a bike trail).  It’s all over scrub and nettles.  There are coyotes and black bears and the occassional mountain lion.  This wildness is unique in the last 10,000 or more years of history of that strip of very useful land along the Potomac.  It’s certainly strange to see the feature for which the park is named, the canal, overgrown and empty.  Large trees also grow between the tow path and the canal, which would never have been allowed when the canal was in use.  Only a few parks, mostly Civil War battlefields, have made a priority of restoring historic cultural landscapes. 

  5. fernseed says:

    The Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota has experienced this same re-wilderness. On certain portages or beside some lakes, you might be able to find old stoves and other mining equipment. This last summer I looked at the remains of an old airplane and I have seen pictures of an old car buried deep in the woods.
    On Isle Royale, just north of the Apostle Islands, the same thing happened, where the Forest Service came in and kicked everyone out and ripped down buildings. There is also some real impressive mining equipment buried in the woods as well. And the human history, dating back by some estimates 3000 years, can been found all across Isle Royale.

    • HikingStick says:

      I can’t remember where, but somewhere on the eastern end of the BWCA, I came across a stash of old artifacts near the end of a portage.  These included spring bedframes, barrels, cans of all sorts, and other miscellaneous stuff.  I couldn’t find any sign of old foundations nearby.  I don’t know if they were remnants of an illegal camp, or scrap materials that were stacked near the portage with the plan of pulling them out.  Either way, it does make for an eerie reminder that nature will reclaim the lands we cede (for whatever reason).

  6. penguinchris says:

    Great post. I love this kind of stuff. I spent many, many summers in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, the last few teaching science-y stuff to kids. One of the main things I liked to talk about was that they were in a fascinating wild place… but almost none of it is actually natural. The area was heavily logged in the 1800′s, and there were entire towns, farms, and other things built all over the park that are now gone – but like on these islands, you still frequently come across their remnants if you know where to look. The new growth looks like a natural forest, but it isn’t, just like on these islands.

    So it was immensely interesting and fascinating to visit the one relatively small grove of original, actually natural forest in the park. It’s difficult to access – it’s not off the main highway (which most tourists never leave) so you have to canoe trip to it, but it’s not along the canoe routes – it’s an additional 3-4 km hike.

    But once you’re there, the vegetation very noticeably and suddenly changes. The trees and undergrowth are all entirely different – it’s amazing.

    The other place I experienced such a dramatic change there is at what was once a large factory farm. All the rocks were cleared (it’s a very rocky area) for the fields, and are now in big piles. Because the soil is so different because of the rock-clearing and the farming, entirely different types of plants have re-populated there compared to the rest of the place.

    Finally, as a geologist I love those brownstones and the old quarry. I’ve been in a lot of old quarries, but that one looks particularly cool.

  7. mennonot says:

    There’s a similar story on North Manitou Island ( on the other side of Lake Michigan. I’ll never forget wandering through formerly inhabited areas: hundred year old apple orchards. One key difference is that many of the old houses on that island are maintained in the shape they were when the Park Service took over. The effect of the ruins is dramatic and memorable.

  8. Bad Tux says:

    One of my favorite things to do when I visit the desert is locate old mining sites. In many cases I don’t even see foundations. There was one historic site I visited where, three years prior, there had been an old stone cabin that dated to the early 1900′s. When I visited it, it was impossible to detect there had ever been human habitation there other than by the fact that there was less brush at the site, the BLM had come in and knocked everything flat, dug a big hole, buried it all, then reshaped the landscape around it to deal with this “unwanted blighted mining structure”. 

    What I detect a lot of, in dealing with many NPS and BLM employees, is that many of them view human history and humanity itself as evil and abhorrent. They became NPS/BLM employees because they basically hated people and wanted to be away from people, not because they cared about the history of the area they’re serving in. This even afflicts higher level people such as district archaeologists. I once encountered a district archaeologist who was *furious* that we had temporarily screwed in some panels of plywood into an old mining shack that had fallen over and that we’d pushed back up, in order to stabilize it while an evaluation was made of the best way to permanently stabilize the structure. She accused of us trying to set up a system of Swiss climbing chalets in the wilderness, a claim which would be ludicrous if you’d actually seen this structure, which was approximately 8′ by 8′ in size and nowhere near weathertight and was ankle-deep in rat feces. Not to mention the location of this structure, on a remote ridge of no interest to anybody who wasn’t looking for the human history of the area, visited by perhaps half a dozen people per year due to its remote location which required a strenuous 12 mile hike and there was no water when you reached the end of the trail (the miners relied on water obtained via a tramline from a valley several miles away, and of course the tramline was long ago dismantled and hauled off to some other mine, leaving the shack behind to decay and finally fall over because it was more trouble to dismantle it and haul it out than it was worth). Granted, our intent was to stabilize the structure and get it weathertight, but our goal was to put historical displays and information there for the people who came to visit the mining site, it was useless for occupying as some “climbing chalet” or whatever this dingbat accused us of doing. No matter, she got our MOU revoked and went back out with a ranger and personally ripped out the plywood and happily watched the shack fall over again. In the end all the ridiculous accusations were just an excuse — she was personally offended that non-Native American remains of human history were in “her” wilderness, and wanted it destroyed, and a sheet of plywood in “her” wilderness was enough political ammo for her to do it. 

    Of course, that’s not ALL BLM/NPS employees. I know some cool ones who actually do know the human history of the area and are not that kind of crazed dingbat anti-human activist. It’s just an attitude that, as an amateur historian who wants to preserve the human history of the area, drives me nuts because you have to work around and politically neutralize those people before you can do *anything* to preserve what human history in the area hasn’t already been destroyed by these people.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Frankly, it sounds like you have a bit of a grudge against BLM and NPS in general. These people tend to be underpaid, understaffed, underfunded, and besieged by Congresscritters trying to cut their funding even further, people who want to run their ATVs through the parks and sites, metal-detector bandits trying to dig up Civil War sites for stuff they can sell on eBay, resource-hungry businesses that want to exploit the mineral or timber, and so on and so forth. Do you think that, by declaring yourself an “amateur historian” and deciding unilaterally how the site should be used, you’re helping things?

      • Bad Tux says:

        As vs. the BLM archaeologist, a person from Back East who has been in the area for less than a year and knows nothing about the human history of the site or anything about it really other than its location on a map, deciding unilaterally how the site should be used? ROFL! The locals in an area know the area better than someone airdropped in from a locale that might as well be an alien planet, and should not be blithely ignored just because some Back East hoity toity academic thinks she knows best. 

        And yes, Westerners have a grudge against outsiders coming in and telling them how things have to be. What, you haven’t figured that out yet?

        Not every site can or should be stabilized to preserve or exhibit human history of an area, and budget is always a problem. But when you have a MOU with a local volunteer organization to stabilize and preserve a site who are putting their own time and money into the effort and cancel that MOU because a single outside person airdops in during the middle of the project and decides that the site shouldn’t be stabilized, that’s the sort of FU to the locals that gets people upset. Just sayin’.  

  9. spool32 says:

    A long healthy conversation with officials from the Irish Tourist Board could solve this conundrum. They’ve worked out how to preserve the famine walls and the other structures from that time, alongside the pristine wilderness. 

    It’s not that tough, honestly. 

    • Colmanetg says:

      Wait, what? There’s almost no pristine wilderness in Ireland. The whole landscape is entirely formed by man. Ireland’s natural state is pretty much temperate rain forest.

  10. Phlip says:

    Beautiful article…

    …however, tearing down buildings prevents looting, squatting, and fires, so pushing stuff towards Nature lets her clean up faster…

    • Bad Tux says:

      Yah, ’cause we have to destroy the village to save it. Or something like that. And we have to destroy our history to preserve it. Otherwise the terriers win. Or something.

  11. MrWoods says:

    Preserving defunct man-made elements, and going out of your way to destroy them both change the landscape from what it otherwise might be.  I don’t see an intrinsic reason to preserve a landscape in either the pre-inhabited or pre-abandoned state.

    Perhaps we should decide to preserve where the cultural significance of the site warrants the investment, decide to clear sites where the natural beauty is enhanced, and let things decay gracefully in many cases.  After all ruins are the coolest and cheapest option.

    As an alternative we can return all islands to their Pleistocene state – under lake Duluth!

  12. Sawgrass Man says:

    If you happen to have read Peter Mattheissen’s “Killing Mr. Watson” you might remember the fairly detailed descriptions of Watson’s house on the Chatham river, which was still standing in 1947 when the park was established.  The Park Service burned it down (and I think Mattheissen fictionalized it in “Lostman’s River”.) An everglades resident remembers going there in 1936 to pick fruit from Watson’s trees, dig up some sugarcane plants, and swimming the the big cement cistern.  All gone now, trees and all.  Why, for god’s sake???

  13. Miss Angela says:

    I suspect the NPS knocks down all the vacant buildings because of two strong modern impulses: 1) Showing nature who’s boss by making a visible impact on your surroundings! You know, by vandalizing empty buildings and committing arson. 2) Suing the crap out of everyone, all the time, because no one has any sense of personal responsibility (“Wah, I broke into this boarded-up building and fell through the floor, but it’s not my fault!”). Exploring formerly-inhabited places is a fascinating pastime, and finding forgotten structures in the (supposed) wilderness is thrilling. But as a culture? We can’t have nice things.

    At least, not on government-owned land.

  14. RJ says:

    Very interesting read, Maggie. It’s always fascinating to hear about old ruins in wild places. One thing I find curious about the photos is that the Parks Service went to all the trouble to remove the buildings and dispose of the materials, right? I wonder why they didn’t pick up the smaller debris, such as that huge steel cable in one of the photos. At the very least, it could be melted-down and made into something useful. Regardless of whether the buildings were removed to eliminate American artifacts or to minimize liability, it just makes sense to go ahead and pull as much debris out of there as they can.

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