How the Grand Canyon Became a National Park

The Canyon's natural beauty was under attack from developers, miners and ranchers. Jan 11, 1908, Roosevelt stopped them by establishing a national monument.

During a first visit to the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt gathered a small crowd on the south rim and addressed them. “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe,” Roosevelt stated. “It is beyond comparison!beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world? Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see”

Roosevelt’s words were sharp and intentional. The Grand Canyon’s natural beauty was under attack as developers, miners and ranchers each vied for a part of the Canyon’s natural resources. Roosevelt knew the canyon needed to be protected, but he also had little support back in Washington to establish Grand Canyon National Park. His only hope was for his words to change the ideologies of those entrepreneurs around the canyon.

During the next several years, Roosevelt’s advice did little to stop the continued development and tourism. The Canyon continued to rise as a popular tourist destination and several buildings were constructed on and, around the South Rim. It wasn’t until January 11, 1908 that Roosevelt was able to use his presidential power to help slow the canyon’s growth by establishing the canyon as a national monument. Without Roosevelt’s action Grand Canyon National Park may never have been eventually established and development could still be going on today.

Theodore Roosevelt leading a horse during his hunting trip to the Grand Canyon in 1913. Photo courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University
Theodore Roosevelt leading a horse during his hunting trip to the Grand Canyon in 1913. Photo courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University

A Young Savior

It’s hard to imagine the Rough Rider Roosevelt as a weak child, but his childhood was filled with asthma and long stretches when he was constantly too weak to run around. In his early years, Roosevelt co-founded the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History and spent a majority of his time collecting and preserving anything he could get his hands on.

It was also during this time that the Grand Canyon was starting to become a popular tourist destination as world of its spectacular grander and out-of-this-world geology was publicized in the papers back east. After John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expedition in 1869, it became apparent that the Grand Canyon was quickly moving up in the ranks as an area one must see before they die and the west continued to be a popular vacation destination for the upper class.

In true American entrepreneurial spirit, developers and railroad tycoons quickly stepped in and built up the canyon’s south rim into a hotspot for curious tourists and miners hoping to strike it rich. During this time several railroads brought tourists to crude hotels along the rim. When Roosevelt first visited the Grand Canyon it was in danger of becoming a highly developed tourist trap with open mines and ranchers using the surrounding forest for grazing their flock.

As Roosevelt grew older the Grand Canyon continued to be in danger of being overrun with development and private industry. A strong supporter of western natural landmarks, Roosevelt knew he had to do something. Though he did not have the support in congress to establish Grand Canyon National Park, he could use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to mark the canyon a National Monument. Though it would not keep all development from happening, it was an important step in creating a National Park.

During his years as President, Roosevelt also worked had to protect other regions in the West. From 1901 to 1909 he established five National Parks: Wind Cave, Sully Hill, Mesa Verde, Crater Lake and Platte and used the Antiquities Act to protect several other areas including 51 wildlife refugees and 16 national monuments. Roosevelt has since been credited as one of the National Park’s founding fathers along with naturalist John Muir. Roosevelt made no secret about his desire to preserve the American landscape for generations to come.