the interpretive staff and historians, both inside and outside the Park Service.
“Take Fort Union. You could be an interpreter there — you could be transferred there from the Grand Canyon or Capulin Volcano — and you might have a background in biology or geography, and suddenly you had to be able to interpret this wonderful site to the public. But it’s about the Santa Fe Trail and military relations between the U.S. government and Native Americans there, and you have to talk about social history and military history and do that at the cutting edge of scholarship.
“What do you do at a place like Yellowstone, the classic natural park, and right in the middle of it is Fort Yellowstone, a historic place that the Park Service manages? You have to manage that place both with natural science and with history talent.”
There wasn’t always such a divide in the Park Service. Its first chief historian, Verne Chatelain, was appointed in the 1930s, and he and his close successors were very involved in management, research, and interpretation issues. “With the 1966 passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Park Service decided that historians’ skills were better spent in cultural resource management, doing National Register nominations and that sort of thing,” Pitcaithley said. “That left a vacuum in the interpretive arena, and over time, those skills that Verne Chatelain and the other early park historians had were lost.”
One of Pitcaithley’s advances was building a bridge at Harpers Ferry Center, West Virginia, which produces many of the NPS exhibits and films and which was planning a booklet on the Underground Railroad. “I had a woman working for me who was well versed on the academic side of that story, and when I approached them, they were stunned that the history office would want to be involved in an interpretive project that
Harpers Ferry was doing.” In another instance, he brought academic historians into the Park Service to do a two-day workshop on slavery and its importance in U.S. history.
That is one of the topics he has written about. Others are historic preservation and the Antiquities Act. Right now, he has a manuscript at University of Kentucky Press. “The people at the Kentucky Historical Society and I thought a book was needed that drills down into the secession of the South. This will be a reader, a document book with a 22,000-word introduction by me.”
The 100th birthday of the National Park Service ought to be a time “for reflection and for reassessing what it all means,” Pitcaithley said. “The Park Service about a year ago posted a statistic that 80 percent of people who were polled could identify the National Park Service, but only 37 percent knew what it does on a daily basis.” In his Santa Fe talk, he will explain to the American taxpayers in the audience how the system grew from 35 parks in 1916 to 412 parks today. Besides the big, well-known national parks like Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Carlsbad, that 412 figure includes national monuments such as Bandelier and Gila Cliff Dwellings, national historical parks like Chaco Culture and Pecos, national historic trails such as Old Spanish and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, national battlefield parks, and others. More than half of NPS sites are primarily cultural in nature.
The former chief historian laments the Park Service’s rather artificial separation of nature and history, but he has been encouraged by its more modern approach in other areas. “In the 1990s, Congress created a number of parks that deal with civil rights — also two Japanese internment-camp monuments — and it set aside Indian massacre sites ... the sort of dark side of U.S. history. Congress stepped up to the plate, and today the Park Service is completely different than it was a hundred years ago. Stephen Mather [the first NPS director, 1917-1929] would be flabbergasted today.
“But the other side is what gets short shrift in almost any conversation about the National Park Service — all the programs that it manages. The National Register, the Historic American Buildings Survey, [and] the National Heritage Area program collectively enrich us as a society and enrich our communities, but unfortunately they are rarely mentioned, even by the Park Service. That’s really unfortunate that most citizens don’t appreciate the good work that a lot of really dedicated people are doing outside of park boundaries.” One example is the Santa Fe Plaza, which has been protected as a National Historic Landmark since 1960, the year the Park Service started its landmarks program. “There’s a plaque on the west side, on the sidewalk, that people hardly ever notice.”
Footprint carvings in the soft rock of Bandelier National Monument; courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Neg. HP.2007.20.463