Download 100,000 Photos of 20 Great U.S. National Parks, Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service


The sto­ry of the U.S.’s nation­al parks isn’t one sto­ry, but many. These have been told and retold since the found­ing of the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, a cen­tu­ry ago this past Thurs­day. And they stretch back even fur­ther, to the Civ­il War, the con­quer­ing and set­tling of the west, and the begin­nings of the Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tion move­ment. Near­ly every one of us who grew up with­in a cramped, con­tentious fam­i­ly car ride from one (or more) of those parks has our own sto­ry to tell. But our nos­tal­gic mem­o­ries can con­flict with the his­to­ry. Vir­ginia and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Park­way, for example—the park clos­est to my child­hood home—offers vis­i­tors an idyl­lic vision of Appalachi­an life and land­scape. But the found­ing and con­struc­tion of the park in the 1930s and 40s was any­thing but.


On the one hand, the build­ing of the gor­geous­ly scenic, 469-mile high­way pro­vid­ed jobs for out-of-work civil­ians and, lat­er, con­sci­en­tious objec­tors under FDR’s Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion, Emer­gency Relief Admin­is­tra­tion, and Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps. On the oth­er hand, the fed­er­al government’s seizure of the land cre­at­ed hard­ships for exist­ing farm­ers and landown­ers, forced some­times to sell their prop­er­ty or to obtain per­mis­sion for build­ing and devel­op­ment. The Park Ser­vice project also engen­dered resent­ment among the East­ern Chero­kee, who fought the Park­way, and won some con­ces­sions. (In one sto­ry that rep­re­sents both of these hard­ships, a Chero­kee man Jer­ry Wolfe tells WRAL what it was like to work on the road, one that ran direct­ly through the cab­in he once shared with his par­ents.)

Planting Plan Blue Ridge

To cel­e­brate their 100 years of exis­tence, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice has launched what it calls its Open Parks Net­work, a por­tal to thou­sands of pho­tographs and doc­u­ments dat­ing from the very begin­nings of many of its parks—some of which, like Yosemite and Yel­low­stone, came under fed­er­al pro­tec­tion before the NPS exist­ed, and some, like New York’s Stonewall Inn, only giv­en pro­tect­ed mon­u­men­tal sta­tus this year. The Open Parks Net­work includes over 20 dif­fer­ent parks and sev­er­al dozen col­lec­tions that doc­u­ment spe­cif­ic peri­ods.

Great Smoky Mountains Shelton

In the case of Blue Ridge Park­way, we have only one—a col­lec­tion of the park’s engi­neer­ing plans. One might hope for images of those toil­ing Depres­sion-era crews, or of the anx­ious faces of the region’s res­i­dents. But instead we can piece togeth­er the sto­ry of the park through fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­ments like the “Plant­i­ng Plan” fur­ther up, from 1965, which reminds us how much the nat­ur­al beau­ty of the Park­way is achieved through human inter­ven­tion. And we can imag­ine what many of those ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry Appalachi­an folks looked like in his­toric pho­tos like that above, from a col­lec­tion of Great Smokey Moun­tains pho­tographs tak­en in the teens and 20s by Jim Shel­ton.

Lincoln's Birthplace Nearby House

Regard­less of how much med­dling we have done to cre­ate the scenic over­looks and moun­tain and Red­wood under­pass­es that con­sti­tute the nation’s pro­tect­ed parks, there’s no deny­ing their appeal to us all, nature lovers and oth­er­wise, as sym­bols of the country’s rough grandeur. We can skip the hikes and long car rides, or plan for them in the future, sur­vey­ing the parks’ beau­ty through over 100,000 high-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal scans of pho­tographs and 200,000 images in all, includ­ing more gal­leries of build­ing plans, maps, and illus­tra­tions. Some of the gal­leries are quite unusual—like this col­lec­tion of aer­i­al infrared pho­tographs of the Great Smoky Moun­tains, or this one of “his­toric goats” of the Carl Sand­burg Home Nation­al His­toric Site. And many of the photos—like the fad­ed 1968 pho­to of Yellowstone’s Old Faith­ful geyser, fur­ther up, look just like your fam­i­ly vaca­tion pho­tos.


There are beau­ti­ful his­tor­i­cal images like that of a house near Hod­genville, Ken­tucky, site of the Abra­ham Lin­coln Birth­place Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park, fur­ther up; images of park rangers and staff, like the charm­ing group pho­to above from Ander­son­ville Nation­al His­toric Site in Geor­gia; and sub­lime vis­tas like the pho­to at the top of the post from the Kings Moun­tain Nation­al Mil­i­tary Park in Yosemite Val­ley. The Open Parks Net­work, writes Joe Toneli at Digg, “is con­stant­ly being added to, and is an impor­tant tool in pre­serv­ing the his­to­ry of the NPS and the nation­al mon­u­ments it pro­tects.” Devel­oped in part­ner­ship with Clem­son Uni­ver­si­ty since 2010, Open Parks hosts all pub­lic domain images, free to explore and down­load. See this guide for a detailed expla­na­tion on how to best nav­i­gate the col­lec­tions, all of which are ful­ly search­able.


Each image, like that of Yosemite Falls, above, has options for view­ing full-screen and zoom­ing in and out. So absorb­ing are these archives, you may find your­self get­ting lost in them, and any one of these beau­ti­ful­ly-pre­served parks and their incred­i­ble his­to­ries offer wel­come places to get lost for sev­er­al hours, or sev­er­al days. For even more his­toric pho­tog­ra­phy from the nation’s many parks, see selec­tions online from the East­man Muse­um’s cur­rent exhib­it, Pho­tog­ra­phy and Amer­i­ca’s Nation­al Parks, “designed,” writes John­ny Simon at Quartz, “to inspire peo­ple to look at nation­al land­scape just as Ted­dy Roo­sevelt once did, a cen­tu­ry ago.”

Enter Open Parks here.

via Digg

Relat­ed Con­tent:

226 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs of Great Amer­i­can Nation­al Parks Are Now Online

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

The Beau­ty of Space Pho­tog­ra­phy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Anne Whisnant says:

    Great arti­cle about a tru­ly won­der­ful resource. On the ques­tion of Blue Ridge Park­way images that depict work on 1930s crews, we have many such images from the Blue Ridge Park­way’s his­toric pho­to­graph col­lec­tion on a site I co-direct at UNC-Chapel Hill: Dri­ving Through Time: The Dig­i­tal Blue Ridge Park­way. Dri­ving Through Time includes near­ly 8000 Park­way items (most­ly his­toric pho­tos, but also maps, draw­ings, oral his­to­ries, and news­pa­per arti­cles). Togeth­er with Open Parks Net­work’s col­lec­tion of Park­way maps and draw­ings, it help tell the com­pli­cat­ed and fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of the Park­way’s past. See:

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fan­tas­tic, thank you, Anne!

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