Podcast Episodes

Ballads of Big Bend

The shape of the southwestern edge of Texas is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. Here, the Rio takes a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Victor Valdez, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.


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Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Big Bend National Park — National Park Service Website

Crossing the Border to Boquillas — National Park Service Website

Interview with Victor Valdez on NPR:

“Big Bend crossing brings new life to border town” — Houston Chronicle

Victor singing on the Rio Grande:


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

—–

The United States can roughly be divided into 7 different geographic regions, four of which — the coastal plains of the southeast, the interior lowlands of the Midwest, the great plains down the center, and the Basin and Ridge region of the west — all converge in one state: Texas.

The shape of the southwestern edge of the state is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. It’s along the Basin and Ridge region where the Rio take a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

—-

In 1994, After visiting the Mexican border village of Boquillas, on the Rio Grande just across the Mexican border at Big Bend National Park, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote the song “Gringo Honeymoon.”

We took a rowboat ‘cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side

It’s very possible that Victor Valdez could have been the man Keen was referring to as Captain Pablo. For 24 years, Valdez rowed a boat across an informal border crossing, leading American citizens to visit our southern neighbors.

The seven-minute boat ride was the easiest of U.S. Mexico border crossings, with no agents, no traffic, no lines, no documentation … just a tip for the boat captain.

The village is several hours’ drive from the nearest Mexican city, having grown from a mining operation that sent silver, lead and other mineral ores from the Sierra del Carmen mountains across the Rio Grande for distribution by train. It boasted a population of more than 2000 in the early 1900s but quickly diminished when the mining stopped. Now, just 2-300 citizens call Boquillas home, and Big Bend National Park is all that keeps it alive.

At the time that Big Bend was established in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was interested in creating an International Peace Park, joining the regions, but the plan never came to fruition. Nature finds its way, though, and the informal border crossing to Boquillas linked Big Bend with natural protected areas on the Mexican side of the border.

The crossing, of course, was illegal without an official port of entry. But Americans visiting the remote wonders of big bend came and crossed, to reach the beauty of Mexico’s nature sanctuaries or to enjoy cheap tequila shots and tacos. The people of Boquillas would cross to buy fresh groceries from Big Bend’s Rio Grande Village convenience store and to visit friends in nearby towns.

Officials had no interest in enforcing the crossing though, and Rangers encouraged visits to Boquillas, treating it almost as an annex of the park. The park even employed citizens from the town as firefighters. They were called Los Diablos and were so effective that they were sent to fight the California wildfires in 1999.

Park visitors would walk to the riverbank, where Mexican boatmen like Victor Valdez waited to take them across for a small fee. Trucks, horses and burros would then take them on the one-mile journey into town.

Valdez served as a boatman for 24 years. There were many boatmen, but Victor was well known for his enthusiasm, and for his serenades. He would sing his charming rendition of the “Cielito Lindo” for his passengers as they slowly rowed across the river. During the busy times of year — Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring break — he could make as much as $300 a day. But everything changed on September 11th, 2001.

The year after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government began enforcing the crossing. Boquillas was effectively closed off from civilization, and the tourism economy that kept it alive. Food, gasoline, mail, and friends all had previously come from the US and were now entirely cut off.

At first, Victor and other villagers squeaked out a meager living selling walking sticks, painted rocks, and other crafts to American’s still walking the Boquillas Canyon trail, but law enforcement quickly began to crack down on any sort of commercial activity.

So Victor, cunning enough, and even encouraged by Big Bend rangers, turned to his other talent. His singing voice. Every day, he and a couple of friends from town would make a mile-long walk through the desert brush and reeds to the river. They built a small shack, and they sat and waited with binoculars on the lookout for hikers making their way over the mountaintop in America. When one appeared, he would begin to stretch his vibrant tenor, permeating the canyon as if invisible borders could not contain him.

Victor was working for tips, but no longer were thousands of people visiting the canyon. Jars were set along the water’s edge, and sometimes he would make as little as $5 a day. Some hikers would wade half-way in the water to meet him and shake hands over the invisible line.

Victor used the money to care for a 94-year-old man, his disabled niece, and his wife, who lived in another town searching for work. Many residents left town, but Victor had lived in Boquillas all his 56 years, and didn’t want to leave.

People loved his singing, and Victor’s presence was more important than he would know. He was more than just a peaceful compliment to hikers’ journeys, he kept the link between Boquillas and Big Bend alive. Word spread of the Singing Man of Boquillas or the Singing Mexican, and Victor became popular. People traveled to the canyon just to hear his voice. All the while, unbeknownst to him, the US and Mexican governments were working on formalizing and re-opening the border crossing.

But the remote location was hardly anything that either government wanted to spend much money on. After nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes reviews and negotiations, the National Park Service along with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol opened a digital port of entry in 2013. It’s a kiosk, essentially, where visitors scan their passports and converse remotely with a Customs and Border Protection agent more than 300 miles away in El Paso. It’s still a bit of an honor system, but people can now cross the border quickly, and for the first time, legally.

The boats were launched once more, along with the trucks and the horses and the donkeys. The bar and restaurant re-opened. “We now hope for better days,” said Valdez. One year later, Boquillas’ population rebounded by 30 percent as tourism began to recover. Victor Valdez was no longer singing to a few hikers, he was again singing to boatloads of visitors, though now he left the rowing to his son.
Boquillas opened a new kindergarten, a clinic, and a second restaurant, and for the first time, electricity flowed through the city with a World-bank financed solar grid. Streetlights, refrigeration, TV, and kitchen appliances became a part of life for residents,130 years after the lightbulb was invented.

The relationship between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas is now viewed as a model for other border towns.

Victor Valdez died on August 10th, 2016 at the age of 65. Word of his passing from a heart attack spread far and wide through the West Texas border communities and nationwide ensuring that the legacy of the singing man of Boquillas would live on.

____

Big Bend National Park is comprised of 1,252 square miles of land, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night skies are dark as coal, lit up by millions of diamond stars, in the temple-like canyons carved by rivers into the ancient limestone.

There’s plenty to do for visitors of all ages. You can take scenic drives, biking tours, and river floats, or hike along the150 miles of trails skirting rivers and snaking through the mountainous desert terrain. 1,200 species of plants and 450 species of birds call Big Bend home, and the geology dates back millions of years.

And of course, you can cross the border, and visit the fine people of Boquillas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Rangers Make the Difference

July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks, we highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

The Dutch Creek Incident — National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Notable Women in Yosemite’s History — National Park Service Article

Ozark National Scenic Riverways Rangers Honored with Valor Award — National Park Service Article


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

—–
July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks we’re going to highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Fighting forest fires is one of the most dangerous occupations there are. With the wildfires raging across the country, we begin with the story of a Wildland Firefighter whose tragedy led to massive changes in wildfire fighting protocol.

Here’s Abigail Trabue
——
Andrew Palmer was 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, with a winning smile. He was hired to be a firefighter by Olympic National Park just four days after he graduated high school at age 18, ten years ago this June.

Twelve days later he had completed his basic training, and was assigned to an engine crew. On July 22, less than a month after he joined the National Park Service, Andy’s eager four-person team was dispatched to assist in fighting the Eagle Fire that was raging in northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The team headed out at 9pm, and after four hours of driving, they stopped at a motel to catch some sleep. Six hours later, they were back on the road. On the way, the tailpipe of their new truck fell off. They reported the problem but kept going. The check engine light came on, but they still carried on.

They arrived at the fire’s Command Post near Junction City, California at 6 p.m. The team’s captain left to get the truck repaired for two days while Andy and the rest of the group were sent to the fire line to begin cutting trees, with the specific instructions not to cut trees over 24 inches thick, because they were not certified to do so.

The captain was on his way back to the crew, having procured a loner truck, and just as he was stopping for lunch, a heartwrenching call came over his radio.

“Man Down Man Down. We need help. Medical emergency. Dozer pad. Broken leg. Bleeding. Drop Point 72 and dozer line. Call 911, we need help.”

The team had cut a Ponderosa pine 37” in diameter. Downslope from that tree was a 54” diameter sugar pine that had an uphill lean and a large fire scar on the uphill side. The Ponderosa pine fell toward the sugar pine, and its impact caused a 120-foot span of the sugar pine to split off. When it hit the ground, another portion of the trunk, about 8 feet long, broke off, crashing right into Andy.

A request for a helicopter evacuation went out quickly, but the smoky conditions were too risky for an air rescue. A team of ground paramedics reached Andy 55 minutes later, with a vacuum splint and a trauma bag, but they found that his injuries were much worse than were described in the original radio call for help. Along with the broken leg, he had a fractured shoulder, and was bleeding heavily.

Air evacuation was essential. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was called in but was told to stand down because a Forest Service helicopter was closer. But the Forest Service unit did not have a hoist and would need a clear landing zone, something the tree-packed mountain slope didn’t offer. The Coast Guard unit was recalled, losing valuable time. Paramedics debated whether it was even wise to even move Andy without further on-site treatment when they decided to clear a zone for the helicopter to hoist him out. The process took twenty minutes while the helicopter waited. Two hours and 47 minutes after being struck by a massive log, Andy was hoisted into the aircraft. He was pronounced dead Thirty-nine minutes later, before he even reached a hospital.

Andrew Palmer’s death, which became known as the Dutch Creek Incident, was a wake up call for the wildland firefighting community. Contingencies for medical emergencies were clearly lacking. An inquiry followed from the interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team. The crew captain was the only member of the team who would agree to an interview.

The investigators pointed to a host of problems that contributed to Andy’s death, including: inadequate supervision with the captain away; failure of the second in command to exercise proper supervisory control by allowing the team to cut down trees above their level of certification and an eagerness by the young crew to obtain a line assignment, among other factors.

The Dutch Creek Protocols were issued by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in Andy’s honor. His story is part of the “6 Minutes for Safety” program used by thousands of firefighters around the world each day. Every year, on the anniversary of Andy’s death, firefighters train in medical emergency response.

The year after Andy died 100,000 pink stickers were sent to firefighters to insert into their Incident Response Pocket Guide, outlining the communication protocol in the event of a medical emergency.

Today, firefighters on the line ask three questions: What are we going to do if someone gets hurt? How will we get them out of here? and How long will it take to get them to a hospital?

The capability of NPS helicopters to extract an injured firefighter by short-haul is now an important consideration in any fire management plan.

On July 25, 2018, 2 tones sounded over firefighter radios “Stand by for a net message,” the voice said, followed by: “Today, July 25, marks the ten-year anniversary of the tragic events on the Eagle Fire. A fellow firefighter has left us…and we continue on…as friends, co-workers and comrades. We are bound by a common thread as we share in this great loss. Today, let unity bring us together in a special way. Reflect on the moments in life when hope and appreciation serve as guides and change us for tomorrow. Now, please join together to respectfully observe a moment of silence in honor of Andrew Palmer, wildland firefighter from the Olympic National Park.”

“Thank you for joining us in this special moment. Resume normal communication.”

—–

We now turn back the clock almost exactly 100 years. It was the summer of 1918, toward the end of World War I. Able-bodied men were fighting overseas, and women were tapped to work all sorts of jobs traditionally held by men at the time, including police officers and factory workers. In California, Yosemite National Park, which had just been transferred to the new National Park Service, needed rangers.

____

Clare Marie Hodges first came to Yosemite when she was 14 years old on a four-day horseback ride. She fell in love with the valley and came back in 1916 to work at the nearby Yosemite Valley School. She learned the park by heart, and dreamed of being a ranger. Towards the end of the Great War, Hodges learned the park service was short of workers and thought she may have a chance. So she went to see Washington B. Lewis, superintendent of Yosemite National Park, to apply for a job.

“Probably you’ll laugh at me,” she said. “But I want to be a ranger.”

Lewis, either ahead of his time, or just so desperate for workers replied: “I beat you to it, young lady. It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols.” He hired her as a seasonal ranger, and just like that, Hodges became the first woman to be a fully-commissioned ranger in the National Park Service.

Hodges spent that first summer on mounted patrol, riding through the night to take entrance receipts to the park headquarters, along with patrolling both the valley and some of the more remote areas of the park.

She had the same duties as her male counterparts, the one difference being that she didn’t carry a gun. It’s not that she wasn’t allowed to, in fact, the other rangers told her she should, in order to ward off animals and attackers, but she decided against it. She wore the uniform Stetson hat but rode in a split skirt. Occasionally the people she encountered were confused. They didn’t understand why a woman had a ranger’s badge.

After the war ended, so did Hodges’ temporary service as a ranger. She married and stayed in the Yosemite area, ranching and guiding church groups through the park. Though her time with the NPS was short, she helped open doors for women whose role in the parks had been limited. National Park Service Director William Penn Mott, Jr., later praised Hodges for refusing to accept conventions and possessing the determination to take on a male-dominated profession.

Women began to be more involved in the park service after the war, but most were relegated to jobs like secretarial work and waitressing, wearing pillbox hats and dresses modeled after flight attendant’s uniforms until the 1970s. It would be thirty years after Hodges before another woman would be appointed a fully-commissioned park ranger. Today, only about a third of National Park employees are women.

—-

On July 4, four National Park Service Rangers from Ozark National Scenic Riverways were honored at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. with Valor Awards for their heroic efforts during a historic flood that impacted much of southern Missouri in April 2017. The Valor Award is the highest honor the department awards and is presented to employees for demonstrating unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger while attempting to save the life of another.

_____

Over a period of just two days — April 29 and 30, 2017 — the areas in and around Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southeastern Missouri received more than 15 inches of rainfall. Massive flooding set in on the park’s Jacks Fork and Current rivers. The Current River crested at 39 feet near the park headquarters in Van Buren, a full 10 feet higher than the previous recorded high water mark that was set in 1904.

At 5:30 P.M. on April 29, the Carter County Sheriff requested assistance from National Park Service Rangers to perform swift-water rescues of area residents, trapped in their homes with rising and fast-moving flood waters quickly approaching or already upon them. Park Rangers Joshua Gibbs, Lindel Gregory, Patrick Jackson, and Daniel Newberry jumped into action.

The Rangers were all specially trained in swift-water rescue techniques, and regularly performed one a week during the summer months. On this night, they would successfully conduct 30, exposing themselves to extremely high-risk conditions. They ferried from house to house checking for stranded residents using Park Service boats as the floodwaters rapidly rose. They maneuvered under low-hanging powerlines only a few feet above the rushing water, and through fumes from leaking underwater propane tanks.

They then left the boats to wade in waist-deep waters, among the live electricity and propane and raging river, to retrieve people from their flooded homes, secure them on the rescue boats, and guide them to safety.

The conditions were enough to scare even those who had grown up on the rivers, and the Rangers could see it in the eyes of the residents. Three of the rangers grew up in the area, having graduated from nearby Van Buren High School nearby. They were cut off from their own families during the flood.

“Lives were saved because these four rangers risked their own lives to help Missourians in need,” Senator Claire McCaskill said. “No one hopes for disasters like the historic floods we saw last year, but I’m grateful that we have such brave and selfless first responders in our communities—and I proudly join all Missourians in commending them for their bravery.”

After reviewing rainfall data, the National Weather Service says parts of the area experienced a 1,000-year flood event. The heroic actions of these four rangers saved the lives of 30 stranded men, women, and children as entire houses were swept away.

—–

The toll of devastation from the Carr Fire, one of the most brutal fires in California history rose earlier this week to more than 1,000 homes destroyed and almost 200 damaged. More than 4,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, not far from where Andrew Palmer lost his life. Two have died.

Rangers work so many different types of jobs in the National Park Service, but they’re all there to protect our country’s history and treasured natural preserves. The next time you encounter a National Park Service Ranger, make sure to thank them for their service.

And from Abigail and I to any rangers listening, our deepest gratitude goes out to you for your commitment to protect our lands and history.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

The Land That Made a President

On his 22nd birthday, in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. Their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, was born on February 12, 1884. Two days after his daughter was born, his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. Distraught, he escaped to a cattle ranch in the Dakotas.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the 26th President of the United States, and his time in North Dakota, in an area now known as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – National Park Service Website

Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation -National Park Service Website

Muir, Roosevelt, and Yosemite: A Camping Trip That Changed the World – Our podcast episode on the time Roosevelt ditched his secret service detail to go camping with John Muir, planting the seed for the National Park idea.


Transcript

Click the arrow to read the full text of this episode.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

Not many realize that Theodore Roosevelt, one of our country’s most famous tough guy cowboy personas, grew up a feeble child who suffered from debilitating asthma and generally poor health. He experienced sudden nighttime asthma attacks that created the feeling of being smothered to death, which terrified him and his parents. Nevertheless, he was an energetic and mischievously inquisitive child. Born in New York City, young Theodore grew up homeschooled by his parents — socialite Martha Stewart “Mittie” Bulloch and businessman Theodore Roosevelt Sr. At age seven, he saw a dead seal at a local market, managed to procure its head, and formed the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” with his two cousins. He learned the basics of taxidermy and filled his “museum” with animals he caught or hunted … it was a different time.

Family trips included tours of Europe, and when hiking with his family in the Alps in 1869, Teddy found that he could keep pace with his father, who he thought to be the greatest man alive. The physical exertion actually minimized his asthma, beginning his lifelong devotion to exercise. After an altercation with two older boys on a camping trip, he had lessons from a boxing coach to teach him to fight and gain strength.

On his 22nd birthday, in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. Their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, was born on February 12, 1884. Two days after his daughter was born, his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. Distraught, he escaped to a cattle ranch in the Dakotas.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the 26th President of the United States, and his time in North Dakota, in an area now known as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

_____

A twenty-four-year-old Theodore Roosevelt first took the Northern Pacific Railroad to the Dakota Territory the year before the tragic loss of his wife and mother. The New York City tenderfoot didn’t receive the warmest of receptions from the local frontiersmen, but Roosevelt’s pocketbook quickly convinced twenty-five-year old Joe Ferris — a Canadian living in the Badlands — to serve as Roosevelt’s guide.

Roosevelt came to the Dakotas to hunt Bison, which proved challenging to find. Commercial hunters had slaughtered most of the herds. But Roosevelt’s grit and determination impressed Ferris. They slept outdoors on the ground for the most part, except through terrible weather when they stayed at the ranch cabin of Gregor Lang. Roosevelt and Lang spent late evenings debating politics and discussing ranching, sparking a fire in Teddy’s mind — he became obsessed with the idea of raising cattle in the northern plains.

Cattle ranching was booming in the area at the time, mainly because of the depleted bison population. Cattle were being driven north from Texas to graze the Dakotas’ nutritious fields. The railroad provided speedy delivery to the east, avoiding the long drives that diminished the quality of the meat.

To Roosevelt, it was a sound business opportunity. He put down an investment of $14,000 in the Chimney Butte Ranch, more than his annual salary, and went into business with a couple local cattlemen. More than just an investment, though, Roosevelt saw this venture as an opportunity to immerse himself in the western lifestyle that he had long romanticized.

Roosevelt returned to New York, resuming his legislative duties in Albany. He was a member of the New York State Assembly, where he acted more like an investigator than a legislator. He took on corporate and government corruption, exposing high-profile figures, including a federal judge, making newspaper headlines in the process.

His political career was gaining traction. He was becoming a key player in the 1884 presidential election, when, on February 12, 1884, a telegram arrived announcing the birth of his first child. He celebrated with his colleagues until he received a second telegram that would hurry him home. His wife and mother were had both taken ill. On Valentines Day morning, Roosevelt sat by his mother’s side as she succumbed to typhoid fever. That evening he held his wife’s hand as she died from kidney failure that had been masked by the pregnancy. Devastated, Roosevelt wrote a large ‘X’ as that day’s diary entry, along with “The light has gone out of my life.”

Roosevelt never spoke of his wife Alice again, even to their daughter. He set out to erase her memory, destroying any letter that mentioned her name.

Roosevelt single-mindedly immersed himself in his work, and then, when the legislative session ended a couple months later, he left his newborn daughter in the care of his sister and went west again. His new profession would now be his escape, and he set forth with the idea that he would eventually spend the rest of his life as a rancher.

Roosevelt had instructed his partners to build a cabin before he left, and he found it easily upon his return. It was dubbed the Maltese Cross Ranch, but, only seven miles from the town of Medora, it wasn’t quite remote enough for the solitude Roosevelt required. He headed north along the Little Missouri River another 30 miles and built a second ranch he named Elkhorn, which would become his home. He threw himself into badlands cowboy life. He helped stop stampedes, he participated in month-long roundups, arrested thieves, even punched out a drunken gunslinger in a bar.

He had been riding for enjoyment through the western part of the Dakota Territory and into eastern Montana Territory for many days when he stopped at a hotel bar for the night. Roosevelt described the incident in his autobiography:

“It was late in the evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face.

…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.

As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.”

By the next morning, the man had left town on a freight train.

On a more political level, Roosevelt led efforts to organize ranchers to address overgrazing and other shared concerns, forming the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association. He coordinated conservation efforts, establishing the Boone and Crockett Club, whose primary goal was the preservation of large game animals and their habitats.

He split his time between New York and his Dakota ranches over the next few years. Not yet 30 years old, New York Republicans tapped him to run for mayor of New York City in 1886. He accepted, despite having little hope of winning. He campaigned hard, but took third place with 27% of the vote. He thought the loss spelled the end of his political career, and focused his attentions to ranching again.

He began writing “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman,” the first of three books on his experiences ranching and hunting. He wrote, fatefully, about how the cattle industry in the Dakotas was unsustainable. With no regulation, the region became overgrazed. That year, a late thaw and sweltering summer delivered a brief growing season. Wildfires raged, and the cattle were underfed. Ranchers were ill-prepared to feed their livestock through the winter. As fate would have it, the winter weather would also present a challenge. Blizzards piled on top of one another, burying the grazing land, and cattle were found “frozen to death where they stood” in temperatures that reached as low as -41°. Once the snow melted, Cows were found dead in trees having climbed snowdrifts to reach anything edible. Nearly 80% of all cattle in the Badlands died. Roosevelt lost over half of his herd.

Roosevelt was not around for that winter, however. He had been in London, where he married his childhood friend Edith. He was unaware of the devastation until he returned to the U.S. in late March of 1887, where, in the spring thaw, an unimaginable number of cattle carcasses floated down the flooded Little Missouri river. His investment destroyed, he cut his losses and decided to be done with cattle ranching. He sold his interest in the Maltese Cross. He began to divest from Elkhorn, but still used the cabin as a basecamp for excursions and hunting trips, as he returned to New York to focus on politics. In the next 14 years, he would rise from New York City Police Commissioner to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to the Governor of New York, Vice-President, and President.

Although ranching in the Dakotas proved a financial disaster, the experience fed the rest of Roosevelt’s life — as a steward of the land, as a politician, as a person. Roosevelt’s last visit to North Dakota came in the fall of 1918, just a few months before his death at the age of 60.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once said. “It was here that the romance of my life began.”

____

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was named in honor of the man who felt the North Dakota lands he roamed so vital, but also for the man who would double the number of sites in the National Park system, creating Crater Lake, Wind Cave, and Mesa Verde, and then passing the antiquities act enabling Roosevelt and succeeding Presidents to proclaim national monuments. By the end of his presidency, he had proclaimed 18 of them.

During Roosevelt’s time in office, the Maltese Cross cabin was hosted in St. Louis at the Word’s Fair, before traveling to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. It then headed back to Fargo, and then Bismarck, North Dakota, and in 1959, twelve years after the park was established, the Maltese Cross Cabin returned home, restored to its original state behind the South Unit Visitor Center.

Only the foundation stones of the Elkhorn Ranch residence remain, still sitting where they were originally laid, accessible by a long gravel road in a detached unit of the park.

Visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park can experience the land much as Roosevelt did. A diverse array of wildlife – Elk, Bison, Deer, Pronghorns, and Golden Eagles – roam the nearly treeless plains. “Prairie dog towns,” where hundreds of prairie dogs conduct their business, amuse the 500,000 visitors a year that take the short detour from Interstate 94 through western North Dakota.

Isolation is on the menu in these wild lands. In fact, the entire state only has about 250,000 more people than the number that visit the National Park each year. The prairie skies are free of light pollution, allowing infinite stars to shine through the night. And it’s palpably quiet. The silent sunsets are an out-of-body experience.

Two primitive campgrounds are available, with most sites first-come first-served. Backcountry camping is nearly limitless, and an incredible way to see the park, sleeping on the ground, just like Teddy Roosevelt did.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Dred and Harriet Scott

On April 6th, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott walked into the unfinished St. Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, and in an act of bravery, filed separate petitions against Irene Emerson for their freedom.

On that day, one of the most important lawsuits in American history, one that would ultimately hasten the start of the Civil War and divide an already divided country, began. It would take ten years and reach as far as the supreme court before it ended.

On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, the Dred Scott Case, and Gateway Arch National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Gateway Arch National Park – National Park Service Website

Dred Scott Case Collection – Washington University in St. Louis

Dred Scott Case Collection – Library of Congress

Scott v. Sanford – Thoroughly detailed Wikipedia entry

The Dred Scott Decision – Video and info from The History Channel


Transcript

On April 6th, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott walked into the unfinished St. Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, and in an act of bravery, filed separate petitions against Irene Emerson for their freedom.
On that day, one of the most important lawsuits in American history, one that would ultimately hasten the start of the Civil War and divide an already divided country, began. It would take ten years and reach as far as the supreme court before it ended.

On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, the Dred Scott Case, and Gateway Arch National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue
—–

Dred Scott was born to enslaved parents in Southampton County, Virginia sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. Their owner was a man named Peter Blow. After a failed farming stint in Alabama, Peter Blow settled his family and six slaves in St. Louis in 1830, where he ran a boarding house. Within two years, both Peter Blow and his wife were dead.

Just before his death, Peter Blow sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson. Emerson served as a civilian doctor at Jefferson Barracks before being appointed as an assistant surgeon in the United States Army. He left St. Louis on November 19, 1833, to report for duty at Fort Armstrong in Rock Island, Illinois, taking Dred Scott with him.

Of course, slavery was prohibited in Illinois, both under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Illinois state constitution, which had been in place for 15 years prior to Scott’s arrival at Rock Island. Assuming Scott knew all this, he could have sued for his freedom in Illinois, but he didn’t, and he moved to Fort Snelling in the new Wisconsin territory with Emerson in 1836. Wisconsin was governed by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of 36 and a half degrees latitude, except for within the boundaries of Missouri. Scott could have again sued for his freedom, but he did not.

In the late 1830s, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, who was owned by the Indian agent for the Wisconsin territory. Ownership of Harriet was transferred to Dr. Emerson.

Emerson requested from the Army a transfer back to St. Louis, which was granted. On October 20, 1837, Emerson left Fort Snelling, traveling down the Mississippi by canoe, since steamboats had ended operations for the season. He left behind most of his possessions, including Dred and Harriet Scott, in the care of an unknown party.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Emerson was transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana. In April 1838, he sent for Dred and Harriet Scott to join him and his new wife Irene Sanford in Louisiana, a slave state. That September, the Emersons and the Scotts returned to St. Louis, then traveled back to Fort Snelling in October for a short time, before returning to St. Louis again. All of these movements will become incredibly important for the Scotts’ future attempt for freedom. On the trip back to Fort Snelling, Eliza Scott was born on a steamboat in free territory.

The Army then transferred Emerson to Florida. He left Dred and Harriet behind with Irene’s father, Alexander Sanford, who owned a plantation in north St. Louis County. Emerson was discharged from the Army in 1842 and returned to St. Louis for a short time, and then settled permanently in Davenport, Iowa. Irene Emerson joined him and gave birth to their daughter Henrietta in November 1843.

On December 29, 1843, Emerson suddenly died at age 40. A record of his Iowa estate mentioned slaves, but it is impossible to determine if this reference was to the Scott family. The Scotts never joined them in Davenport. There is no mention of slaves in Emerson’s Missouri estate inventory.

Irene Emerson and her daughter returned to St. Louis.

Dred and Harriet Scott had been hired out to several parties over the years, and in 1846, they were working for Samuel Russell, the owner of a wholesale grocery.

Even though slavery was legal in Missouri, the law allowed enslaved people to sue for their freedom if they were held wrongfully. First, a petition to sue had to be filed in the circuit court. If the petition contained sufficient evidence that the plaintiff was being wrongfully held, the judge would allow the case after provisions were provided to cover court costs by the plaintiff. The judge would also order that the enslaved person could be allowed to attend court and not removed from the vicinity.

The legal principle that affected the Scotts was the idea that once a person was free, they could not be enslaved again. The Missouri Supreme Court had ruled that a master who took his slave to reside in a state or territory where slavery was prohibited thereby freed him. “Once free, always free” was standard judicial practice.

On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed petitions against Irene Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom. The identical documents indicated that the Scotts were entitled to their freedom based on their residences in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory. But the Missouri courts had been gradually turning more and more pro-slavery. From 1844 to 1846, twenty-five freedom suits had been filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court and only one resulted in freedom. Pro-slavery Judge John M. Krum approved the petitions, which Dred and Harriet Scott signed with their marks, an “X.”

Attorney Francis B. Murdoch helped the Scotts initiate their freedom suits, and posted the required security for them. For some reason, he moved to California in 1847 before their cases came to trial.

At this point, the children of Dred Scott’s first owner became involved. The 7 Blow children became well established in St. Louis society by marrying into notable families: The abolitionist publisher of the first newspaper west of the Mississipi. A drug store owner. An attorney who would later play a role in creating Missouri’s 1865 constitution, stripping rights from southern sympathizers. Peter E. Blow married into a French banking family. His brother-in-law was a St. Louis County sheriff and another was a St. Louis attorney. The Blows provided financial and legal assistance to the Scotts. Samuel Mansfield Bay, former Missouri legislator and attorney general, became the Scotts’ attorney through a connection with the Blow family, who also signed for the Scotts’ court fee security.

The case came before the St. Louis Circuit Court on June 30, 1847. Judge Hamilton presided. He had replaced proslavery Judge Krum and held sympathy toward slave freedom suits. Missouri law was clearly on the side of the Scotts. Bay only needed to prove that Emerson had taken Dred Scott, and then Harriet, to reside on free soil.

Henry Taylor Blow testified that his father had sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson. Depositions were presented from both military posts, establishing that Dred and Harriet Scott had resided there in service to Emerson. Samuel Russell testified that he had hired the Scotts from Irene Emerson and paid her father, Alexander Sanford, for their services.

On cross-examination, though, Russel revealed that his wife Adeline had, in fact, made the initial arrangements to hire Dred and Harriet from Irene Emerson. His testimony was dismissed as hearsay, by the judge and because of this technicality, the jury decided against the Scotts. In an absurd twist of the legal system, they did not hear testimony sufficient enough to prove that Irene Emerson claimed Dred and Harriet Scott as her slaves…so they were returned to her ownership.

Bay moved for a new trial, arguing that a technicality in the legal proceedings that could be easily remedied should not hold the Scotts in slavery. Judge Hamilton granted. Irene Emerson had the sheriff take charge of the Scott family. He was responsible for their hiring out, and maintained the wages until the outcome of the freedom suit was determined.

There was a lengthy delay before the new trial took place. A year and a half, due to a heavy court schedule. Then a fire that swept through St. Louis and a cholera outbreak. The case was finally heard on January 12, 1850, a little over two years after the retrial was granted. In the meantime, Irene Emerson moved to Massachusetts and married Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee. Chaffee, an abolitionist, was apparently unaware of his wife’s involvement in a slave freedom suit and was elected to the United States Congress shortly after their marriage.

The Scotts had new attornies, again through the Blow family, Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall. Field was an expert trial lawyer and prominent figure in Illinois and Wisconsin politics. Hugh Garland and Lyman D. Norris represented Emerson.

Field and Hall again established the Scotts’ residence in free territories. They presented a new deposition from Adeline Russell, who indicated that she hired Dred and Harriet Scott from Emerson. Samuel Russell appeared in court to testify that he paid to hire the Scotts.

Garland and Norris tried to claim that the two free-territory residencies were not subject to civil law since they were on military bases, but precedent from a previous case wasn’t in their favor. The jury found for the plaintiffs. Dred and Harriet Scott were free.

At this point, the Scotts’ case was just another successful Freedom Suit. There was no national or even local attention paid to it. But Emerson’s attorneys appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which granted a hearing. All parties agreed that only Dred Scott’s case would be heard and that whatever decision applied to Dred would apply to Harriet.

In the State Supreme Court trial, Emerson’s attorneys forwarded the argument that military law was different from civil law when slave property was involved. They claimed that because Emerson was ordered to the military posts, there was no consent on his part to willingly take his slaves into free areas.

The Missouri Supreme Court had, in essence, decided the case in advance. William Napton, James H. Birch, and John F. Ryland were looking for a case that would allow them to hand down a pro-slavery decision, and overturn all previous supreme court opinions that recognized slavery prohibitions. An election of new judges between the trial and delivering a supreme court opinion further complicated things. Napton and Birch were both voted off the bench, and new justices Hamilton Gamble, and William Scott joined Ryland.

On March 22, 1852, the new court rendered their 2-1 decision reversing the lower court’s findings. Justice William Scott wrote the opinion, claiming that Missouri should not have to recognize laws that were in opposition to its own. He acknowledged the right of slaves to obtain their freedom when taken to free states but determined that slavery status was regained upon return to a slave state. The opinion, with a thread of racist rhetoric, was clearly politically motivated.

The next day, Irene Emerson Chaffee’s attorneys filed an order back in the circuit court for the Blow family’s bonds to cover the court costs, and that the Scotts be returned to them, along with slaves’ wages of four years at 6% interest. Judge Hamilton denied the order, and no explanation was recorded.

But Dred Scott and Harriet Scott were not done. Their friends helped them file a suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri. The Blow family decided they could no longer financially support the Scotts, especially once the case seemed hopeless. Tensions over slavery were at a boiling point in the United States, less than a decade before the Civil War broke out. Attorney Roswell M. Field took on the case for no fee.

At this point, Irene Emerson’s brother John Sanford claimed ownership of the Scott family, in what was likely a political move to help ensure the rights of slave owners, and so that Irene’s abolitionist husband would not find out. The court found in favor of Sanford, leaving Dred Scott and his family in slavery. Field appealed to the United States Supreme Court for the December 1854 term.

The United States Supreme Court did not hear the case until February 1856. Roswell Field arranged for Montgomery Blair, a high-profile St. Louis attorney living in Washington D.C., to argue Dred Scott’s case.

Reverdy Johnson, a nationally-known constitutional lawyer and Henry S. Geyer, U.S. Senator for Missouri represented John Sanford. In May, arguments, much along similar lines as the previous trials, were concluded. The justices called for the case to be reargued in December. At that time, the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis assisted Blair in arguing the constitutional questions of the case. A final decision was delivered on March 6, 1857. Eight of the nine justices wrote separate opinions. Seven justices, primarily pro-Southern, followed individual lines of reasoning that led to a shared opinion that, by law, Dred Scott was still a slave. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote what is considered to be the majority opinion, stating that African-Americans were, quote: “beings of an inferior order. so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The opinion decided that slaves were not citizens of the United States and had no right to bring suit in a federal court. In addition, the court ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, stating that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the federal territories.

Shortly before the decision was handed down Irene Emerson’s second husband, Dr. Calvin Chaffee, now a Massachusetts congressman, found out his wife owned the most famous slave in America, and so did his opponents. He was chastised for his perceived hypocrisy on the house floor. Chaffee immediately worked to free the Scotts. Since Missouri law only allowed a citizen of the state to emancipate a slave, he transferred ownership of the Scotts to Taylor Blow. On May 26, 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court and were formally freed before Judge Hamilton. Dred Scott took a job as a porter at Barnum’s Hotel at Second and Walnut street, where he became a local celebrity. Harriet ran a laundry out of their home. Dred Scott died on September 17, 1858 of tuberculosis, only 16 months after gaining his freedom. Harriet Scott died on June 17, 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which argues the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.

——

President James Buchanan‘s supporters considered the Dred Scott case a final answer to the sectional controversy, although Buchanan had influenced Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to join the southern majority so that it would look less like a sectional decision.

The case contributed heavily to the divisions that lead to Abraham Lincoln‘s election and the Civil War.

St. Louis’s Old Courthouse is now the visitors’ center for the Gateway Arch National Park, the Nation’s newest park, which is about to finish a massive redevelopment, linking the Arch with the courthouse on a grand front lawn for the city. The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the Dred and Harriet Scott cases. It was also where Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote came to trial in the 1870s. You can tour this historic structure and visit the restored courtrooms, along with exhibits related to St. Louis history.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

An Island Prison

If you only know the name Geronimo from the call that paratroopers in old war movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons shout, it’s a nickname bestowed upon a Native American hero by Mexican soldiers. During repeated conflicts, The Apache warrior attacked them with nothing but a knife, surviving each time despite being continually shot at. The soldiers would plead to Saint Jerome as they faced him. Geronimo is Spanish for “Jerome.”

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Geronimo, and his imprisonment at Fort Pickens, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

or download this episode (right click here and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Gulf Islands National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Chiricahua National Monument – National Park Service Website


Transcript

If you only know the name Geronimo from the call that paratroopers in old war movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons shout, it’s a nickname bestowed upon a Native American hero by Mexican soldiers. During repeated conflicts, The Apache warrior attacked them with nothing but a knife, surviving each time despite being continually shot at. The soldiers would plead to Saint Jerome as they faced him. Geronimo is Spanish for “Jerome.”

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, Geronimo, and his imprisonment at Fort Pickens, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

One of the leading causes of the Civil War was westward expansion, and whether new states like Kansas would be slave states or not, tipping the scales of power toward to the North or South. After the Civil War ended and the question of slavery was decided, the U.S. government turned its military prowess towards the native people of the West. Tribes gave up most of their traditional lands and ways of life as they were forced onto reservations.

Eventually, the reservations were encroached upon as miners and settlers moved in and demanded more land. The Chiricahua Apache reservation shrank to nearly one-third of its original size. Bands of Apaches hostile to one another were forced to live together on the shrinking lands, and as conditions on the reservation deteriorated, some bands escaped. Including a band led by a man named Geronimo, who lost fear when he lost his family during a Mexican raid. In the summer of 1850, a contingent of Apaches went on a trading mission into Mexico. While the men were in town, a force of Mexican troops attacked the lightly-guarded camp. When Geronimo returned, he found his mother, his first wife, and his three children all dead.

Geronimo became the #1 target of the U.S. Army and President Grover Cleveland, who made Geronimo’s capture his personal mission, saying “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war…if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.”

In 1886, Cleveland dispatched a full quarter of the U.S. Army, 5000 soldiers, in an effort to capture Geronimo, who was also evading 3000 Mexican soldiers as he raided across the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Eventually, the Army hired 500 scouts from rival Apache bands to track Geronimo, two of which found his band and negotiated a surrender to General Miles in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon.

After the surrender at Skeleton Canyon, the entire Chiricahua tribe were exiled to Florida where they were to be held as prisoners. President Cleveland publicly stated that they were “guilty of the worst crimes known to the law, committed under circumstances of great atrocity, and public safety requires them be removed far from the scene of their depredations and guarded with strictest vigilance.”

His orders to the Army commanders stated that “all the hostiles should be very safely kept as prisoners until they can be tried for their crimes, or otherwise disposed of.”

Three days before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty — October 25th, 1886. A train arrived in Pensacola, Florida. Onboard, 16 Apaches who surrendered at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona. Their leader – the renowned warrior Geronimo.

The rest of the Chiricahua were sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, but it was claimed that Geronimo himself and his warriors would be better guarded at Fort Pickens than at the overcrowded Fort Marion. However, an editorial in a local newspaper noted that Geronimo would be “an attraction which will bring here a great many visitors.” Upon their arrival, the paper’s editor said: “we welcome the nation’s distinguished guests and promise to keep them so safely under lock and key that they will forget their hair-raising proclivities and become good Indians.” In fact, it was local business leaders that lobbied for the move. President Cleveland himself approved the petition, separating the men from their families, breaking the terms of the surrender.

In February 1887, tourists from all over the country began arriving in Pensacola, crossing Pensacola Bay on a ferry to visit the island fort and see the Apache prisoners and the famed warrior Geronimo. Admission was fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. Visitors talked with the captives, bought souvenirs from them, and brought them gifts. Geronimo learned his part. He became a genial sideshow attraction, doing what he could to coax tourists to hand over a few nickles. He was well-liked, particularly by the women who visited. A writer from the local paper gave this advice to visitors: “We think that the ladies who visit these savages indulge in too much gush, and we are certain they would not do it if they were to pause and reflect upon the barbarities practiced upon the people of their own race by these cutthroats.” One woman asked a guard what kind of gift would be appropriate for Geronimo, and he responded by saying “a piece of lead in the forehead.”

Now that Geronimo was of no concern for harm, he was a celebrity. Were he alive today, he’d be making the talk show circuit and guest-judging on cooking shows. But Geronimo was still a prisoner. He and his warriors spent many days working hard labor at the fort, another violation of the agreements made at Skeleton Canyon. “they put me to sawing up large logs,” Geronimo said. “There were several other Apache warriors with me, and all of us had to work every day. For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place and we did not see our families until May 1887.”

The families of the warriors were moved to Fort Pickens, creating an even bigger attraction. The Indians held traditional dances. Soldiers would put pennies on the posts for the Indian boys to shoot off with their arrows.

After Grover Cleveland left office, Geronimo, his warriors, and their families were moved to Vermont, Alabama, where they stayed another five years, working for the Government. “We were not healthy in this place,” Geronimo said, “for the climate disagreed with us. Many died, others committed suicide.

They were then sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where, though imprisoned, houses were built for them by the Government. They were also given cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens. They were operating upon the understanding that they could raise the stock and sell grain in order to establish their own support system, but again the government had misled Geronimo. Part of the money was given to the Indians and part was placed in what the officers call the “Apache Fund,” to go towards clothing and other care, but the government-issued clothing eventually ceased, and the Apache were never given account of their earnings.

Geronimo lived the rest of his days as a prisoner. He visited the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and according to his own accounts made a great deal of money signing autographs and pictures, though he could do little with it. He died in 1909 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The captivity of the Chiricahua Apache ended four years later.

To the settlers of Arizona, Geronimo’s band were raiders and murderers. The Apaches’ exile and captivity eased their fears. The price of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache’s resistance was lost loved ones, lost lands, lost traditions, and 27 years their freedom. From 1850 to 1914, the Apache population dropped 95%.

On his deathbed, Geronimo confessed that he regretted his decision to surrender to the U.S. His last words were reported to be “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

_____

The Gulf Islands National Seashore protects a chain of barrier islands between Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, several with intact fortresses from the early 1800s. On the eastern end, you can take a ferry from Gulfport, Mississippi to West Ship Island, for swimming, hiking, and touring the historic Fort Massachusetts. In nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the Davis Bayou portion of the seashore offers trails through the wetlands, with plenty of opportunities to view alligators and other wildlife. There’s a developed campground on site, with water and electric hookups and a modern bathhouse.

In the Florida panhandle, historic Fort Barrancas lives on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Crossing the Pensacola Bay Bridge into the town of Gulf Breeze, you can find the park headquarters at the Naval Live Oaks area. This is the first piece of federally managed land in the United States. The Live Oak trees with their thick, crooked branches, were excellent for ship-building. The original United States Naval fleet was built largely from this grove of trees.

Crossing a $1 toll bridge onto the community of Pensacola Beach you’ll find a typical Florida beach town full of sugar sand, sunbathers, and outdoor eateries. But as you pay your entrance fee at the gate for the Gulf Islands and drive the 6 miles to the end of Santa Rosa Island, the world changes. The party atmosphere, the music, and the people disappear, but the sugar sand remains. You can explore miles of pristine beaches, watching osprey hatchlings leave their tiny footprints while the wide-winged adults loom overhead. Ghost crab almost disappears into white shores, and dolphin leap in the bay. At the end of the island is Fort Pickens, Geronimo’s tourist-attraction prison, which offers self-guided and ranger-led tours. All around the island are cannon batteries that developed over time as the armed forces protected Pensacola Bay, an important naval harbor. The giant cast-iron cannons of the 1800s and large-caliber disappearing grey gun batteries of the early 1900s are set among the palm trees and sand dunes all over the island. It’s like being in an episode of LOST, as you climb and play on the deprecated war equipment, almost wondering what decade you are in.

The campground near Fort Pickens at the end of the island is one of the best places to camp in all the National Park system. For $25 a night, you have water, electricity, and private access to the sugar sand beaches and trails to the fort and gun batteries. The legendary Blue Angels team of stunt jets is based across the bay at the Pensacola Naval Station, and they regularly practice right overhead and fly low over the water. It’s a particularly interesting affair since warplanes are the entire reason the gun batteries along the island are no longer necessary.

National Park Service sites across the southwest also relate closely to Geronimo’s history, especially Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, which is also a place of wondrous natural beauty.

The tradition of yelling “Geronimo” comes from the forties, when the Army was testing parachute jumps. A unit had gone out drinking and watched the 1939 film “Geronimo.” As fellow soldiers were harassing a young private who was acting tough about the jump. Early paratroopers didn’t have the greatest survival rates. His comrades said he’d be so scared, he wouldn’t remember his own name. He told them that to prove he wasn’t scared, he’d yell “Geronimo” as he jumped, referencing the warrior’s bravery in battle against the Mexican Army. He did, and his company followed suit, starting the tradition of making the expression in the face of death.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. 

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media. 

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC. 


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.



Podcast Episodes

The Grand Dame of the Everglades

At the southern tip of Florida lie the Everglades, a crucial ecosystem to America and the world. Everglades National Park has spent its entire life under siege, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas out front as its chief warrior.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Or Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

“The Everglades: River of Grass” -by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Buy the seminal text on Amazon

“The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service”
A great collection of stories from National Park Service rangers and employees.

Everglades National Park Official Website

Friends of the Everglades Website
A great bio of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and a timeline of her life

Everglades Digital Library 
Audio interviews with Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Wikipedia
One of the more thorough Wikipedia biographies you’ll find

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
Donate to Marjory’s namesake school, which suffered one of the worst school shootings in history in February.


Transcript

“Back in 1870, when only eighty-five people lived along the coast of southeastern Florida, an estimated two million wading birds inhabited the Everglades during dry seasons. During the late nineteenth century, plume-hunting reduced these birds to only several hundred thousand. This dramatic loss spurred protective laws in Florida — and in New York, where the plumes had been shipped to millinery houses. Thus protected, the wading-bird population rebounded to near its original level. Then, in the 1940s and after, the character of the Everglades itself began to change. As South Florida grew, the Everglades shrank, its waters controlled for man’s uses. By the mid-1970s, wading-bird numbers had dropped back to a few hundred thousand, about 10 percent of what it had been a century before. Biologists actively study these birds, looking for clues that might lead to stopping or even reversing the decline. As yet the only thing that is certain is that life in the Everglades is more fragile than anyone ever thought.”

That’s a passage from Jack de Golia’s “Everglades: The Story Behind the Scenery,” from 1978.

I’m Jason Epperson, and on this episode of America’s National Parks, Everglades National Park protects 1.5 million acres of Florida’s southern tip. It’s the first federal land protected not for beauty but, but for conservation, but the creation of the park was only the beginning. The Everglades have spent the last 100 years under siege. Our story is of the woman who protected them time and time again, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

These are the opening words from Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ seminal book “The Everglades: River of Grass”:

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…”

An apt description of the land, but also of Marjory herself. A true American hero, whose story is anything but average.

As a young child in Minnesota, before the turn of the 20th century, Marjory Stoneman’s father Frank read her “The Song of Hiawatha,” Longfellow’s Native American lore poem, set in the Pictured Rocks on the south shore of Lake Superior. The young Marjory burst into tears upon realizing a tree would give its life to provide Hiawatha the wood for a canoe.

At the age of six, Marjory’s parents separated. Her father’s failed business ventures caused her mother Lillian, a concert violinist, to take Marjory to her grandparents Massachusetts home, where she lived with her mother, aunt, and grandparents, who disparaged her father whenever they had the chance. Throughout her childhood, Marjory, who suffered from night terrors, would watch as her mother battled with mental illness, a battle she was never fully able to overcome.

Marjory escaped the turmoils at home in books, eventually beginning to write herself. By her late teens, she had multiple short stories published and had been awarded a prize by the Boston Herald for a story about a boy who watches a sunrise from a canoe.

But as her mother’s health declined, Marjory took on many of the family responsibilities, eventually managing the family finances. Despite her burdens, her aunt and grandmother sent her off for Wellesley College in 1908 recognizing that she needed to begin her own life. A model student, she graduated with a BA in English in 1912 – her mother died of breast cancer shortly after.

Marjory Stoneman met Kenneth Douglas, a newspaper editor 30-years her senior in 1914. In a whirlwind romance, they married in three months. It’s not exactly known what his misdeeds were, but it became clear that Kenneth Douglas was a con artist. Marjory stayed with him while he spent six months in jail for writing a bad check, but when he tried to scam her estranged father, she ended the marriage.

The con turned out to be fortuitous, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas was reunited with Frank Stoneman, whom she had not seen since moving away. In the fall of 1915, she left Massachusetts for Miami to live with her father who was the editor of the paper which would eventually become the Miami Herald.

Already an accomplished writer, Marjory joined the paper as a society columnist, but since fewer than 5,000 people lived in Miami at the time, the news was slow, and she’d have to make up many of the people and stories. Residents would ask about the characters they had never met, and she’d concoct elaborate accounts of their recent arrival to Miami.

In print, Frank Stoneman intensely attacked the governor of Florida, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, for his endeavors to drain the Everglades. When Stoneman ran for a circuit judgeship and won, Broward refused to certify the election. Frank Stoneman was referred to as “Judge” for the rest of his life without ever taking the bench.

In 1917, as World War I was raging in Europe, the Navy sent a ship to enlist men and women into the reserves. Marjory was assigned to cover the story of a local woman who was to be the first Miami woman to enlist. The woman didn’t show, so Marjory decided that she would take her place. She joined the Navy, became a yoeman first class, and was stationed in Miami.

Already leading a tough life, forced into early maturity, the military didn’t suit Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was no fan of rising early, and the officers were not fans of her grammar corrections. She requested and was granted a discharge, at which time she joined the American Red Cross, who sent her off to Paris. There, she cared for refugees until the war ended and her father cabled for her to come home and take over as the assistant editor at the now Miami Herald.

Her new column, “The Galley,” made Stoneman Douglas a local celebrity. “The Galley” was about whatever she wanted it to be about that week. She spoke out for responsible urban planning when Miami’s population increased ten-fold in a decade. She supported women’s suffrage and civil rights, and opposed prohibition and tariffs. She began to talk about Florida’s landscape and geography.

By 1923, her success and the pressure of writing her column and conflicts with the paper’s publisher got to Marjory. She began to experience blackouts and was diagnosed with nerve fatigue. She left the Herald and began to recover by sleeping late and writing short stories. The Saturday Evening Post published 40 of them, along with those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Most were fiction. Her protagonists were often independent women who encountered social injustices. The people and animals of the Everglades were the background of others, and some were non-fiction. “Wings” addressed the slaughter of Everglade birds for fashionable ladies’ hats.

She was commissioned to write a pamphlet called “An argument for the establishment of a tropical botanical garden in South Florida, causing her to become a fixture at garden clubs where she delivered speeches. She became a part of the Miami theater scene, writing one-act plays, one loosely modeled on the life of Al Capone, who’s henchmen showed up to check in on it. In 1926 she designed and built the cottage in which she lived for the rest of her life. Becoming ever more the socialite, she became a forceful pioneer in the fights for feminism, racial justice, and conservation. She fought against poverty, slumlords, and poor sanitation.

And she fought for the Everglades.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas served on the committee that argued for the creation of Everglades National Park, along with the force behind the idea, Ernest F. Coe. In 1934 Everglades National Park was designated by Congress, but it took another 13 years to acquire land and secure funding.

In the early 40s, Douglas was approached to contribute to a book series called the “Rivers of America.” She was asked to write about the Miami River, which she said was about “an inch long,” and instead persuaded the publisher to allow her to write about the Everglades. She spent five years researching the little-known ecology of the area, spending time with a geologist who discovered that South Florida’s sole freshwater source was the Biscayne Aquifer, which was filled by the Everglades. “The Everglades: River of Grass” was published in 1947 and sold out in a month. The book’s first line, “There are no other Everglades in the world” is easily the most famous line written about South Florida. She wrote about an ecosystem inescapably connected to South Florida’s people and cultures.

Everglades National Park officially opened in 1947, the same year River of Grass was published. The book became one of the most famous environmental calls to action in history, causing citizens and politicians to take notice. It was, in fact, a blueprint for many of the Everglades restoration projects that are still on-going today.

By the 1960s, the Everglades were in imminent danger of disappearing forever. In response to floods caused by hurricanes in 1947, the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project was established to construct flood control mechanisms in the Everglades. 1,400 miles of canals and levees were built over the course of 20 years. The C-38 canal, the last built, straightened the Kissimmee River, inflicting catastrophic damage on the habitats and water quality of South Florida.

Douglas initially gave the project her approval, as it promised to deliver much-needed water to the shrinking Everglades. But, in reality, it diverted water away from the Everglades to meet sugarcane farmers’ needs. The Army Corps of Engineers refused to release water to Everglades National Park until much of the land was unrecognizable.

Douglas fought fervently against the Corps of Engineers and Sugarcane Farmers, saying “their mommies must have never let them play with mud pies, so now they play with cement.” She was giving a speech addressing the harmful practices of the Army Corps of Engineers when the colonel in attendance dropped his pen. As he stooped to pick it up, she stopped her speech and said, “Colonel! You can crawl under that table and hide, but you can’t get away from me!”

In 1969, at age 79, Douglas formed Friends of the Everglades. Dues were $1.00, and the purpose was to raise awareness of the potential devastation a huge jetport slated for construction in the fragile wetlands would cause. Due to Marjory’s perseverance, and the support of her 3000 Friends of the Everglades members and other environmental groups, President Nixon scrapped funding for the project after one runway was built, which still exists today.

Douglas spent the rest of her life defending the Everglades. In his introduction to her autobiography “Voice of the River,” John Rothchild described her appearance at 1973 at a public meeting as “half the size of her fellow speakers and she wore huge dark glasses, which along with the huge floppy hat made her look like Scarlet O’Hara as played by Igor Stravinsky. When she spoke, everybody stopped slapping mosquitoes and more or less came to order. She reminded us all of our responsibility to nature and I don’t remember what else. Her voice had the sobering effect of a one-room schoolmarm’s. The tone itself seemed to tame the rowdiest of the local stone crabbers, plus the developers, and the lawyers on both sides. I wonder if it didn’t also intimidate the mosquitoes. . . . The request for a Corps of Engineers permit was eventually turned down. This was no surprise to those of us who’d heard her speak.”

Douglas also opposed the drainage of a suburb in Dade County named East Everglades. After the county approved building permits, the land flooded as it had for centuries. Homeowners demanded the Army Corps of Engineers drain their neighborhoods, and Marjory was the only opposition. At a 1983 hearing, the 93-year-old was booed and shouted at by the residents. “Can’t you boo any louder than that?” she said. “Look. I’m an old lady. I’ve been here since eight o’clock. It’s now eleven. I’ve got all night, and I’m used to the heat.” County commissioners eventually decided not to drain the land.

Until the day she died Douglas continued to fight for her causes. She served as a charter member of the first American Civil Liberties Union chapter organized in the South. She spoke on the floor of the Florida state legislature, urging them to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. She bolstered the Florida Rural Legal Services, a group that worked to protect migrant farm workers employed by the sugarcane industry. She co-founded the Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Libraries and served as its first president.

The Florida Department of Natural Resources named its headquarters in Tallahassee after her in 1980, to which she said she would have rather seen the Everglades restored than her name on a building. In 1986 the National Parks Conservation Association instituted the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award, honoring individuals who advocate and fight for the protection of the National Park System. And in 1991, at the age of 100, blind and near deaf, Douglas was visited by Queen Elizabeth II, to whom she gave a signed copy of “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

Douglas asked that trees be planted on her hundredth birthday in lieu of gifts, resulting in over 100,000 planted across the state of Florida, including a bald cypress on the lawn of the governor’s mansion.

In 1993, President Clinton awarded Marjory Stoneman Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian. She donated it to Wellesley College.

Douglas once said that “Conservation is now a dead word… You can’t conserve what you haven’t got.” She died in 1998 at the age of 108. Her ashes were scattered in the Everglades she worked so tirelessly to preserve.

That was Abigail Trabue.

Daniel Beard, who would be the first superintendent of the Everglades National Park, wrote in 1938 that “The southern Florida wilderness scenery is a study in halftones, not bright, broad strokes of a full brush as is the case of most of our other national parks. There are no knife-edged mountains protruding up into the sky. There are no valleys of any kind. No glaciers exist, no gaudy canyons, no geysers, no mighty trees unless we except the few royal palms, not even a rockbound coast with the spray of ocean waves — none of the things we are used to seeing in our parks. Instead, there are lonely distances, intricate and monotonous waterways, birds, sky, and water. To put it crudely, there is nothing (and we include the bird rookeries) in the Everglades that will make Mr. Jonnie Q. Public suck in his breath. This is not an indictment against the Everglades as a national park, because “breath sucking” is still not the thing we are striving for in preserving wilderness areas.”

The sentiment aside, Daniel Beard was wrong. There’s plenty to suck in your breath at in the Everglades. No, you won’t be brought to your knees like many are at the first sight of the Grand Canyon, but I challenge anyone to tell me of another national park with such an array of wildlife immediately on display. It is, indeed, a magical place. But it’s true, more than beauty, The Everglades National Park is an important place.

There’s a great book called “The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories from the National Park Service.” It’s a collection of stories from park service employees and volunteers. In it, Ranger David Kronk talks of a 1990 visit to the Everglades from President George H.W. Bush. Kronk lead the President and some children who were finishing a 3-day educational program on a walk. He asked the children to tell the President what the Everglades meant to them. Among some other pithy answers, one girl described the limited water supply in South Florida, saying we need to conserve and share the water so that there is enough for the animals and plants in the park.

Later that month, President Bush would mention meeting some budding young environmentalists at the Everglades in his State of the Union address. An eight-year study was commissioned by Congress the following year, and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project was authorized in 2000. At a cost of more than $10.5 billion and with a 35-year timeline, it is the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

To help restore water flow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in 2011.

Though the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project continues today, it has been compromised by politics and funding problems, and the Everglades are still in danger.

The primary access to the Everglades National Park is through Florida City, 30 miles southeast of Miami, at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. A few miles into the park is the Royal Palm Visitors Center, where you can hike two popular wheelchair-accessible half-mile trails, seeing the marshes, alligators and wading birds, along with Royal Palms and Gumbo-Limbo trees with their peeling bark.

You can then journey on the main park road 38 miles to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the southern tip of the state. On the way, you’ll wander through the parks various ecosystems, and can stop at three short walks, including an overlook where you can get a view of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s “River of Grass,” and another, where you can see the largest Mahogany tree in the U.S.

At Flamingo, you’ll see the true diversity of the park’s waterfowl. Spoonbills, ibises, snowy egrets, blue herons, and the like, wading among the mangrove trees. The area was heavily damaged during hurricane Irma, but the campground has partially re-opened. Boat tours that depart here have been suspended, but canoe and kayak rentals are now available again.

From the north on US 41, visitors can enter the park at Shark Valley, named because its water flows southwest toward Shark River. Here, you can walk, bike, or ride a tram along a 15-mile loop road and see some of the park’s best wildlife concentrations. The Shark Valley observation tower offers a 360-degree view of the Everglades, and a bird’s-eye view of alligators, turtles, fish, and birds.

From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the town of Everglades City, you can launch your boat or take a scheduled sightseeing boat tour to explore the vast mangrove estuary of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Backcountry camping, accessible by boat, is available from both the Flamingo and Gulf Coast areas. You can take an 8-day canoe trip down the maze of waterways, camping on elevated platforms along the way.

The park is open year-round, but summers can be steamy, hot, and buggy.

You may have heard Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s name in the news recently. The Florida high school that suffered one of the world’s deadliest school shootings on February 14th is named after her. You can donate to the school at msdstrong.us.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written and produced by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.”

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Podcast Episodes

Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar

Deep within Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, one can find so much more than rock formations. The shale-capped mass of 400 known miles of caverns holds the history of America, told by the Black enslaved cave guides that made it one of the country’s top tourist attractions, then and now.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

or Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

In Kentucky, a Family at the Center of the Earth
A 2014 in-depth interview with Jerry Bransford and New York Times reporter Kenan Christiansen.

bransfordmemorial.com

Jerry Bransford’s dream is to build a memorial in the Bransford cemetery at Mammoth Cave as a tribute to all the past slave guides and the entire Bransford family, especially Mat and Nick. He also would like to pass on his stories and memories to his future descendants utilizing the cemetery and memorial. You can the website to contribute, and it’s also full of much more detailed information on the Bransford family history at Mammoth.

Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Parks – Jerry Bransford Discusses Family Legacy

A YouTube interview with Jerry Bransford about visiting Mammoth as a child with his family:

Mammoth Cave National Park Website

Info on all of the cave tours, camping, and other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park.


Transcript

PROLOGUE: HOUCHINS AND THE BEAR

According to legend, at the turn of the 19th Century, a Kentucky hunter named John Houchins found a black bear, and shot. He failed to kill the bear, and it ran, wounded, while Houchins gave chase until it led him to the entrance of a cave. Some say the bear chased Houchins, who, either way, is credited with the modern discovery of a cave system that sprawls for nearly 400 documented miles, so large that it is yet to be fully mapped, and may go on for up to 1000 miles.

On this episode of America’s National parks, the world’s largest cave system, Mammoth Cave.

On the ceilings and walls of Mammoth, one can find thousands of names written in smoke from a time when such a thing was encouraged. One of the oldest and most prolific names — sometimes written backward — is simply “Stephen.” Stephen Bishop, Mammoth’s most famous explorer, would take his candle to the ceiling and trace his name, sometimes in reverse due to the mirror he was looking in to avoid the wax dipping in his eyes.

In 1838, the 17-year-old Bishop was brought to explore and lead expeditions into Mammoth by the cave’s new owner Franklin Gorin, a lawyer from nearby Glasgow, Kentucky, who purchased the property, seeing the cave’s potential as a public attraction. Previously, the cave had been used as a Saltpetre mine during the War of 1812, when slaves mined valuable potassium nitrate, a primary ingredient in gunpowder.

Bishop quickly got to work, guiding tourists and exploring the depths of the cave, and creating its first map. This is what Gorin had to say about Bishop: he was “handsome, good-humored, intelligent, the most complete of guides, the presiding genius of this territory. He has occupied himself so frequently in exploring the various passages of the cavern, that there is now no living being who knows it so well,” Gorin said. “The discoveries made have been the result of his courage, intelligence, and untiring zeal. He is extremely attentive and polite, particularly so to the ladies, and he runs over what he has to say with such ease and readiness, and mingles his statement of facts with such lofty language, that all classes, male and female, listen with respect, and involuntarily smile at his remark. His business as a guide brought him so often in contact with the intellectual and scientific, that he has become acquainted with every geological specimen in the cave.”

Stephen wore a chocolate-colored slouch hat, a jacket for warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder on a strap swung a canister of lamp oil. In one hand he carried a basket of provisions for the longer trips – fried chicken, apples, biscuits, and often a bottle of white lightning for refreshment. In the other hand, he carried an oil lantern – a tin dish holding oil and a wick, with a small heat shield held above the flame by wires.

A visitor described Stephen bishop’s “perfectly chiseled features,” his “keen, dark eye and glossy hair, and mustache. He is the model of a guide” the visitor said, “quick, daring, enthusiastic, persevering, with a lively appreciation of the wonders he shows, and a degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class…I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man, and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is chief ruler.”

But a ruler of Mammoth, Bishop was not. Quite the opposite, Stephen Bishop, like the saltpeter miners before him, was an enslaved, black man.

Each week, on the America’s National Parks Podcast, we plan to focus on a specific story or two behind a National Park Service unit. But for this, our first episode, The epic tale of Mammoth Cave was too juicy to pass up. It’s really the story of America, warts and all. We begin, as most National Park histories do, with the first people to call America home.

ACT I: NATIVE AMERICANS

The hunter John Houchins may be credited with Mammoth Cave’s modern discovery, but Stephen Bishop quickly found that man had been deep within the cave long before him.

In the summer of his first year in the cave, Stephen began to probe the obscure passageways. In what was then known as the Main Cave, behind an enormous rock called the “Giant’s Coffin,” he squeezed into a small room and down through a crack into a maze of passages beneath. Here he found the fragments of a burned cane torch and grapevine ties left by natives who had explored Mammoth Cave long before.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps workers Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff were exploring a new passageway. They climbed a ledge and discovered the unnerving scene of an ancient tragedy. A human head and arm, the only visible parts of a body pinned beneath a six-ton boulder. A digging stick lay nearby, the cause of the boulder’s collapse – its owner had dug too deeply.

Like the cane torches found by Stephen Bishop, the twenty-three-hundred-year-old body had been well preserved by the cave’s steadfast temperature and humidity, and by the salt in the soil.

Thousands of ancient artifacts have been found in Mammoth — gourd bowls, pottery, woven cloth, and a handful of petroglyphs. From 4,000 years ago until nearly 2,000 years ago, Native Americans explored at least six miles of the cave, until one day, for reasons unknown, they disappeared.

ACT II: THE SLAVE GUIDES

Stephen Bishop and the other slave guides such as Materson and Nick Bransford continued to escort the curious along their choice of two routes. The short route, a 6-hour journey, and the long route, a 14-hour journey, took visitors through all the curious formations, rooms, and obscurities Mammoth had to offer.

For a nickel, they’d lash a candle to a stick and write your name upon the ceiling. Theywould journey down Echo River in small boats and entertain tourists with songs in a round with the echo of the cave.

On one such tour, Bishop’s boat full of travelers capsized, and all the oil lamps were extinguished. In complete darkness, he led his party through the neck-deep water for five hours, until Materson Bransford arrived to save them.

Materson went by Mat, with one T. He was the son of affluent Tennessean Thomas Bransford and a slave woman named Hannah. He began guiding at Mammoth Cave in 1838, and ultimately became the property of his own half-brother after the death of his father. He married a slave girl named Parthena, and built a home for her and their four children. As the children grew, however, Mat was powerless to stop his wife’s owner from selling first his two daughters, and then his youngest son.

Mat Bransford

Many did not view such an act as horrendous, including opponents of slavery. In the 1860’s Mat guided abolitionist John Fowler Rusling on a tour. Rusling remarked, “I don’t suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say.” Mat was quick to inform him differently.

Just months before the civil war ended and slaves were emancipated, Mat used his life savings from cave tour tips to buy back one of his daughters, who was fifteen years old and pregnant at the time. His other two children were never found.

Mat remained a Mammoth Cave guide for the remainder of his life. His Eldest son Henry became a guide, and then his grandson, too, whose name was also Matt, but with two “T”s. Matt with two Ts Bransford decided that, after the civil war, Black people shouldn’t just work Mammoth Cave, they should visit it. Blacks were still not welcome in most establishments. They were not allowed to be on the same tours with whites or stay in the same hotel. Matt traveled to larger cities to appeal to the African American community to visit the world-famous Cave. He led Special tours for them, and provided lodging and meals for black visitors with his wife Zemmie at their home called the Bransford Resort. White visitors had been touring Mammoth for a century, and now, thanks to the younger Matt Bransford, Black visitors could share the experience.

ACT III: CAVE WARS

There are more cave attractions throughout the Midwest than you can shake a stick at, but Mammoth is different.

“A grand, gloomy and peculiar place,” Bishop called it. Instead of the elaborate configurations of drip formations that you’ll find elsewhere, Mammoth is full of gigantic rooms formed by ancient underground rivers that sculpted the sandstone and limestone, capped by a shale roof. It’s more labyrinths and domes than wedding cakes.

As the industrial revolution raged on, railways brought more and more visitors to Mammoth. By the 1880s, tens of thousands of yearly visitors were arriving by a rail line built specifically to accomplish that task. The Mammoth Cave Railroad would operate successfully for 50 years, making runs from Glasgow Junction every 25 minutes in the summer.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the great National Park idea had taken hold. Half a dozen parks had been proclaimed by Congress, including one cave — South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. Interest in protecting Mammoth in the same fashion began to spring up, but by 1920, a war of economics had broken out in the Kentucky Cave Country. The Mammoth Cave Estate and dozens of other caves that had been discovered in the area competed for the massive profit in showing tourists the wonders below the earth.

Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short’s Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave and Crystal Cave all tried to snag motorists bound for the world-famous Mammoth, often by stopping them on the road using ringers dressed as authorities saying that Mammoth was the other direction, or that Mammoth was flooded.

An oilman named George Morrison believed that the Cave’s length extended beyond the surface boundaries of the Mammoth Cave Estate. He searched for clues in the cave and above ground until he got word of a sinkhole where kids played in the summer because cool air came up from below.

Morrison bought the property and drilled until he found a cave that was revealed to have a direct connection to the rest of Mammoth. He dubbed his site “the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and began selling tickets to motorists on their way to the Old Entrance.

The Kentucky cave wars were not without casualty. When cave owner Floyd Collins was exploring for a more profitable cave and became lodged underground in 1925, a circus atmosphere developed around his entrapment, as the story drew national attention. Thousands of sightseers descended on Cave City, hawkers sold food and souvenirs. Reporters drafted hourly updates for the nation, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, who delivered news reports by air as federal troops were dispatched to keep order.

Rescue attempts failed, and Collins died on his eighteenth day below the surface.

Rampant commercialism aside, Kentuckians held a deep pride for the caves at Mammoth, and many initiatives were floated to transition the area into a National Park. For 30 years, surveys were taken up, bills were introduced and passed, land was purchased, and finally, in 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was dedicated.

ACT III: JERRY BRANSFORD

On Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends, a young Jerry Bransford — the great-great-grandson of a Mat Bransford — would ride the half-hour drive from his home in Glasgow to visit Mammoth with his family in the back seat of their ’49 Chevy.

On those holiday family Picnics, Jerry’s father, David Bransford Sr, would tell him the history of his family at Mammoth — how the cave is a part of their heritage, even though they still weren’t allowed to go inside the hotel for refreshments. The staff, who still knew Jerry’s father, would give them ice creams and Cokes at the back door.

Post-slavery, the Bransfords, and other black men were still the preeminent tour guides at Mammoth, famous even, but when the cave became a National Park, those guides had to look for new jobs. Many of their homes were forced to be sold to the government. The great act of protecting the underground wonderland turned away the people who knew it best.

When Jerry retired — nearly 200 years after the slaves mined the saltpeter for the War of 1812 — he began discussions with the National Park Service to return the Bransford family to the park. Jerry Bransford is now a 5th generation cave guide, and a National Park Service Ranger. His mission? To tell the stories of the great Black cave guides who were so instrumental in the discovery and interpretation of Mammoth Cave, so that they should never be forgotten again.

EPILOGUE: VISITING MAMMOTH

Today, when Jerry Bransford gives tours, he always notices the names scratched into the walls that were made by his ancestors. He’s found 14, including, the one that says simply, “Mat 1850.”

“Whenever I see a signature from my kin, I feel awed by what they did,” he told the New York Times. “But when I see Mat’s, it just knocks me down. I don’t know how anyone can have their kids taken away and never get them back.”

Mammoth Cave is one of the most conveniently located national parks, along I-65 just 30 miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Several different daily cave tours provide visitors with a wide range of sights to see, including the Gothic Avenue Tour, where you can see Stephen Bishop’s candle-written signature, and hundreds more. The more adventurous visitors can climb, crawl, and squeeze through the 6-hour Wild Cave Tour, seeing places only a small number of humans have visited. Along with the half-dozen or so paid cave tours, visitors can experience a wide array of above-ground activities, including, hiking, biking, kayaking and horseback riding. There’s still a small hotel on-site, as well as several primitive campgrounds. Several private campgrounds are just a stones’ throw from the park as well.

Jerry Bransford still gives cave tours on a seasonal schedule — he swore our three sons in as Mammoth Cave Junior Rangers. He’s raising money for a memorial to better honor the many Bransfords and other Black cave guides buried at the simple cemetery in the park. You can donate at bransfordmemorial.com.


Music

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