Edsel Ford and Eleanor Ford with Their Children, Henry, Benson, Josephine and William, at Gaukler Pointe, circa 1938. THF99953
Edsel Bryant Ford was born in Detroit to Henry and Clara Ford on November 6, 1893. As their only son, Edsel seemed destined for a career at Ford Motor Company. He began working for Ford after his high school graduation in 1912 and rose through the ranks to President by age 26. Edsel spent 31 years with the organization, but his life was tragically cut short when he passed away from cancer on May 26, 1943 at just 49 years old.
While his career at Ford was extremely important to Edsel, his wife, Eleanor, and their four children – Henry, Benson, Josephine, and William – were most precious to him. During his limited leisure time he enjoyed painting and collecting art, spending time outdoors, and relaxing with his family at their home in Grosse Pointe Shores. Edsel was also a prolific philanthropist, and, 75 years after his death, exploring his extensive philanthropy is a fitting way to honor his life and legacy of good will.
Edsel Ford at Yale-Harvard Boat Races, New London, Connecticut, 1939. THF94864
Edsel Ford is perhaps best-known for his involvement with the arts. Millions have viewed the Edsel Ford-sponsored and funded Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts or visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, of which Edsel was a trustee from 1935 until 1943. Eleanor became a MoMA trustee in 1948, and the Ford Foundation (which was founded by Edsel in 1936) donated one million dollars to the museum in Edsel’s memory in 1963. He also attended many concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and was a generous patron of the Detroit Symphony Society.
Oil Portrait of Edsel Ford by Diego Rivera, 1932. THF116599
Edsel donated regularly to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts – which is now the College for Creative Studies – and attended painting classes in the late 1920s. By 1933 the Society had altered its original mission of keeping handmade craftmanship alive in an increasingly industrialized world and was one of the first art institutions to acknowledge the automobile as an art form. In the book “Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design,” author Terry Smith describes this new relationship between art and industry in relation to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts:
“Like the shift from the Model T, like the basic move within design itself, this group negotiated a passage from applying ‘art’ to industrial products (decorative devices, elaborate ornamentation) toward seeing ‘art’ in them (their ‘natural simplicity’, ‘precise’ beauty, their matching of ‘form’ and ‘function’). This implied the possibility of designing art into them, of controlling the matching so skillfully that the result would be ‘a work of art’.”
This emphasis on the intersection of art and design was also reflected in Edsel’s work at Ford. He was instrumental in moving the company beyond the Model T into a new automotive era in which both form and function were equally incorporated into the design process.
Edsel Ford as a Child, Fishing, Lake Orion, Michigan, 1899. THF99836
Another of Edsel’s lifelong passions was nature. He engaged in many outdoor hobbies, including fishing, golfing, camping, and sailing, and these interests are reflected in his philanthropy. He supported our national parks – “America’s best idea” – through his contributions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the nonprofit National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association). In 1931 Congress authorized the creation of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan and Edsel served on the Isle Royale National Park Commission, which managed land acquisition. After the commission acquired most of Isle Royale the land was transferred back to the National Park Service to create the park.
State of Michigan Certificate Reappointing Edsel Ford to the Isle Royale National Park Commission, June 22, 1939. THF256194
Edsel unsurprisingly gave to Henry Ford Hospital, which was founded by his father in Detroit in 1915, but he also donated to many healthcare organizations across the United States and around the world. He contributed to the building fund of King George Hospital in London five years after King George’s son Prince Edward visited Ford Motor Company to learn more about methods of large-scale manufacturing.
Edsel Ford, Edward Albert the Prince of Wales, and Henry Ford at Fair Lane, Dearborn, Michigan, 1924. THF116352
He gave nearly every year to the Frontier Nursing Service, which provided nurse midwifery services to women in rural Kentucky and was one of his mother’s favorite charities. In 1939 he sent the nurses a used Ford station wagon, which they christened “Henrietta," and a second new station wagon in 1941. The American Red Cross, the American Foundation for the Blind, The Seeing Eye, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now March of Dimes), and many other health organizations also received generous contributions from Edsel.
Fundraising Letter from Mary Breckinridge, Frontier Nursing Service, to Edsel Ford, June 3, 1940. THF130768
Vanda Summers of the Frontier Nursing Service, with Automobile Donated by Edsel Ford, May 1940. THF130772
This list represents a miniscule fraction of Edsel’s charitable career, and the impact of his philanthropy is still felt today through the work of the hundreds of organizations that benefitted from his time and contributions. While remembering Edsel’s career and philanthropy in his 1956 Reminiscences for Ford Motor Company his longtime secretary A.A. Backus stated, “Yes, Mr. Edsel Ford was a swell individual and in my twenty-seven years with the Ford Motor Company I never heard anyone say anything different.”
Edsel Ford on the Beach with Henry Ford II and Benson Ford, 1921. THF95355
Meredith Pollock was formerly Special Assistant to the Vice President at The Henry Ford.
This summer, The Henry Ford hosted Meredith Pollock as our 2016 Edsel B. Ford Design History Fellow. Her work here investigated the materials in our collections related to Edsel Ford’s philanthropy, and turned up a great deal of information on the kinds of charities to which Edsel donated.
One thing that caught our eye, particularly in light of this year’s National Park Service centennial, is Edsel’s ongoing relationship with America’s national parks. We’ve just digitized a number of letters, photographs, and other artifacts that help explain how Edsel supported the park system, including this certificate reappointing Edsel to the Isle Royale National Park Commission.
During his 1927 summer retreat to Seal Harbor, Maine, Edsel Ford spent time having discussions with his neighbor John D. Rockefeller Jr. on the importance of the national parks to the American public. One year before, in 1926, Arno B. Cammerer, then Associate Director of the National Park Service, had initiated his career-defining project of establishing numerous national parks in the Eastern United States when Congress authorized the National Park Service's Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah park proposals. At the time, Lafayette National Park, now Acadia National Park, was the only park east of the Mississippi and despite growing travel to western parks, Cammerer was concerned that only a very small portion of those living east of the Mississippi would ever have the time or the money to visit them.
Realizing that there were millions of people in "the congested areas of the East who never will see the western parks," Cammerer helped the National Park Service establish an unofficial commission composed of park experts to ascertain whether there were lands in the East that would meet the National Park Service standards. The commission, partly funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., focused on the Southern Appalachian Mountain region, concluding that the lands that would eventually make up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park should be set aside for the American public. West of the Mississippi, parks could be easily carved out of large public land holdings. In the East, however, a majority of land was privately held which meant that although these Eastern park projects had been authorized in 1926, they could not be fully established until a majority of the land in the planned areas had been bought by the state and deeded to the U.S. government. Cammerer soon realized that land purchasing financed by state funding and small public donations would not be enough to make the Eastern park project a reality.
Several popular tourist stops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park appear on this pennant. THF238700
To remedy the funding problem, Cammerer again turned to one of the wealthiest men in America and the largest benefactor of the East's first national park, John D. Rockefeller Jr. After helping to fund the commission, Rockefeller Jr. had previously mentioned to Cammerer that he was very much interested in continuing his support of the Eastern national parks project. This prompted Cammerer to write him in the beginning of August 1927 at Rockefeller Jr.'s Seal Harbor home, "The Eyrie." Cammerer's letter explained that while he had intended for public donations to be split fifty-fifty between the Great Smoky Mountain project and the Shenandoah project, the Great Smoky Mountains project was further along and more time-sensitive, as some of the lands set aside for the project were being clear-cut of their primitive forests before being sold. Securing the land for the Great Smoky Mountains project had become the utmost priority.
Expressing that the potential Great Smoky Mountains park “appeals to him more than any national park," Cammerer also enclosed photographs in his letter that he thought illustrated the “wonderful scenic character of the country proposed for inclusion in the park.” In Seal Harbor, Rockefeller Jr. brought the issue to the attention of his philanthropic partner, neighbor, and avid photographer, Edsel Ford. Sparking an interest with Edsel to contribute to the project, Rockefeller Jr. relayed to Cammerer that Edsel would possibly be willing to donate, spurring Cammerer to contact Edsel in the beginning of September 1927. In his letter to Edsel, Cammerer added, “I am taking the liberty to enclose a considerable number of photographs showing the superb scenic qualities of the region, which Mr. Rockefeller also has seen, which I believe Mrs. Ford and you will enjoy looking over."
Over the course of September 1927, Cammerer kept sending Edsel information on the Eastern parks project, reiterating that the Great Smoky Mountains park in Tennessee and North Carolina continued to be the top priority. He also explained that the land required for the Shenandoah park consisted of mostly Virginian farmland and would take much longer to acquire. Luckily, the proposed Shenandoah park would include part of the Shenandoah Valley, which happened to be the birthplace of Harry F. Byrd, the Governor of Virginia at the time. The son of a wealthy apple grower from the Shenandoah Valley, Governor Byrd supported the idea of establishing a national park in his state and worked to make it a reality. Governor Byrd's brother, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, also happened to be a world-renowned explorer, pioneering aviator, and friend of Edsel Ford. Edsel would be responsible for helping to fund Richard Byrd's expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, including convincing Rockefeller Jr. to aid in funding the latter.
Running the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive offers 105 miles of scenic views along the Shenandoah Blue Ridge. This souvenir pennant depicts the 670-foot-long Mary's Rock Tunnel -- the only tunnel on the drive. THF239213
Rockefeller Jr. wrote Edsel from Seal Harbor at the end of September looking for a decision, noting that the Great Smoky Mountains project still needed money to purchase land and that Edsel had “expressed an interest in this project" when Rockefeller Jr. saw him in Seal Harbor a few weeks ago. Rockefeller sent him a copy of his pledge hoping that his letter of gift might be suggestive to the amount of money Edsel would donate. Edsel responded the same day saying, "I feel like I would like to help in this great undertaking," but financial obligations like a new home and other philanthropic efforts required him to donate "less than I would like to do if the circumstances were otherwise." Nonetheless, Edsel was "very glad to contribute $50,000 dollars" to the Great Smoky Mountains project and also would "be very glad to consider increasing" the pledge the next year if additional funds were needed.
In this letter from Edsel Ford to Rockefeller Jr., Edsel mentions his various other philanthropic activities, including an explanation on how important Richard Byrd's South Pole expedition will be. Due to Edsel's convincing justification above, Rockefeller Jr. would later help fund Byrd's expedition.THF255218
On October 6th, referring to their new partnership in funding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rockefeller Jr. wrote Edsel saying, “It is particularly gratifying to me that we are to be associated together with it." By November of 1927, Edsel had contacted Cammerer to declare that he intended to subscribe $50,000 to help establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which Cammerer graciously accepted. In February 1928 though, the Great Smoky Mountains project hit delays. Lagging fundraising meant that the lands designated for the park, which had yet to be acquired, were still under constant threat of being logged and needed to be procured immediately. The only public pledges to the park had been the ones made by Edsel and Rockefeller Jr. For the park to go forward, five million dollars would need to be raised in order to match the five million dollars in state funds already set aside to buy land for the park. With Edsel's pledge of $50,000 and Rockefeller Jr.'s pledge of $1,000,000, they had fallen well short of that goal.
Edsel Ford's signed letter to Arno B. Cammerer, stating that he is interested in contributing to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park project that Rockefeller Jr. had brought to his attention. THF255210
With time being of the essence, Rockefeller Jr. wrote Edsel with his proposed solution to the problem. The trustees of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, a fund established by Rockefeller Jr.'s father in memory of his mother and headed by Rockefeller Jr., decided that an enterprise of this kind would have made a "very strong appeal" to Mrs. Rockefeller. The foundation would cover the entire five million dollars needed to match the state funds, helping to acquire all of the land needed to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With the total cost covered for the first park, Rockefeller Jr. suggested that Edsel transfer his donation over to the Shenandoah project, to which Edsel obliged.
While Edsel admitted that he had not taken a deeper look into the Shenandoah National Park project, he did accompany his family on a 1921 camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland, a location less than hundred miles north of Shenandoah and geographically similar. Possible memories from this trip could have also played a role in Edsel's decision to donate to Shenandoah. THF255214
On February 28th, 1928, Edsel withdrew his pledge to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and promptly informed Cammerer that he would be transferring the same pledge over to the Shenandoah National Park fund. Rockefeller Jr. sent a letter thanking Edsel for his understanding and the transfer, ending the note with, “Looking forward to the reunion of our summer colony at Seal Harbor.” Cammerer also sent a letter thanking Edsel for his cooperation, noting, "There is nothing finer available in the East than these two areas selected for national park establishment and this is the psychological time, as the history of our country goes, to still procure these outstanding scenic beauty spots for the millions who will not have a chance to see the western wonderlands reserved in the national park system." Rockefeller Jr. would also contribute to the Shenandoah National Park fund as well.
This letter illustrates the pivotal role that Seal Harbor, Maine played in the friendship of Rockefeller Jr. and Edsel Ford. THF255212
In 1932, the state of Virginia began to collect the pledges that had been made to the Shenandoah National Park fund. Edsel reaffirmed his interest in this philanthropic endeavor with a letter to the Governor of Virginia saying, "It has been a great pleasure to contribute" to the fund. By 1935, Shenandoah had officially been established as a national park and, in 1936, they held a dedication ceremony to which Edsel was invited. Unfortunately, Edsel was leaving for Europe soon, which he explained to Cammerer, but his good friend Rockefeller Jr. was able to send a transcript of the dedication speech given by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Part of the speech thanked Edsel for his contribution.
A page from Harold L. Ickes' Shenandoah National Park dedication speech. Named Secretary of the Interior by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ickes held the position for thirteen years from 1933 to 1946. Known for being brutally honest, tough, and sharp-tongued, Ickes worked with Arno B. Cammerer to dramatically increase national park land even though the two constantly quarreled. THF255228
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Part 2: Mount Desert Island, Maine Located off the coast of Maine, Mount Desert Island is one of the largest islands in the United States and home to Acadia National Park. Long known for its rocky coast, mountainous terrain, and dense wilderness, Mount Desert Island was popularized in the mid-19th century by the Hudson River School. The painters from this art movement focused on scenic landscape paintings, creating works of art that inspired many prominent citizens from the East Coast to build their summer homes on the island. By the late 19th century a resort tradition that became locally known as "rusticating" had taken root on Mount Desert. Wealthy East Coast families known as "rusticators" would spend their summers relaxing in their island mansions, taking in the scenery, and socializing with other prosperous families doing the same. In the early 20th century, the "rusticators" on Mount Desert Island also began to include affluent Detroit families as well.
Eleanor Lowthian Clay, Edsel Ford's future wife, was accustomed to affluence and spent her summers vacationing on Mount Desert Island as a child. Eleanor's wealthy uncle, Joseph Lowthian Hudson, was successful in the Detroit department store scene. As patriarch of the family, the childless J.L. Hudson cared for his other family members and allowed Eleanor's family, as well as some of his other nieces and nephews, to live with him. Hudson employed most of them in his business and groomed his four Webber nephews, Eleanor's cousins, to take over the family trade. Their sister, Louise Webber, married Roscoe B. Jackson, a business partner of J.L. Hudson. In 1909, Jackson helped formed the Hudson Motor Car Company with backing from Hudson. Jackson had found early success with the Hudson Motor Car Company and after inheriting the department store company, the Webber brothers were able to continue its success as well. The wealth and status that these families enjoyed allowed them to later choose Mount Desert Island as the location for their summer retreats and influenced Edsel to do the same.
Eleanor, right, and her sister Josephine, left, vacationing in Maine with their family. THF130536
The wealth of J.L. Hudson had helped establish Eleanor's cousins and acquaint Eleanor with the son of another wealthy Detroiter in Edsel Ford. While Edsel courted Eleanor, her sister Josephine was simultaneously being courted by up-and-coming lawyer Ernest Kanzler. Edsel became close friends with Kanzler, his future brother-in-law, who eventually was hired by Henry Ford to help manage the Fordson tractor company. By the early 1920's, Edsel and Eleanor along with the Kanzlers, Webbers and Jacksons were all vacationing on Mount Desert Island. Edsel began his Mount Desert residency by renting summer homes there, occasionally inviting his parents to vacation with him. During the late summer or early fall of 1922, Edsel purchased property in the area known as Seal Harbor. Sitting 350 feet above sea level on what is known as Ox Hill, Edsel's property had a panoramic view of the surrounding sea and sky. Also within walking distance of Acadia, then Lafayette National Park, Edsel soon found that his property adjoined the property of the neighborhood national park's biggest benefactor, John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Edsel with his sons Henry II and Benson spending time at the beach in Seal Harbor. THF95355
Rockefeller Jr. first visited Mount Desert Island in 1908 and immediately became enamored with the area. He built a large estate in Seal Harbor and by the time he became neighbors with Edsel in 1922, Rockefeller Jr. had already used his wealth to donate large tracts of land to his local national park. During this time he was also in the process of building a network of carriage roads that allowed the beautiful vistas of Acadia to be accessed by the public. Preferring the quiet serenity of horse-drawn carriages over the noisy automobiles, Rockefeller Jr. worked personally with the engineers to ensure that the carriage roads captured the tranquil scenery the park had to offer. The beautiful landscapes of the area would become the topic that Rockefeller Jr. used to initiate his friendship with Edsel Ford.
Panoramic view of Seal Harbor located on Mount Desert Island, Maine. THF255236
Initially writing in December of 1922, Rockefeller Jr. didn't hide his feelings when congratulating Edsel on the purchase of his Seal Harbor property. He had visited Edsel's property at the top of Ox Hill during sunset one night and stated in his letter, "I do not know when I have seen a more magnificent and stunning view than that which met my eye on every side. You have certainly made no mistake in selecting a site for your home.” He concluded the letter by expressing how happy he and his family were at the thought of having Edsel as a permanent summer neighbor. In Edsel's gracious response to Rockefeller Jr., he mentioned that he would be using architect Duncan Candler to design his Seal Harbor home. Candler had previously designed the neighboring Rockefeller home, as well as other note-worthy properties on the island.
John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s initial letter to Edsel congratulating him on the purchase of Edsel's Seal Harbor property. This letter lead to a life-long friendship that would be fueled by the spirit of philanthropy. THF255332
Christened with the name "Skylands" due to the unbroken views of the Maine horizon line that the property provided, Edsel's summer retreat was built between 1923 and 1925. In 1924, familiar with his new summer neighbor's philanthropic efforts and swayed by his past experiences, Edsel began donating yearly to the National Parks Association, known today as the National Parks Conservation Association. Created by industrialist Stephen Mather in 1919, the organization's mission was to protect the fledgling National Park Service, of which Mather was the director. For eight years Edsel would donate $500 annually to the National Parks Association, until the Depression years of 1932 and 1933 when other business and philanthropic demands restrained his monetary donations.
By the time Edsel's summer home was done in 1925, he and Rockefeller Jr. had become good friends and philanthropic partners. They shared a love for the arts, beautiful scenery, social justice, and civic responsibility. Although twenty years his senior, Rockefeller Jr. found Edsel's situation relatable. Both men were the only sons of immensely wealthy industrialist fathers and both had inherited the responsibility of their massive family fortunes. Each looked to use those fortunes to serve humanity and steer society towards a positive future. Rockefeller Jr. cherished the trait of modesty, a trait that he saw Edsel strongly demonstrate throughout his life. For that reason, Rockefeller Jr. held Edsel, "in the highest regard and esteem," describing him as, "so modest and so simple in his own living and in his association with his fellow men." Their summers spent together at Seal Harbor would undoubtedly include conversations about where they could best direct their philanthropic efforts.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday, a celebration that encouraged us to seek connections within our collections. This blog post is the first part of four that will trace Edsel Ford’s relationship to the national parks.
The landscapes preserved by the national parks are a source of inspiration. Not only do they document the natural history of America, but they are also integral in telling the story of humanity on the continent. They remain powerful educational tools, allowing citizens to reflect on their collective history and where they want society to go in the future. Responsible for protecting these historical, cultural, and scenic landscapes, the National Park Service owes much of its existence to the forward-thinking industrialists who supported the early environmental movements in America.
The National Park Service's birth can largely be attributed to the efforts of millionaire industrialist Stephen Mather. Using his wealth and political connections, Mather secured the job of Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and went to Washington. Once there, he worked to lobby, fundraise, and promote an agency that could manage America's national parks and monuments. Finding success, Mather became the first director of the newly-formed National Park Service in 1916. At times, he even funded the agency's administration and bought land out of his own pocket. Mather was not the only affluent American to donate his time and wealth to the National Park Service.
The Rockefellers and Mellons, two of America's wealthiest families in the early 20th century, also became champions of the national parks. Specifically during this time period, the biggest player in national park philanthropic efforts was John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. Among his many other National Park Service donations, Rockefeller Jr. was noteworthy for purchasing the land or donating the money that helped create the national parks of Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah, including the expansion of Grand Teton and Yosemite National Parks. Rockefeller dominated this philanthropic scene and ultimately influenced the only son of another wealthy industrialist to join him in his cause.
Edsel Ford, born to Henry and Clara Ford in 1893, was not born into wealth, but the success of Ford Motor Company in the early years of the 20th century led his father to become one of the richest men in America. This set Edsel down a path to inherit the responsibility of that wealth, a position in which he would thrive. Remarking that wealth "must be put to work helping people to help themselves," Edsel understood the elite position he was in and acted with grace throughout his life. Often described as altruistic, sensible, reserved and most importantly modest, Edsel would go on to channel his family's money into countless philanthropies including medical research, scientific exploration, the creative arts and America's national parks.
While this photograph was taken during the Fords' 1909 trip to Niagara Falls, they posed for the shot in a studio and were later edited into a photo of the falls. THF98007
At a young age, Edsel experienced some of the monuments and landscapes that make up our current national park system, creating memories that surely influenced him later in life. Family trips in 1907 and 1909 took Edsel to Niagara Falls, today a National Heritage Area in the park system. For the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, Edsel accompanied his father by train to Denver and from there they took a scenic drive to Seattle where the exposition was being held. In 1914, he joined Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and his family as they spent time camping in the Florida Everglades. He also had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon at least four times in his life, with his first glimpse of the gorge occurring during a family trip to Southern California in 1906.
Visiting the Grand Canyon in 1906, Edsel sits here with his mother, Clara Ford, and Clara's mother, Martha Bryant. The canyon can be faintly seen in the background. THF255176
Edsel recorded a subsequent trip to the canyon in his diary during January of 1911. He wrote that he spent time hiking, visiting the Hopi House to watch Native American dances, and photographing the canyon. Photography would become one of many artistic hobbies Edsel pursued over the course of his life. Undoubtedly the beautiful vistas of the Grand Canyon provided a spark of creativity for the burgeoning young artist. The national parks and monuments had inspired creative sparks previously, allowing Edsel to illustrate this picture of the Washington Monument in 1909. These forays into the arts helped Edsel later become the creative force that took Ford Motor Company beyond the Model T and successfully into the industry of automobile design.
Edsel recorded his second Grand Canyon trip in his diary. Interestingly, Edsel also mentions he has heard of the deaths of Arch Hoxsey and John B. Moisant, two record-breaking pilots who died while performing separate air stunts on New Year's Eve of 1910. THF255172
Before Edsel made his dreams of car design a reality, Ford Motor Company had played a role in helping to improve accessibility to the landscapes of the national parks by making the automobile, specifically the Model T, affordable to the masses. In 1915, at age 21, Edsel took off in a Model T on a cross-country road trip with six of his friends. Departing from Detroit and heading to San Francisco, the trip allowed Edsel to again witness the scenic changes in the countryside as he traveled across the continent, something he had experienced on numerous family trips before. This time though, he was in charge of the places he explored. Making various stops during his expedition, Edsel visited the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the desert of New Mexico and the Grand Canyon for a third time.
Edsel Ford and friends hike down Bright Angel Trail while visiting the Grand Canyon during their 1915 cross-country road trip. THF243915
The Grand Canyon must have left quite the impression on Edsel because, in November of 1916, he brought his new wife Eleanor Clay there on the way to their honeymoon in Hawaii. He wrote his parents from the El Tovar Hotel saying "We are surely having a great time. Walking and breathing this great air." They had spent the previous day visiting Grandview Point, a spot that continues to provide park goers with breathtaking views of the canyon. Edsel's new wife Eleanor would play an important role in his future national park endeavors. She exposed him to the rugged shores and natural beauty of the Maine coast -- a place where Edsel would cross paths with John D. Rockefeller Jr., establishing a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Operated by the Fred Harvey Company, which owned a chain of railroad restaurants and hotels, El Tovar Hotel was opened in 1905 through a partnership with the Santa Fe Railway. THF255180 Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The Wawona Tunnel Tree was a popular early tourist attraction at Yosemite National Park. THF130220
At the dawn of the 20th century, horseless carriages were still untested novelties. They were prone to mechanical breakdowns over long distances and likely to get mired in the muck of bad or non-existent roads. Yet, despite these challenges, the lure of taking them out to view the scenic wonders of America’s national parks was irresistible.
The first adventurous motorists showed up at Yosemite National Park in 1900 and at Yellowstone two years later. They shocked everyone and were promptly ordered to leave. For more than a decade afterward, automobiles were banned from the parks. After all, these newfangled contraptions endangered park visitors, spooked the horses who regularly pulled tourist carriages and wagons, and seemed out of keeping with the quiet solitude of the parks. It would take the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather, to wholeheartedly embrace automobiles as an asset to the parks. And perhaps no other single decision would have more impact on both the parks themselves and on Americans’ attitudes toward them.
Stagecoach loading well-to-do tourists in front of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at Yellowstone National Park, part of a package tour offered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. THF120284
Slowing down acceptance of automobiles in the parks was the control of the railroads, who early on realized the profits that could be made by providing exclusive access to the parks. Railroad companies not only brought tourists from distant cities and towns but also financed many of the early park hotels and operated the horse-drawn carriage tours inside the parks. The long railroad journey, hotel stays, and park tours were all geared toward wealthy tourists who could afford such extended and expensive pleasure trips.
Despite the railroad companies’ lobbying efforts and park managers’ arguments that they spoiled the experience of being in nature, automobiles entered the parks in increasing numbers. Mount Rainier National Park was the first to officially allow them in 1907. Glacier allowed automobiles in 1912, followed by Yosemite and Sequoia in 1913. Motorists to the parks still faced long lists of regulations: written authorization to enter, time restrictions on the use of their vehicles, strict attention to speed limits, and rules about pulling over for oncoming horses and honking at sharp turns.
Advertising poster promoting Metz “22” automobiles, winner of the American Automobile Association-sponsored Glidden Tour of 1913—a 1,300-mile endurance race from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. THF111540
As automobile clubs exerted increasing pressure on local and state governments, Congress slowly began taking steps to improve park roads to make them safer for motorists. The advent of World War I—sharply curtailing travel to Europe—coupled with an aggressive “See America First” campaign by highway associations like the Lincoln Highway Association encouraged more Americans than ever to take to the open road. By 1915, so many motorists stopped at Yellowstone National Park on their way to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that in August of that year, automobiles were finally officially allowed entrance to that park.
The scenic Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park, which opened in 1916, offered eastern motorists a more direct route into the park than the original north entrance used by tourists arriving by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the west entrance used by those taking the Union Pacific Railroad. THF103662
In just 15 years, automobiles in the national parks had grown from a trickle to a steady stream. But the real turning point came with the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, and the vision of its first director, Stephen Mather. Mather wanted all Americans to experience the kind of healing power he himself had found in the national parks. So he aligned himself with the machine that was dramatically transforming people’s lives across the country—the automobile. Mather knew how to appeal to motorists, promising them “a warm welcome, good roads, good hotels, and public camps.” Furthermore, he innately understood that the point-to-point travel of horse-drawn carriage tours would not work for motorists, who wanted to travel on their own schedule and stop where they wanted. Scenic highways with turnouts, lookouts, and trailheads would be oriented to the understanding that, as Mather’s assistant Horace Albright maintained, “American tourist travel is of a swift tempo. People want to keep moving [and] are satisfied with brief stops here and there.”
So many early motorists arrived at the parks prepared to camp that public campgrounds were soon created to ensure safety, order, and control. THF128250
Mather’s ceaseless promotion worked. In 1918, the number of tourists coming to Yosemite by automobile outnumbered those arriving by train by a ratio of seven to one. In 1920, for the first time, the number of people visiting the national parks exceeded one million during a single year. Mather could happily declare that the American people “have turned to the national parks for health, happiness, and a saner view of life.” And the automobile, he concluded, “has been the open sesame.”
As the parks officially opened to automobiles, motorized touring cars rapidly replaced horse-drawn vehicles—in 1917 for both Yellowstone and Yosemite and in 1919 for Rocky Mountain National Park. THF209509
Numbers rose dramatically from that time on. In 1925, yearly visitation to the parks exceeded two million and in 1928, three million. With increased visitation came more willingness by Congress to support the parks. Annual appropriations went toward improvements geared to motorists, including campgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, supply stations, and restrooms. Newly paved roads were designed to harmonize with the landscape and offered plenty of scenic turnouts and vistas. At the same time, the majority of land would remain wilderness for backcountry hikers and campers.
Roads for motorists were designed to heighten the experience of the parks’ scenic wonders, as shown by this view next to the Three Sisters Trees in Sequoia National Park. THF118881
When automobiles entered the national parks, the foundation was laid for the ways in which we experience them today. Mather believed that there was no better way to develop “a love and pride in our own country and a realization of what a wonderful place it is” than by viewing the parks from inside an automobile. Everyone did not agree, of course. Some argued that cars were a menace, a nuisance, an intrusion. Either way, the automobile was destined to become the “great democratizer” of our national parks.
This 1929 guidebook offered automobile tours not only along the rim of the Grand Canyon but also to the outlying, lesser-known Navajo and Hopi reservations. THF209662
For more on automobiles in the national parks, check out:
Yellowstone National Park, the first national park established in 1872, was a uniquely American innovation. Like the Declaration of Independence, it embodied America’s democratic ideals—in this case, the groundbreaking idea that our magnificent natural wonders should be enjoyed not by a privileged few but by everyone. The inscription over Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to the park, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People," symbolizes the ideals that established Yellowstone and defined the vision for all national parks to come.
Come now on a virtual tour through The Henry Ford’s collection to view the wonders of Yellowstone National Park.
Imagine it is the early 1900s, and you’ve chosen to take the four-day guided tour through the park by horse-drawn carriage. From the north entrance, you travel through towering canyons to your first stop, Mammoth Hot Springs.
The hot springs there, heavily charged with lime, have built up tier upon tier of remarkable terraces. The springs are constantly changing, presenting what one guidebook calls “an astonishing spectacle of indescribable beauty.” After viewing the hot springs and walking among its many terraces, you spend your first night at the humble but serviceable Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
The next day, anticipation builds as you head south into the area with all the geyser activity. You pass Roaring Mountain, so named for the sound of steam fumaroles that became very active and noisy there in 1902.
Before long, you reach the first great geyser basin: Norris Geyser Basin. At the intersection of three major earthquake fault zones, Norris is the hottest, most active geyser basin in the park. Underground water temperatures of 706 degrees Fahrenheit have been measured. Norris has it all: hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and bubbling mud pots.
From Norris, you proceed to Lower and Middle Geyser Basins until you finally reach Upper Geyser Basin—the place you’ve heard so much about. Approximately two square miles in area, Upper Geyser Basin contains the largest concentration of geysers in the park—in fact, nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world! A variety of other thermal features also exist here, including colorful hot springs and steaming fumaroles.
Upper Geyser Basin is home to Old Faithful, the most famous and celebrated geyser in the world. The 1870 Washburn Expedition camped near this geyser. They were the ones who named it Old Faithful, because they discovered it had frequent and regular eruptions. It can last from 2-5 minutes, reach a height of 90 to 184 feet, and emit 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of water at a time.
You stop for the night here at Old Faithful Inn, a grand hotel built in 1903. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. However, Old Faithful Inn, the first true rustic-style resort, was designed by young, self-taught architect Robert Reamer to fit in with nature rather than to escape from it. The inside of the hotel continues the rustic look, with a spectacular seven-story log-framed lobby containing a massive stone fireplace.
Heading down the road, West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the smaller geyser basins in Yellowstone. Located along the edge of Yellowstone Lake, it consists of a stone mantle riddled with hot springs. These resemble vast boiling pots of paint with a continuous bubbling-up of mud.
About 30 miles from Upper Geyser Basin is Yellowstone Lake—one of the coldest, largest, and highest lakes in North America. The lake includes 110 miles of shoreline and reaches depths of up to 390 feet. The bottom of the lake remains a constant 42 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
Here you rest for the night at the charming Yellowstone Lake Hotel, the oldest surviving hotel in the park, built in 1891. Robert Reamer added the colonial-style columns to this quintessential Eastern-styled hotel in 1903.
Heading back north along the park’s Grand Loop Road, Hayden Valley is filled with large, open meadows on either side of the Yellowstone River—the remains of an ancient lakebed. The valley is the year-round home to bison, elk, and grizzly bear.
As the Yellowstone River flows north from Yellowstone Lake, it leaves the Hayden Valley and takes two great plunges: first over the Upper Falls and then, a quarter mile downstream, over the Lower Falls—at which point it enters the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In places, the canyon walls drop some 1,000 feet to the river below. You spend the night at the last of the four great Yellowstone resorts, Grand Canyon Hotel, before returning to Mammoth Hot Springs and the end of your tour.
It is inevitable, of course, that more and more motorists are arriving at Yellowstone every day. The use of automobiles in the park are bringing paved roads, parking areas, service stations, and improved public campgrounds. Most early motorists are used to roughing it and come prepared to camp.
Yellowstone will set the tone for all the other national parks to come. When the National Park Service is formally established in 1916, it incorporates many of the management principles that the U.S. Army brought to Yellowstone when its soldiers first arrived to establish order there back in 1886. Old Faithful Inn will help define the style of Western resorts and park architecture for the next several decades. Finally, as some early tourist behaviors—like feeding bears, peering into geysers, and fishing in hot springs (as shown in the postcard of Fish Pot Hot Springs)—are found to be harmful to Yellowstone’s fragile ecosystems, the park will become a testing ground for exploring and defining what it means to be a national park—serving the dual mission of preserving natural wonders while, at the same time, letting the public enjoy them.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.