SOME 150 YEARS AGO, during the peak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took time to sign a bill establishing the Yosemite Grant, which created park land specifically for preservation and public use. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the first national park in the world. And as war raged in Europe in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, which would result in a national system of parks and monuments.
Today, more than 400 national park areas and over 40 programs have been established. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, the landscapes and stories of the park system have evolved in dramatic and inspiring ways. You will find that parks not only represent iconic Western landscapes but now include American art forms, traverse multiple jurisdictions along waterways and overland trails, reach deep into the oceans, extend into urban centers, and connect people to places that are expressions of our national heritage.
At this year’s 50th anniversary commemorating the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, President Obama stated, “There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war — Concord, Lexington, Gettysburg, Appomattox. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall, Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk, Cape Canaveral, and Selma.” The president could have extended his list to include Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights; Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House, the USS Constitution, and the African Meeting House. Each of these places, where ideas bore fruit and events took place — all of which are national park areas — defines who we are as a nation.
Boston itself is a national park city that ties the theme of revolution — political, social, and environmental — to its past, present, and future. The National Parks of Boston, which includes Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, and Boston National Historical Park, allows us to reflect upon the heroic acts that led to personal freedom, civil and human rights, and environmental justice.
A ferry out to the 34 islands and peninsulas covering some 50 square miles of Boston Harbor reveals a complex historical past as well as a sense of wildness — an environmental success story that called out for the creation of a national park area so that people would never again turn their back to such a precious resource.
A long stare at Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment — looking forward, rifles on their shoulders, and a determined southerly pace toward a more perfect union — becomes a catalyst for deeper understanding on the meaning of the Civil War. Over on the north slope of Beacon Hill, one is immersed in a place that was once the home to one of Boston’s largest free black communities in the 19th century — the very place that set the foundation for the civil rights movement. The community’s message never loses its relevance in its examples of respectful dialogue, activism, agency, courage, and collaboration across color lines.
The layered cultural landscape of Boston, rich in historic architecture, natural landmarks, and artifacts, unfolds a national narrative of the American Revolution. Along this Freedom Trail are places where battles were fought, debates and protests ensued, courageous acts were performed, and a nation was formed. Nowhere in America is there a greater concentration of historic sites and significant stories connected to the American Revolution than along this trail.
The late John Hope Franklin stated that “the very creation of a national park is an expression of faith in the future. It is a pact between generations — promise from the past, to the present, to the future.” The National Parks of Boston sees the centennial as an opportunity to become an essential component of the social fabric of the city. The parks and their many partners are well positioned as places where young people, many from diverse and often underserved communities, can experience close-to-home outdoor recreation and nature; art, culture and history; and perhaps more importantly, gain some sense of confidence and encouragement about their own future.
Michael Creasey is the general superintendent of the National Parks of Boston.