Grand Canyon, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, Sequoia, Yosemite. The finest sites in the National Park system are often called the “crown jewels.” Most famous of all is Yellowstone, the golden standard of national parks and the first such entity to be established in the country. Three years after Yellowstone was dedicated in 1872, a second park was approved: Mackinac National Park on Mackinac Island, Michigan. But you’ve probably never heard of this park. After just 20 years of operation, Mackinac’s national park status was revoked and it is now operated under state control.
Mackinac’s “failure” emphasizes a hard truth about “the best idea we ever had:” not all National Parks can be crown jewels. Some are poorly attended, some have had their worthiness called into question, and some have even been permanently decommissioned. Concealed in many of these stories are tragedies. Fossil Cycad National Monument, for example, was once a site with one of the greatest surface concentration of fossilized plants ever discovered. Rapidly picked clean by tourists and treasure hunters, it was abolished in 1957 after there was literally nothing left of significance to protect.
Since 1895, nearly 30 sites have lost the coveted status of belonging to the National Park system. Of them, perhaps none have inspired more disdain, past or present, than Sullys Hill, “the most unworthy national park ever created.” Sullys Hill National Park was set aside by an executive proclamation from Theodore Roosevelt on June 2, 1904. The site was centered on 960 acres of marshes, wooded hills, and prairie within the former Devil’s Lake Indian Reservation in Benson County, North Dakota. Some historians have cheekily implied that the pathetic origin of the site’s name should be taken as evidence that it was doomed from the start. Alfred Sully (1821-1879) was an Army Brigadier General assigned to the northern Great Plains in the mid-1860s to assist with Indian fighting. When Sully failed to rendezvous with a cavalry unit at the highest hill in the Devil’s Lake area, the soldiers named the hill after him.
In the years after Sullys Hill’s creation, it became apparent that serious deficiencies were preventing the park from achieving its potential. A 1909 Department of the Interior report stated that the land was almost totally inaccessible to visitors, and until major road repairs and construction could be done, “the reservation is not likely to be patronized to any extent.” The park also had no staff: its sole caretaker was the superintendent of a nearby Indian school. Without a compelling origin story, easy accessibility, or particularly stunning natural vistas, Sullys Hill lacked the qualities that could have put it in the same league as Yellowstone or Mt. Rainier. The park’s sole redeeming feature seemed to be the small herds of animals that roamed its grasses, including a few dozen bison, elk, and prairie dogs.
It turned out that animals would save Sullys Hill’s future. The Great Depression decimated the federal budget, cutting off the floundering park’s cash flow. On March 31, 1931, Sullys Hill was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture and repurposed as the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. Despite its precarious past, the preserve has since flourished. Today, the site welcomes 60,000 visitors annually, houses a well-maintained visitor center and bookstore, and hosts numerous successful public programs. Critics who attack Sullys Hill’s relatively “underwhelming” historical and natural value fail to account for this stark turnaround in popularity. Instead, it should be argued that the site’s own national park designation directly hindered its budding potential.
Sullys Hill’s induction into the park system was achieved by questionable means. Despite having strong ties to North Dakota, the president himself had never visited Sullys Hill before advocating so strongly for its creation. Sullys Hill remains the only national park founded under executive proclamation and not directly by Congress, raising the possibility that the act was merely a political maneuver. In addition, the Department of the Interior’s records from the time sloppily use the terms “Sullys Hill Park” and “Sullys Hill National Park” interchangeably. According to historian Kathy Mason, all of the evidence shows that the federal government “lacked coherent procedures and standards for creating national parks.”
Congress also tended to view Sullys Hill’s lack of road accessibility as evidence of irreversible deficiency, not as a problem to be solved. A transcript from a 1914 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee reveals a senator exclaiming “that is not a national park” after being informed of Sullys Hill’s low annual visitor count. The Interior Department also conducted frivolous surveys to search for legendary Indian burial grounds and precious minerals on the site. As expected (or perhaps hoped), nothing was found. But it was the Park Service, not Congress, who sounded the death knell. Despite the fact that visitation had grown steadily throughout the 1920s out of public interest for the wildlife, NPS director Horace Albright successfully argued that the park had no allure “that should entitle it to national-park status.” A cash-strapped government eagerly embraced his opinion.
The public itself was always largely unaware of any controversies surrounding the park’s merit. In fact, Sullys Hill was often singled out in pre-Depression newspapers for leading the way in buffalo herd protection. However, the National Park Service’s early existence was marked by a strong desire to prevent “inferior” areas from sullying its fledgling reputation, regardless of public interest. In 1916 alone, 16 proposals for potential parks were rejected on these grounds.
Losing its national park status was the best thing to ever happen to Sullys Hill. What failed as a national park flourished as a national game preserve. Though there is a tendency for historians to hold the national park model as superior and sacrosanct, some places leave a greater footprint as state parks, local parks, or natural reserves. Holding all important American sites to the iconic standard of the crown jewels obfuscates their unique qualities.
Lary M. Dilsaver and William Wyckoff, “Failed National Parks in the Last Best Place, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol.59, No. 3 (2009): 3-24
H. Duane Hampton, “Opposition to National Parks,” Journal of Forest History, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1981): 36-45
Bob Janiskee, http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/12/gone-and-mostly-forgotten-26-abolished-national-parks9202
Kathy Mason, Natural Museums: US National Parks, 1872-1916 (Michigan State University Press, 2004)
Thomas A. Wikle, “Proposals, Abolishments, and Changing Standards for National Parks,” The Historian, Vol.. 54, No. 1 (1991): 49-64