In researching my latest biography, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, I was struck by the extent to which the celebrated landscape architect was also a pioneering environmentalist. Best known for crafting urban spaces – New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace – Olmsted was also deeply involved in saving wild places.
Helping preserve Yosemite is one of his greatest accomplishments. Beginning in 1864 – at a time when only a few hundred non-Native Americans had ever set foot in the valley – Olmsted made a series of visits. He was awestruck by the epic scenery, but also recognized how easily the place could be spoiled.
In 1865, Schuyler Colfax, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, embarked on a cross-country journey with a visit to Yosemite slated as the highlight. Speaker Colfax was accompanied by a number of journalists. As it happens, Olmsted saw a mention in a paper about Colfax’s planned Yosemite visit. He arranged to meet up with the party to act as a guide. Olmsted also drafted an 8,000-word treatise about Yosemite.
The Colfax party (Olmsted is front row, second from left in the photo) hiked and swam. They sang rollicking Civil War anthems such as “John Brown’s Body.” And one evening, with everyone gathered around the campfire, Olmsted gave a “spontaneous” reading of his treatise. It was filled with unique ideas, such as the need for an enlightened government to protect natural wonders. Remember, this was 1865, decades before a national park system even existed. “The establishment by the government of great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people [is a] political duty,” Olmsted told the gathering.
Of course, the assembled journalists produced accounts of their visits to Yosemite. Several even wrote books. Invariably, their writings were full of ideas – Olmsted’s ideas – about the need to preserve wild places and the vital role government should play.
In 1906, Yosemite became a national park, thanks to the tireless efforts of naturalist John Muir. But Olmsted gets credit for being one of the first people to call for the valley’s preservation. Olmsted, the pioneering environmentalist, also helped preserve Niagara Falls and the vast Pisgah forest in North Carolina.
About the author: Justin Martin is a journalist and the author of several biographies. He was married in Central Park, Olmsted’s masterpiece. He lives in Forest Hills Gardens, NY, a neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.