- National Park Roads: A Legacy in the American Landscape by Timothy Davis
In a memorable essay entitled "Roads Belong in the Landscape," J. B. Jackson famously reminds us that "odology" (the study of paths) is a noble pursuit.1 Jackson excelled in exploring the vernacular landscapes of the American highway, taking us on thoughtful journeys to truck stops, commercial strips, mobile home parks, and more. In a similar vein, Timothy Davis embraces the idea that roads matter a great deal when it comes to understanding the evolution of America's national parks. He also argues that many of the historical conflicts that emerged over road construction within parks offer larger insights into the complicated and contentious ways Americans have viewed nature. Thoroughly researched, well written, and beautifully illustrated, National Park Roads: A Legacy in the American Landscape will become a standard reference for anyone interested in exploring how and why park roads look the way they do and are located where they are.
More broadly, the book will appeal to anyone interested in the American cultural landscape and the integral role that roads have played in its creation. For national park enthusiasts, Davis also tells the important story of how the roads themselves have become important cultural and historical resources, worthy of preservation and interpretation. Davis is well positioned to tell his story: as a historian with the National Park Service (NPS), he has written and lectured widely on the evolution of the national park system and in 1997 curated the exhibition Lying Lightly on the Land: Building America's National Park Roads and Parkways at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. He produced this volume in 2016 to celebrate his agency's centennial.
At first blush, the large trim size and copious illustrations of Davis's volume, published with support from the National Park Foundation, make it appear to be a perfect coffee-table book that anyone could pick up and enjoy. The vintage photos, maps, and postcards of spectacular park highways and byways—beautifully integrated into the story of how roads became such an important, functional, and visual part of our national park system—will captivate the casual explorer. Yet the book offers much more. In addition to telling a detailed, well-documented story of how specific road construction projects unfolded, Davis demonstrates a thorough and nuanced knowledge of American history that helps frame the narrative. A quick glance through the extensive notes and bibliography reveal many years of meticulous scholarly research (much of it into primary documents and correspondence housed within the various archives of the NPS).
What is the essential story line of the book? Davis's focus is on the constant but evolving tension between those calling for more accessibility ("build more and faster roads!") and those calling for more preservation of the visual and ecological integrity of park landscapes ("build fewer, less intrusive, and slower park roads!"). In particular, he explores the park road builders, pondering how they struggled with changing technologies and shifting NPS mandates and priorities. In discussing the construction of Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, for example, Davis documents how landscape architects and highway engineers debated route options with varying impacts on the visual landscape, as well as how construction contractors were challenged by the spectacular but rugged terrain of the northern Rocky Mountains.
He also examines the idiosyncratic personalities of key decision makers. Even within a large bureaucracy particular individuals left a mark on these important cultural landscape features. NPS director Stephen Mather is colorfully described as "charismatic, with his movie-star looks, exuberant personality, and Rotarian bonhomie" (96), while thin-skinned George Goodwin (a chief civil engineer of the NPS) is cast in less complimentary terms to illuminate his contentious personality. Each man had his own ideas about creating accessible yet aesthetically pleasing park highways, and often they clashed about design elements and route locations.
Davis also explores how the NPS interacted...