"See America" by Frank S. Nicholson. Source: Library of Congress

Wish You Were Here

A History of American Tourism

As summer winds down, millions of Americans are packing their bags and hitting the road. In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed and Brian explore the history of American tourism. We’ll hear how asylums and prisons were popular tourist destinations in the 19th century, and how the tiny community of Gettysburg, PA became a tourist town just days after the bloody battle. We’ll also look back on a western mountain resort that catered exclusively to black Americans during the era of segregated travel, and we’ll explore the links between tourism and the development of a national identity.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Stroll through any US National Park, and you’re likely to encounter tourists from all over America and the world. But in the early 20th century, Americans had to be actively persuaded to see the natural wonders here at home.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: If you really love your country, if you’re really patriotic, you will see America first. You won’t go look to Europe.

PETER: That was just the beginning of the modern American tourism industry, which now rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars every year. One of the places it began was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863 where thousands of Americans arrived just days after its famous battle.

MEGAN CONRAD: And they want the bullets, and they want the scraps of bloody clothing, and they kind of want the relics that we look back at now and we’re like why would you want this?

PETER: As the summer winds down, we’ve got a history of American tourism. Today on BackStory.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Siochain Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey there, Brian. Imagine it’s the mid-nineteenth century, and you open up a newspaper or magazine. You might just see an ad for a surprising tourist attraction.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Walk through the wards of an insane asylum and talk here and there with a patient.

MALE SPEAKER: No more interesting or profitable expedition can employ a day than a visit to the lunatic asylum.

PETER: Yes, that’s right– asylums.

JANET MIRON: Asylum tourism was a widespread and popular phenomena that attracted thousands of visitors every year.

PETER: This is Trent University historian, Janet Miron. She says this peculiar form of tourism started in the 1830s. Throughout much of the 19th century, asylums and even prisons attracted visitors from all over the US and beyond.

JANET MIRON: They came from all over the world– France, Poland, Germany, Canada, countries in South America.

PETER: Miron says asylum administrators actively courted tourists. Visitors were invited to picnic on the well-manicured gardens and take guided tours of the facilities. They might even interact with patients.

JANET MIRON: So you may have exchanged some tobacco, trinkets of jewelry in order to have a conversation with them, to hear about their history, visitors tasted their food. Some visitors requested being confined in certain contraptions that were increasingly used to restrain patients as the century progressed.

PETER: One of the most popular asylums in Utica, New York boasted more than 10,000 visitors a year. The influx was so great that one guard told a visitor–

MALE SPEAKER: We have been compelled to deny admission to the general public at any other hours than between 2:00 and 5:00 PM. We were actually overwhelmed with visitors.

PETER: Now, Miron acknowledges how distasteful the practice of asylum tourism sounds to modern ears. But she says tourists weren’t simply indulging in voyeurism. In the mid 19th century, leisure was supposed to have educational even moral purpose. And US asylums were on the cutting edge of scientific progress, or so many Americans believed. They certainly offered a stark contrast to the close, crowded, and dirty hospitals in Europe that warehoused the mentally ill.

JANET MIRON: There were superintendents who claimed that they had 100% cure rate. They would cure everyone admitted to their institution. Belief that mental illness could be cured and treated in a carefully controlled environment of an asylum, this is a new idea.

PETER: Many tourists were inspired by what they saw. One visitor considered his tour one of the most touching and beautiful spectacles we ever witnessed. And that warm fuzzy feeling extended far beyond the walls of these asylums.

JANET MIRON: These institutions didn’t exist in a bubble. They were imbued with ideals of national identity, that the United States would be a pioneer in the field of mental health care, to promote a certain idea of what American society was, and what it would become.

PETER: But Miron notes that patients probably didn’t feel so uplifted by the experience.

JANET MIRON: Likely patients viewed these interactions as sources of pain. They nevertheless often used these interactions to their own benefit. They would pickpocket visitors. They would use them to their own amusement by telling them wild stories and laughing at them behind their backs of their gullibility. They would often give them letters to pass on to family members and friends since patients’ mail out of the asylum was carefully controlled.

PETER: By the turn of the 20th century, even administrators had lost faith in asylums. They were widely seen as poorly run, their cures were ineffective, and the treatment of patients was deplorable. Asylum tourism had all but disappeared. And the purpose of tourism itself had changed.

JANET MIRON: These asylums are competing with dance halls, with amusement parks, with theaters, and tourism become something for the sake of relaxation, pleasure, getting away, recuperating. It’s not about engaging in social problems, and how best to address those social problems.

BRIAN: So as summer vacation season winds down, we’re dedicating a show to the places Americans have toured through the years. We’ll explore why thousands of visitors wanted to head to the town of Gettysburg in 1863 just a few days after the famous battle. We’ll find out why in the early 20th century Americans had to be coaxed to tour the west instead of heading to Europe for vacation. And we’ll look at the history of a mountain resort that catered to African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.

ED: While the asylums we just heard about were popular tourist destinations in the mid 19th century, recreational travel was still limited for most Americans. The network of railroads that would soon crisscross the nation was still developing, and sea voyages were expensive and dangerous. But while many Americans couldn’t travel to distant places, far away scenes could come to them through a very popular form of entertainment called panoramas.

BRIAN: Panoramas where large moving paintings displayed in theaters. They took Americans to fantastic scenes all over the world. But one of the most popular panorama subjects was closer to home. It was the great Mississippi River. In the 19th century, Americans saw that river as an American Nile, a natural wonder surpassing anything that Europe had to offer. And in the 1840s and 1850s, five different Mississippi panoramas toured the US and Europe.

Now, imagine you lived in a small isolated New England town, and a panorama claiming to bear the mighty Mississippi rolled into town. You might have read ads that promise to transport you right down to the Mississippi itself. All without leaving the theater. Author Lee Sandlin describes this experience in Wicked River– The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. We wanted to give you a sense of what those panoramas felt like with a reading from his book.

JOSEPH BROMFIELD: The Mississippi panoramas were most likely around 20 feet tall and a couple of hundred yards long. They were much too large ever to be displayed all at once. Instead, they were shown in theaters by gaslight like primordial movies. Two cylinders were sat on opposite sides of the stage. The panorama was gradually unrolled from one and wound up on the other. There’d be a narrator standing at the side of the stage keeping things lively by telling stories, and cracking jokes, and scoring off hecklers in the audience. There’d also be music, usually a piano or an organ though at the classier theaters there might be a small orchestra.

What the audience saw differed from one panorama to the next. But it took the same general form– a succession of scenes as might be witnessed from a steamboat on a voyage from one of the upper branches of the river down to New Orleans. Vista after vista, spectacle after spectacle, the father of waters unfurled itself in serene majesty. One newspaper reviewer described seeing bluffs, bars, islands, rocks and mounds, points and cliffs without numbers, and a fantastic variety of form. The panorama artists crowded the view with eye-catching scenes of natural drama. Thunderstorms towering over bluffs, blizzards burying forests, prairie fires stretching from horizon to horizon.

There were also scenes of the great calamities and disasters of the day. The desertion of the Mormon city of Nauvoo in central Illinois, for instance. Another favorite was the fire that destroyed the waterfront district of St. Louis in 1849. This was a spectacular scene showing fleeing crowds, desperate companies of firemen, the night sky over the city billowing with black smoke, and showering down lurid red sparks. This image was always greeted with a shocked hush from the spectators before the grand flow of the river resumed.

The panoramas also naturally touched on the hot button political issues of the day. The most heated of these questions was the forcible exile of the Native American populations from the eastern half of the continent into the Great Plains. Against these dark images were set upbeat scenes of new growth. The river valley was being colonized at a furious clip, and the panoramas recorded the signs of occupation everywhere. Settlements hacked out of the wilderness, vistas of deforested and freshly planted farmland, the plantations occupying the swamps, the new steeple spiked towns rising on the highest bluffs.

And above all, there where the world famous steamboats. They were shown bustling everywhere from the great harbors of St. Louis and New Orleans to the lonely reaches of the upper river, pausing at levees and docks to unload cargo, stopping off at remote lumber yards to refuel, puffing out proud billows of smoke as they pressed on down bend after bend of the great river, grandly florid emblems of civilization lording it over the wilderness.

The panoramas were like recruitment posters for the new society rising at the edge of the world. Such images seemed to catch up audiences all over America in a tremendous surge of excitement, one they were barely able to explain or describe. Even a famous skeptic of American triumphalism like Henry David Thoreau could feel it. In his essay “Walking,” he described his fascination with the Mississippi panoramas.

As I worked my way up the river in the light of today and saw the steamboats wooding up, counted the rising cities, beheld the Indians moving west across the stream, still thinking more of the future than of the past or present, I felt that this was the heroic age itself. Though we know it not.

BRIAN: That was actor Joseph Bromfield reading an excerpt from Wicked River– The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin. Earlier we heard from historian Janet Miron of Trent University in Ontario, Canada. She’s the author of Prisons, Asylums, and the Public– Institutional Visiting in the 19th Century.

Let’s turn to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s an iconic American tourist site with a historic battlefield attracting more than a million people last year.

ED: For the first 80 years of its history, Gettysburg had just been a sleepy town of 2,400 people. But all that changed in the summer of 1863 when Gettysburg became the scene of a pivotal three day battle in the American Civil War. There, Union soldiers repelled the Confederate Army Second in what would prove to be its final attempt to invade the North. Both sides suffered devastating losses.

MEGAN CONRAD: The whole town was basically destroyed. There were dead mangled bodies strewn everywhere, because you have to imagine 160,000 soldiers just marched through this town, and 51,000 of them died or were wounded or just became missing.

ED: This is Megan Conrad, and she’s visited Gettysburg more than 70 times, and has studied the town’s transformation after the Civil War. In the course of her research, she came across the diaries of a local couple, Peter and Elizabeth Thorn, who describe the scene that they encountered when they returned home after the battle.

MEGAN CONRAD: They saw 150 dead bodies outside of their home, and they decided to just start digging, and put the bodies in graves.

ED: Before many of the bodies were even removed, thousands of visitors began streaming into Gettysburg. Many were Northerners looking for loved ones who had fought the battle. But Conrad says that families of soldiers weren’t the only ones who descended upon the town.

MEGAN CONRAD: People came because they were just really curious and wanted to see the destruction of a battle, and they wanted to have pieces of a battle. Because this is the first time that a battle was in the North, so this is something very new to Northerners. They hadn’t ever seen something like this, so they’re so curious about what does this look like. So they’re interested in the death and destruction, and they want the bullets, and they want the scraps of bloody clothing, and they want the relics that we look back at now, and we’re like, why would you want this?

ED: There’s a famous story of a minister finds a Bible that’s been blown in half by a gun, and soaked with the blood of Confederate. They take that to use as an object of a sermon. Yeah, you’re right. The people are scavenging for souvenirs at the same time other people are looking for their fallen sons and fathers. So these people who were coming to Gettysburg– we could call some of them tourists. Is that fair?


ED: OK. Well, the problem was that there wasn’t anywhere to stay much before the battle, and certainly after the battle there wouldn’t have been hotels or inns or anything. So where did they stay?

MEGAN CONRAD: So people who actually had homes that weren’t completely destroyed opened up their homes, and they allowed people to stay with them, and they profited and turned this into a business. So for instance, I stumbled across a letter that a citizen George Arnold wrote to his friend. And in that letter, he mentions how he and his wife were exhausted for hosting all of these people, and he’s also charging them a profit for staying there. So it’s like the first bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, if you will. So whether they were the visitors coming to see their family members or they were these curiosity seekers, they stayed in people’s homes until more hotels and such were built later on.

ED: So all these people are flooding into Gettysburg right after the battle. Did Gettysburg encourage their arrival?

MEGAN CONRAD: Gettysburg knew that something dramatic just happened, that something monumental definitely happened to their town. So this whole sense of pride and this sense of we need to preserve what happened here is very prevalent among all of the townspeople, which is really incredible given that their whole town was just destroyed, and they’re considering of we need to preserve this historical moment.

ED: Conrad says that leaders in Gettysburg reclaim the town not only as hallowed ground that deserve preservation, but as a tourist destination. By the 1890s, visitors tired from shopping downtown could get on an electric trolley that took them to the elegant Katalysine Springs Hotel, which sat right on the battlefield.

MEGAN CONRAD: When soldiers came back to celebrate the anniversary of the battle they could stay at this hotel. When tours came to town they could stay there. But it was also a spa. So these springs were rumored to have healing powers, and they could heal wounded veterans, and they could provide luxurious time to the women who were just too hot and tired to be bothered with walking around the battlefield all day. So it’s very luxurious type of area, and the electric trolley had a stop directly right in front of the Katalysine Springs Hotel.

ED: Do you see over time– what are the popular tourist attractions that people go to in Gettysburg?

MEGAN CONRAD: So for instance, there was souvenir stands. You could buy relics from the battlefield. You could buy scraps of clothing. You could buy minie balls. There was dancing pavilions. Then the amusement parks were also on there. There were three different amusement parks set up by different people. They had lemonade stands. Once the car comes along, they do the battlefield bus tours. They are driven through the battlefield, and they learn all about the history.

ED: So Megan, I heard a story, may be apocryphal, one time that a student group was touring the Gettysburg Battlefield, and one kid asked, so did they shoot from behind all these monuments? So when were those monuments put up and who controlled that process?

MEGAN CONRAD: Starting in the 1880s, 1890s, and on, all the different states were allowed to create their own monuments. And so that when people visited, they could really get a good picture of the Gettysburg battle, that it wasn’t just this whole memorial to the Union soldiers, and what happened there. You wouldn’t to be able to imagine what happened unless you saw the Confederate side of it, because the Confederates were ahead for the first few days.

ED: So people still, despite the restaurants and the tacky shops, and even in the past electric railways and amusement parks come to the town with a great sense of reverence. It seems to me that that’s been an enduring quality of tourism in Gettysburg is that people don’t forget that what happened here was a tremendous loss of life and in some ways an important chapter in the saving of the nation. Are you struck more by the continued reverence or the dangers to it that tourism presents?

MEGAN CONRAD: I think tourism helps it, 100%. For instance, my friends and I, we always do ghost tours. And it’s a really big booming business in Gettysburg. It’s lit, like you walk down the streets, and they’re shoving pamphlets in your hands, and it’s insane. But it’s this way that people who are, they’re like, oh, it’s something fun for us to do.

But on those ghost tours they’re telling you bits and pieces of history of who died here. And this house was a makeshift hospital, and you can imagine the limbs piled outside. And this courthouse was used as a hospital, and the bottom of it, there was just a pool of blood like a foot deep. And while they might be embellishing a little bit, people who might not be interested in history right away are now engrossed in it, and they’re fascinated by it.

And it took them to this point to get to Gettysburg, and maybe they came because they thought it’d be a fun day with friends, but they’re leaving knowing what happened to this town, and they’re leaving knowing the monumentalness of what happened to Gettysburg, and all the lives that are lost. And you still go to the Soldiers National Cemetery and it’s silent. Even little kids. They’re running around, but they’re not making a peep, because they understand the reverence of it.

ED: That’s historian Megan Conrad. We spoke to her from WITF at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As that interview reminds us, Gettysburg, in many ways, is the perfect fusion of historical identity and tourism. That you can go to one place, have a nice trip, but feel affirmed in your American identity. I guess what I’m wondering, Peter, was that invented at Gettysburg? Were they building on anything that we’d had before?

PETER: Yeah, I think so, because somebody else stood at Gettysburg. And that was Abraham Lincoln, and he evoked the memories of 1776. And that looks back to a historical consciousness that begins with the nation, born with the nation. And Americans were intensely conscious of the Revolution. And no, they weren’t history tourists in the sense that you’re suggesting at Gettysburg, but they did go places to see where it had happened.

ED: That sounds like tourism to me.

PETER: It sounds like tourism to me too. But it’s short range, and very often it didn’t require going to some particular place because people lived where the Revolution had been fought, and there were guidebooks that were written and published in the 1820s and ’30s about how to locate sites within a place like Boston where things had happened. These weren’t historic sites in the modern sense that they were all gussied up and sacralized. They were part of the fabric, the urban fabric of American cities. But it was just the knowledge that they were walking in the same footsteps as their fathers and people who were, well, still living. History was alive and it was there.

ED: Did they worry about that past being paved over or left by American progress? What did they do to preserve what they had?

PETER: Yeah, I think you’re right. And in the antebellum decades leading up to the Civil War, there’s a growing concern. Well, as the veterans of the Revolution die often and as the younger generation seems to be less intimately acquainted with that vital story, that sense of history receding into the past, and maybe we need reminders. How are we going to keep the memories alive and sustain the nation? I think that’s a concern north and south in the years leading up the Civil War.

And it culminates with the effort of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association to raise funds across the nation to preserve George Washington’s home as a kind of a temple to the union, to the nation, the memory of the American Revolution, the father of our country. But that was in a way because all space had lost its specific historical resonance for Americans. They needed have sites, well, something like churches, places where they could go, and affirm their identity as Americans. Particularly, Ed, as you know when the union seemed on the verge of falling apart then more than ever you had to remember the fathers.

ED: Yeah, all that culminates right before the Civil War. So maybe tourism was some indication of what people had deep forebodings about.

PETER: I think that’s right, Ed.

ED: Well, Brian, that was pretty persuasive by Peter, that we didn’t invent everything at Gettysburg. But have you really improved on it since?

BRIAN: Well, I think what you nailed in Gettysburg, Ed, is that Americans for the first time began to embrace the notion that we are not just a loose confederation or a union, but actually we might be one nation.

ED: Yeah, we stopped referring to the United States in the plural, and started referring to it in the singular.

BRIAN: That’s perfectly put, Ed. And I think once Americans felt a bit more secure about being a nation, and didn’t have the kinds of questions they had in Peter’s period and during the Civil War then they could focus on what kind of nation are we? And I think we can look to tourism to answer that question. We’re a nation that consumes, consumes a heck of a lot.

And so if you want to look at the iconic tourist spots across the 20th century that continue to define what American identity is I think you need to look at the Disneylands and the Disney Worlds, and very much like in the 19th century, these start locally, these start with amusement parks at places like Coney Island. But quickly, they emerge into national, ultimately international magnets for consumption.

PETER: So Brian, what does modern American tourism tell us about the way we think about our history as a nation?

BRIAN: Peter, it tells us that what we share in common is our incredibly productive economy and our mutual success in being able to enjoy the fruits of that labor by doing whatever the heck we want to on vacation.

ED: But tell me this. Wouldn’t a place like Pearl Harbor speak of the same impulses as behind Gettysburg? If you go to Washington and you see the Washington Monument, Peter, or the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History, the Vietnam Wall memorial, aren’t all these things basically the same impulse as we’ve had since the beginning, Brian?

BRIAN: Yes, Ed. I do not mean in any way to say that you can’t find some of the very same reasons for traveling to a particular site that Peter talked about or that you talked about. Yes, there is a continuity. But I think it would be a mistake to ignore the vast amount of money, energy, and thought that is spent on finding ways to send Americans places, maybe a day away, maybe an ocean away to keep them entertained, to take our tourism to places and locales that have nothing to do with history or American history.

PETER: And Brian, that statement that the past is a foreign country is interesting here, because we can go to historic places like Colonial Williamsburg and make believe we’re in that foreign country– the past. But in some profound way, it’s not us.

BRIAN: You could say it’s not us or you could say, it’s us trying on a wig in the morning and teeing off on the 17th tee in the afternoon.

ED: Well, the good news is that the people can listen to BackStory to and from any of these destinations, and get their shot of history.

Now, we’ve heard about some surprising tourism so far– tours of asylums and thousands of people flocking to Gettysburg in the days after that bloody battle. But for wealthy Americans in the 19th century and before, the more attractive destinations were overseas.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Most Americans, if they’re thinking about travel for pleasure, are traveling to Europe.

ED: This is historian Marguerite Shaffer. She says that by the 20th century tourism boosters urged Americans to ditch the castles and cultures of the Old World and go west instead. In 1906, a mustachioed Utah businessman named Fisher Sanford Harris launched the movement called See America First. His catchy slogan was this– “See Europe if you will, but see America first.” This message wasn’t just about tourist dollars. He said that the See America First campaign was also about becoming a true American.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: And so what happens is Western boosters beginning to make this argument that look, if you really love your country, if you’re really patriotic you will see America first. You won’t go look to Europe. Know your country. It’s really interesting, because if you think about the Civil War where people must have really been feeling like, are we going to make it? Is the nation going to survive?

And so once the war is over, this North/South identity thing, there needs to be a replacement for it. And so See America First is part of that conversation of we do have a place, we do have a nation, we do have shared history and shared traditions. If you are truly patriotic, you will see these things.

ED: And it’s very convenient that there’s a part of the country that’s identified as neither the North or the South– the West. So See America First– you go back and look at the materials– a lot of it looks like, see the West first.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Yeah, it really is this focus west, which makes sense if you think about what happens immediately after the Civil War. That’s when the first transcontinental railroad is finished. There’s this push for the Homestead Act to get people to move west. There’s Indian wars going on. So the West becomes this mythological place where you abandon your European ways, and your European clothes, and your European traditions, and your civilized life, and you go out into this frontier, and you build a new culture.

ED: But Schaffer says in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exploring the frontier was difficult. No major roads led to scenic places and hotels were few and far between. The See America First couldn’t really take off until people could, well, see America, until the technology, mainly railroads, could get people out west.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: And it’s really not until you get the Great Northern Railway and Louis Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railway company, taking on this idea of See America First, and connecting it up with the development of Glacier National Park that this movement begins to catch on.

ED: I’m imagining that the railroad was already going near Glacier National Park before he decided this would be something that all Americans needed to see first. Is that right?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Right. Of the transcontinental railroads, Great Northern is really the last one to extend its line across the United States. So you have the Union Pacific in 1869, and then that’s followed by the Santa Fe, and the Northern Pacific in the 1880s, 1890s, and Great Northern doesn’t really complete the line until the early 20th century.

ED: So what’s left over for that railroad to take people to then?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: So they are going in the northern route running from Minneapolis to Portland, Seattle, and their line runs across the edge of what will become Glacier National Park. So Louis Hill, following in the tradition of the Northern Pacific Railroad and of the Santa Fe Railroad begins to advocate for the passage of a bill to put aside the land in northern Montana as a park, and then begins to invest in developing the infrastructure for that park. He hires an architect to develop and build nine Swiss chalets along the Continental Divide.

ED: Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute! I thought we’re seeing America first. What’s the point of building Swiss chalets if you’re going to have an American landscape?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Well, this is what’s really wonderful about Glacier. He calls it the American Alps.

ED: Wait.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: He does. He bangs together this diverse melange of references from the Blackfeet Indians who welcome people at the station to the Japanese lanterns that adorn the hotel and the Japanese women who serve tea on a little tea cart in the afternoons at the hotel.

ED: Wait, wait, wait. We got Swiss chalets and Japanese tea ceremonies?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Yeah. So he’s really mixing it all together in the tradition of everything comes together in America.

ED: Is there anything uniquely American about this then?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: For one, the Japanese link. He wants to promote his railroad line as going from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, which is then a link to the Orient as he would have called it. One of their railroad lines is called the Oriental Limited.

ED: Very limited, isn’t it? It’s a long way to the Orient.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: But it’s in the tradition of manifest destiny, that we are following our destiny to expand trade to the edge of the continent and then beyond. You get the wonders of the world in Montana.

ED: So let’s say it’s 1912. I’m a rich Chicago businessman with some time to kill, and I want to go out and see Glacier National Park via the Great Northern Railroad. What I want to know is what will I see? Is it just going to be hotels and resorts?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Right. So you are going to spend your first nights at the Glacier Park Hotel in luxury, and then you’re going to go roughing it. Perhaps you’d be escorted by the famous rancher, Howard Eaton, and he would take you on a packed trip where you would have all of your supplies carried by mule and horse. He would set up camps. You would have dinner made for you and you would have a cot and a tent, and he would take you up into the mountains where you would see not only the glaciers, but fields of wild flowers, alpine lakes, and you would travel from spot to spot.

You could either be camping out with him or staying in one of the Swiss chalets along the way. And so you would be completely rejuvenated. You’d get fresh air. They would fish for trout for you, and you would have trout in the morning, and then you would pack your stuff up, and you would walk and hike, and then you would go to the next chalet for the night.

ED: So I’m sure there’s so much to see there that there must be things to bring back as well. What would I be bringing back from Glacier National Park?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: This is really the moment where tourists begin to make their own mementos, so they write about their journeys and they create these elaborate beautiful scrapbooks that become the embodiment of this memory– of the places that they went, the people they met, and there really is this conversation about really meeting the people of America, people from all over the United States.

ED: So that’s inspiring to hear about all this. It sounds like I could even come back in some ways as a better person.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: A large component of this experience was not just about sightseeing. Mary Roberts Rinehart, who is a famous writer wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, has this incredible quote where she says, “Come to the mountains and save your sou.”

ED: Wow.

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: There really was this feeling that it is the scenery that will move your soul. It will transform you, and that this is really the core of what has defined the greatness of America. You were answering the call to become an American by making this journey.

ED: All that sounds great, but could many Americans afford to do This

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: No. It’s expensive to get there and it’s also there is no paid vacation yet. Hourly wage laborers are not being given time off to go travel to see the national parks. So it was definitely an elite upper class pastime.

ED: So it’s elite clientele that’s going to Glacier. Does this resonate with a broader audience of people who can’t actually make that journey?

MARGUERITE SHAFFER: Yes. So the level of publicity and the level of information that was being shared, I think, captured people’s attention. And there were other ways to travel. For example, at the same moment you begin to get lecturers traveling around the country with stereoscope slideshows, providing armchair travel experiences. You begin to see magazines like the Century and the Saturday Evening Post promoting stories about travel in the United States and the scenic wonders.

This is the beginning of film and there’s even some early films that are depicting the magnificent landscapes. And I think this is the success of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon is it’s not just the experience of actually going there. But it’s also the imagery and the stories and the kind of cultural cachet that that gets connected up with these places that makes people feel connected to them.

ED: Marguerite Shaffer is a historian at Miami University and the author of See America First– Tourism and National Identity, 1880 to 1940.

BRIAN: For African-Americans in the early and mid 20th century, tourism wasn’t easy. Many hotels, gas stations, and restaurants, both in the South and the North, refused to serve black patrons.

PETER: So in the early 1930s, a New York City postman named Victor Green began collecting contact information for local businesses that would serve African-Americans. He figured that by collecting and publishing this information he could help others avoid the inconvenience and the humiliation of being turned away. Green soon expanded the project to cover the entire country. In 1936, he published the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Green Book for short.

BRIAN: The Green Book was published for decades and became a staple of African-American households. But in the introduction of his book, Victor Green wrote that he hoped for, “a day some time in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. When we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.” And in fact, letters from Northern African-Americans documenting discrimination on the nation’s roadways played a role in the debate that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With that act’s passage, the Green Book ceased publication. Historian Susan Rugh has researched these letters. In an interview from a few years back, she told us about how vacationing African-Americans helped shape one of the century’s most important political debates.

SUSAN RUGH: When I first started working on this people would say, blacks vacationed? And I began to resent that as a very racist remark. Of course they vacationed. Half the households in the United States after the war owned a car. By 1960, that’s 3/4 or 80% of households, and the idea of the car for blacks was if we have a car then we don’t have to sit in the Jim Crow section on the train. It promised them more freedom, more opportunity, and so to randomly run into this discrimination must have been very sobering.

MALE SPEAKER: Dear Madam, I’m writing to find out if something can be done, maybe bringing a suit against Mobil Oil Company because of an incident that happened in Shreveport, Louisiana.

SUSAN RUGH: The media may focus its attention on buses and the more violent confrontations. These were everyday confrontations, what I call the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement who would just write in and they had all of this evidence of people being discriminated against.

MALE SPEAKER: We asked for the restrooms, and were informed they didn’t have restroom facilities for colored.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Dear sir, I am a member of the NCAAP–

SUSAN RUGH: The letters were sent to headquarters a lot of them, especially in the most egregious cases. And Thurgood Marshall, early on in the ’50s, before he was appointed to the court, would look at them. Constance Baker Motley would look at them, and they did take action in court.

FEMALE SPEAKER: –the attendant or manager left the lugs loose deliberately, and when we was a good ways out on highway 67, the wheel ran off. The rim contacted–

FEMALE SPEAKER: I cannot tell you what handicaps are endured by Negro motorists traveling through the South often for long and weary miles unable to be sure of finding adequate accommodations for taking care of the normal physiological functions of the body and for rest–

MALE SPEAKER: The first two places displayed vacancy signs, but we were unable to get accommodations because they had been reserved.

SUSAN RUGH: They used these guidebooks, the Green Guide to Negro Tourism, and travel guide, and other guides in part to tell them where they could stay, and not be turned away, and the slogan of one of those books is “vacation without humiliation.”

MALE SPEAKER: People to the left, the right, in front, and behind were served. Finally, I sensed that we were being ignored.

SUSAN RUGH: If you think of all the black people who packed their lunch in their car, who couldn’t buy lodging, that was adding up. And this is where the change in travel and transportation industry comes through, because as it becomes corporate, and as it becomes chains then the NAACP puts pressure on chains like Hilton at the top where some of these people went to conventions to get change in the South and throughout the country.

MALE SPEAKER: They were on their way to the ladies restrooms that were in plain sight and had to be called back. We then had to stop on the highway like animals. We are members of the NCAAP–

SUSAN RUGH: My sense is that the civil rights leaders recognized the power of the family image. In a time when the family was the dominant image of domesticity, this nuclear family, and I think they played to that in the hearings. And certainly Roy Wilkins plays to that, and says, imagine a family on vacation. And this is July when he’s talking. It’s hot in Washington. The senators are probably thinking, when is the congressional break? I’m going to go on vacation, and so they have families, and they can relate to this stranded family that’s sleeping in his car.

BRIAN: It must have had an incredibly powerful impact on political leaders, at least thinking about how their constituents are going to feel about this.

SUSAN RUGH: It was powerful enough for them to vote for the Civil Rights Act, so I think it was effective.

FEMALE SPEAKER: I venture to predict that it will not be too much longer before concentrated action is taken by Negro Americans to combat this evil, which has held sway for far too long along the nation’s highways. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Joel L. Gresham, doctoral student, Columbia University.

BRIAN: Susah Rugh is a historian at Brigham Young University. Her book is Are We There Yet– The Golden Age of American Family Vacations.

ED: In 1922, two black developers bought 100 acres of land nestled in the Rocky Mountains, just a short train ride from Denver. Their plan was simple– sell plots to middle class African-American families so they could build cabins. They called the area Lincoln Hills, and for four decades, it was the only known resort west of the Mississippi that catered to black tourists. Colorado’s locals relied on Lincoln Hills as a necessary retreat.

MARIE GREENWOOD: Denver was just a city that was like a little country town. It was just a nice place to live except we had a lot of discrimination.

ED: This is Marie Greenwood. She’s lived through a lot of Colorado’s history.


ED: Growing up in the 1920s, Greenwood says that she and other African-Americans faced all kinds of restrictions.

MARIE GREENWOOD: Some theaters, you couldn’t go to at all. And the big theaters, a little bell would ring, and a usher would usher right up into whatever corner we were supposed to sit in. We would not be served in a restaurant downtown, not even Woolworths. And a lot of that discrimination came from Southerners who had moved in here and the Ku Klux Klan.

ED: By 1925, Klan supporters occupied nearly every level of Colorado’s government including one senator, the governor, and both the mayor and chief of police of Denver. In this tense racial climate, Greenwood says, she found an escape at Lincoln Hills. There, she attended a summer camp for African-American girls who were not allowed to attend the same camps as white children.

MARIE GREENWOOD: I had never been to a camp before. So when I was 15, and I had found out about this camp then of course I wanted to go, and I did it.

ED: Greenwood fondly remembers her first train ride through the Rockies to Camp Nizhoni. She says the experience inspired her love of the outdoors.

MARIE GREENWOOD: I can’t forget it. We went through– golly, I don’t remember– how many tunnels, and then we went through the little town of Pinecliffe, and then just beyond that was Lincoln Hills. And then there was a trail that took us on through to Nizhoni. From that very first time, I was thrilled to death. It was all of the mountains were just fascinating to me.

ED: There, the girls camped, hiked, sang songs– the usual summer camp kind of things. And Greenwood returned every summer for the next 15 years. First, as a camper and then as a counselor.

GARY JACKSON: Well, I was born in 1945. And during the summer months, I probably went to Lincoln Hills and to our cabin every single weekend.

BRIAN: This is Gary Jackson, a county judge in Denver. Jackson had an altogether different experience with the resort. When Lincoln Hills first opened, his great-grandfather bought one of the small plots and built a cabin that his family still owns today. Jackson says he spent his summers there, well, just being a kid in the mountains.

GARY JACKSON: Hiking, fishing, shooting my BB gun, skipping rocks across the creek. It was swimming in the ponds. There was horseback riding in the area. So there were all types of recreational activities. It was the American dream of black people to be able to have a second home. This was our American dream.

BRIAN: Jackson’s family were Denver locals, but Lincoln Hills also attracted tourists from across the country largely thanks to one entrepreneur named Winks Hamlet.

GARY JACKSON: He built a five bedroom rooming house that he rented out to the public. He also built about 17 other cabins in the proximity of Winks Lodge that he would also rent out to the public.

BRIAN: Hamlet open the Winks Lodge in the mid ’20s. Jackson says he advertised this recreational facility nationwide in three key outlets.

GARY JACKSON: Basically, in black newspapers across the country. It was advertised in the Jet magazine. It was also advertised in the Green Book.

BRIAN: Luminaries like Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Langston Hughes were among the famous visitors who stayed at the lodge during its heyday. Lincoln Hills had a fairly short life span. Winks Lodge shut its doors when Winks Hamlet died in 1965. By then desegregation efforts had opened more doors for African-American tourists. But Marie Greenwood says the resort played an important role in her life, and the lives of other African-Americans.

MARIE GREENWOOD: In Denver, we had to live under whatever the limitations were. But there in Lincoln Hills, there was a freedom. To me, it was wonderful that we had these families that could come, and be free and not worry about anything, but being in a place of their own.

BRIAN: Today, Lincoln Hills is a fly fishing resort still owned by a black entrepreneur. And new generations of African-Americans continue to seek out its history.

JAMES EDWARD MILLS: Here was the one place west of the Mississippi where African-Americans could recreate safely. And I was amazed.

BRIAN: This is journalist James Edward Mills. He writes about what he calls the adventure gap, the idea that outdoor activities are typically for white Americans and not enjoyed by people of color. When he discovered the story of Lincoln Hills he set out to see the place for himself.

JAMES EDWARD MILLS: So I made a couple of phone calls, got myself an invitation to visit, got a chance to walk the grounds, and do some fishing, and I fell in love with this place.

BRIAN: I want to ask you what the story of Lincoln Hills tells us about the history of African-Americans and tourism in nature.

JAMES EDWARD MILLS: It’s interesting because– for myself– I personally haven’t felt limited by my ability to spend time in nature, but I know that a lot of African-Americans do. And so one of the things that I do in my writing is to try to find these very unique stories, and get that historic peg that a person can hang their heritage on. And if they can have that historical legacy, that link to the past that basically says, well, my ancestors are people who look like me, who share by ethnic heritage did these things, why can’t I do those things today? Especially considering how much better things are today. So if they could do it in 1920, why can’t I do this in 2016?

BRIAN: James Edward Mills is a journalist and the author of the Adventure Gap– Changing the Face of the Outdoors. You also heard from Denver natives Marie Greenwood and Gary Jackson.

ED: That’s going to do it for today. But hop online and take a tour of backstoryradio.org. You can tell us what you thought about the episode and ask questions about our upcoming shows. We have one that explores American notions of work ethic and another on religion and the American presidency. You can find it all at backstoryradio.org. Or send an email to the backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

PETER: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Melissa Gismondi is our researcher. We have help from Brandon von Kannewurff. Special thanks this week to our readers Jane Kulow, Brendan Wolfe, and Matthew Gibson.

BRIAN: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Siochain Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, history every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

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