This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Wild by Design The Technological Construction of Authenticity, Wilderness, and Nature in America's National Parks, 1860-1945




Shafer, Jonathan M.

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




This dissertation explores the origins of American national park experiences. It explores how several social groups attempted to make the national parks conform to their expectations and desires using political power, financial investments, and democratic advocacy by profiling tourists, government policymakers, business owners who wanted to profit from parks, nature enthusiasts, park rangers, and parks’ former residents. It argues that these groups collectively contributed to a paradigm that defined national parks as unique, wild, natural, unpeopled, profitable, legible, and easily accessible. The dissertation features case studies on Shenandoah and Death Valley National Parks that show the paradigm’s portability. Even though neither of those places was like the national parks created before them, those sites’ supporters succeeded at adding them to the National Park System by physically and rhetorically changing them to fit the park paradigm. The dissertation focuses on these parks because they both entered the national park system in the 1930s, because their staff’s consciously shaped them to be like preexisting national parks, and because both entered the system to accomplish objectives unrelated to natural conservation. This dissertation features archival materials from both parks’ internal archives, the US National Archives and Records Administration, and the auto tourism collection at the Benson Ford Research Center. The evidence shows how a constellation of actors and contemporary circumstances aligned to shape the American National Park System.