The Early Years of Pennsylvania State Parks

In this black-and-white photo Joseph rothrock and a dog stand at an overlook.

The early years of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks was a time of development as the conservation ethic grew in the people of the United States. In 1901, the Commission of Forestry was formed and Joseph T. Rothrock was appointed the commissioner. A medical doctor and forester, Rothrock created camps in state forest reservations for people with tuberculosis and respiratory illnesses to live in the open air. Forestry became a department in 1905.


In 1902, the Commonwealth purchased a resort owned by the Mont Alto Iron Company. Mont Alto State Forest Park had picnic facilities, swimming pool, refreshment stand and hiking trails. In the photo is the Dance Pavilion.

Rothrock established the South Mountain Camp Sanitorium at Mont Alto. The open air cure camps were so successful that the program was turned over to the Department of Health in 1907.

In this black-and-white photo is a round pavilion which once house a carousel at Mont Alto State Park, Pennsylvania.

Two parks were added in 1903. Early in the year another iron company recreation area was purchased. In addition to picnic facilities, Caledonia had a dance hall. At the end of the year, Promised Land was added. Located in the Poconos, this area had a campground by a lake. The photo is of Promised Land in the early 1920s.

In this black-and-white photo is Promised Land State Park in the 1920s.

The increased use of the parks and forestry reservations led to problems with people setting up semi-permanent camps and homes, and habitat destruction. In 1904, the Forestry Commission published a list of regulations governing camping. Anyone camping on forestry lands had to have a permit, which was free after the applicant requested the rules and regulations and the permit from the Harrisburg forestry office.

In this black-and-white photo is a family camping in old tents.

Here are two excerpts from the rulebook:

Bird's nests must not be destroyed or in any other manner interfered with.

Open camp-fires or other fires must not be made, except in a hole or pit one foot deep, encircling the pit so made by the earth taken out.

Modern rules only allow campfires in proper facilities like a fire ring or charcoal grill.

In 1911, the Forestry Department received its first gift of property. James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States (1857-1861), was born and raised in Franklin County. The 18½ -acre homestead was a gift from Harriet Lane Johnston, Buchanan's niece.

If you visit Buchanan's Birthplace today, the recently planted Norway spruce in the photo are now large trees.

In this black-and-white photo is the monument at Buchanan's Birthplace State Park, when the trees were just planted.

In 1912, the widow of noted newspaperman George W. Childs donated property in Pike County. Emma Childs' only condition was that the land always remain accessible to the public. George W. Childs was a popular state park until 1983 when it became part of the National Park Service's Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

In this black-and-white photo is a waterfall at what used to be George W. Childs State Park.

The early 1900s brought a change to America. The increasing popularity of automobiles increased the number of people traveling, and travelers needed places to stay. Hotels did not yet exist, so people pulled over wherever they were. For convenience and to control the dispersed camping, state parks started putting in campgrounds. The Class A campgrounds were intended for motorists and were located along main roads and had room for motorists to pitch a tent. Class B campsites were on smaller roads and had open lean-tos for shelter.

In this black-and-white photo is an example of car camping from the 1920s.

In 1920, forest fires were still a major problem in Pennsylvania. The establishment of campgrounds greatly decreased the number of forest fires caused by dispersed campers.

After leading the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot returned to Pennsylvania to be the state forester. He quickly set about acquiring more forestry lands. Pinchot eventually went on to become governor of Pennsylvania.

In the photo, Gifford Pinchot is on the left, talking to President Franklin Roosevelt.

In this black-and-white photo Gifford Pinchot on the left talks to President Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1921, Stephen Mather, the director of the National Park Service, called a meeting of state representatives that led to the creation of the National Conference on State Parks. Mather said: "I believe we should have comfortable camps all over the country, so that the motorist could camp each night in a good scenic spot, preferably a state park." At that time only 15 states had state park systems.

In this black-and-white photo a Model T is parked at at camp site at Caledonia State PArk, Pennsylvania.

The Roaring Twenties witnessed the creation of the second Pennsylvania state park. Although there were 26 public campgrounds, seven state forest parks, and thousands of acres of forestry property, only Valley Forge was called a state park. Pennsylvania State Park at Erie was created on a recurving spit of sand on Lake Erie. Originally the State Park and Harbor Commission of Erie managed the park. Today it is called Presque Isle State Park. About four million people a year visit this jewel of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks.

In this black-and-white photo is an earial view of Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania.

In 1922, the heirs of Leonard Harrison, a Wellsboro lumberman and businessman, donated 121 acres to the Commonwealth. Overlooking the scenic Pine Creek Gorge, Leonard Harrison State Forest Park provided an overlook to the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania." Eventually property on the far side of the gorge was purchased and became Colton Point State Park.

In 1923, the Department of Forestry was renamed the Department of Forests and Waters.

In this black-and-white photo is Pine Creek Gorge, as seen from Leonard Harrison State Park, Pennsylvania.

1928 was a year of great success and failure. The Commonwealth authorized $450,000 to purchase property from the heirs of lumber baron Andrew Cook. To meet the purchase price, the Cook Forest Association, a private conservation organization, raised an additional $200,000. The purchase of the land with its large stand of old growth forest marked the first time the Department of Forests and Waters purchased land to preserve an outstanding natural resource which became Cook Forest State Park.

Surprisingly, a $26 million bond issue to provide money to acquire and preserve natural lands was voted down by the citizens of the Commonwealth.

In this black-and-white photo a man stands next to a huge tree at Cook Forest State Park, Pennsylvania.

In a process that started in 1927 and culminated in 1929, Governor Fisher reorganized the structure of state government. The Administrative Code of 1929 formed the Bureau of State Parks:

"For the purpose of promoting outdoor recreation and education, and making available for such use natural areas of unusual scenic beauty, especially such as provide impressive views, water falls, gorges, creeks, caves, or other unique and interesting features. . ."

Little did anyone know that the CCC Years would be one of the darkest and brightest times in the history of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks.

In this black-and-white photo young women stand near a waterfall at Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania.


Cupper, Dan. Our Priceless Heritage, Pennsylvania State Parks, 1893-1993 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Department of Environmental Resources, Bureau of State Parks, 1993.

Forrey, William C. History of Pennsylvania's State Parks Bureau of State Parks, 1984.