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History of Pennsylvania State Parks

From one park in 1893, to 124 parks in 2022, DCNR's Bureau of State Parks has blossomed into one of the largest state park systems. Inspired leaders and a concerned citizenry turned the "Pennsylvania Desert" back into a forest wonderland.

The First Park

After the American Civil War, the industrial pace of the United States quickened. Expanding railroads needed 80 million crossties a year.

Anthracite coal was discovered in many locations in Northeast Pennsylvania and mines followed. In Western and Central Pennsylvania bituminous coal was mined in many locations.

The first oil boom in the world happened in Northwest Pennsylvania.

People thought that natural resources were limitless.

The industries rapidly consumed the natural resources, but people were finally starting to notice. In 1886 the Pennsylvania Forestry Association was formed.

People were beginning to realize that their state, named for its abundant trees, was becoming the "Pennsylvania Desert."

On a national level, Yosemite became the first state park in the United States in 1865. In 1872, Congress designated Yellowstone as the first national park. The idea of saving land for the public was slowly seeping into the American psyche.

Pennsylvanians had been trying for years to preserve Valley Forge, where George Washington encamped the army during the American Revolution. Private citizens formed the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge in 1878. Within a year the organization took possession of Washington's Headquarters and eventually acquired full ownership. The state legislature appropriated 5,000 dollars to maintain the headquarters.

Failing to get federal money, on May 30, 1893, Governor Robert E. Pattison signed Act 130 "for the acquisition of ground at Valley Forge for a public park." This act also created a ten-person commission that worked to acquire more land and get facilities constructed.

A $100,000 grant from congress allowed Governor Martin G. Brumbaugh to build the Great Arch of Victory. The top of the arch reads; "Naked and starving as they are we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery. -- Washington at Valley Forge 1776."

As a Pennsylvania state park, Valley Forge was a popular destination. A highlight of the park's history is the 1950 Boy Scout National Jamboree which was visited by President Harry S Truman.

As part of the national bicentennial celebration, President Gerald R. Ford visited Valley Forge on July 4, 1976 to sign legislation authorizing the federal government to take control of the park, creating Valley Forge National Historical Park.

The Early Years

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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. . ."

The CCC Years

Following years of prosperity, the stock market crashed in 1929. To ease the rampant unemployment, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put people to work. For more information, a database of camps, and a map of camps in Pennsylvania, explore the CCC years.

The Goddard Era

Immediately following World War II, three factors led to increased use of Pennsylvania state parks.

  • People had more spare time. The United States switched from the six-day workweek to a five-day, 40-hour workweek.
  • The economic boom from the war led to the purchase of automobiles, enabling more people to travel.
  • Improved roads and the development of interstates made traveling easier.

In 1955, Maurice K. Goddard was appointed director of the Department of Parks and Forests. There were 44 Pennsylvania state parks. Dr. Goddard proposed building a state park within 25 miles of every resident of Pennsylvania. The same year Governor Leader signed the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act, which earmarked royalties from oil and gas taken from state-owned land to be spent on conservation development and land acquisition.

In 1957, Pennsylvania’s New State Parks: A Report to the General Assembly on Act 256, studied 175 potential state parks. The new parks were evaluated on water, location, topography, subsurface conditions, availability, and scenic and historical significance.

Acquisition of the some of the new state parks began immediately. Goddard reorganized the Bureau of State Parks into four regions, an organization that still exists. Visitation of state pate parks went from eight million visitors in 1955 to 24 million visitors by 1961.

Needing money to buy land for parks, the legislature introduced Project 70, to raise money for forestry, conservation, parks, improved water quality, and pollution control. This bond issue had to go through the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the voters. Goddard traveled around the state selling the project.

Project 70 was approved in 1963.

Needing money to improve the lands purchased by Project 70, the legislature created Project 500. The money was earmarked for reclaiming abandoned mines, for state parks and forests, for improving and building sewage plants, and for local and county parks. This bond issue passed in 1968.

In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes pounded Pennsylvania. The storm damaged 63 of 92 parks and 33 parks closed temporarily. Pennsylvania state parks suffered $63 million in damage.

In 1976, in a ceremony with President Gerald Ford, Pennsylvania transferred Independence Mall State Park and Valley Forge State Park to the National Park Service.

In 1979, Goddard retired after 24 years of service under five governors. He added 45 state parks and 130,000 acres of land.

The Modern Era

The 1980s began with an economic downturn. To cut costs, the Bureau of State Parks ended agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Curwinsville and Crooked Creek. This reduction created a hole in Maurice K. Goddard’s plan to have a state park within 25 miles of every resident of Pennsylvania.

The Bureau of State Parks entered a phase of internal improvement, making small upgrades to facilities, like adding modern cabins and growing the environmental education program.

Through bond-issued Growing Greener in the 1990s, the Bureau of State Parks began modernizing many of the oldest parks; replacing vault toilets with flush toilets, leveling campsites for recreational vehicles, and changing facilities to match the expectations of modern visitors.

In the late 1990s, a retired forester gave land to the PA Bureau of state Parks (Joseph E. Ibberson Conservation Area), leading to the donation of two other conservations areas growing the bureau to 117 parks and 3 conservation areas.

In the early part of the 21st century the bureau continued its program to modernize facilities and also expanded its education program to include recreational activities. In 2010 the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle opened, a 16-room inn with many sustainable technologies.

For 2009 to 2011, the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks was awarded the top honor for the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association.

The future looks bright.


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.

Many park employees provided information.