Charles Sheldon: One Man’s Quest to Create the Alaskan Park

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Sheldon and his family

From the PBS series, “The National Parks”, comes an appreciation for pioneers like Charles Sheldon who pushed to set lands aside for public use. The six-episodes titled: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea are a wealth of history and natural beauty that inspires viewers to hit the road in the family sedan and see these places for themselves.

The historical aspect of the series helped bring understanding and appreciation for those who originally conceived of the national parks, then advocated for setting land aside for public use against great odds. One such person was Charles Sheldon, (1867–1928), a modest, attractive man who was brought up in Proctor, Vermont where he learned to love exploring outdoors in Otter Valley. Sheldon later would become known as “the father of Denali National Park”.

Self-made Wealth Enabled Sheldon to Spend His Life as a Naturalist and Explorer

According to the Karstens Library, Charles Alexander Sheldon was born on October 17, 1867 into a hard-working Vermont family involved in marble quarrying and manufacturing. Sheldon attended Andover private school and graduated from Yale in 1890, the year the family business collapsed. Through family contacts he was hired as assistant superintendent of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. From there he moved to Mexico and in 1898 became general manager of the Chihuahua and Pacific Railroad. He invested in the Chihuahua and Pacific Exploration Company, developers of Potasi, one of the richest silver and lead mines in Mexico. In just four short years this investment secured Sheldon’s financial future and he retired at age 35.

This enabled him to pursue his true love: exploration in the wilderness while adding to the body of knowledge of American wildlife. His passion was to further the scientific record of the American mountain sheep. His first book to be published was titled, “The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon”, an account of his sheep hunting experiences in the Canadian Yukon Territory in 1904 and 1905.

In 1906 Sheldon spent several summer months in Alaska exploring the lands at the base of what would become known as Mt. McKinley, but was locally called “Denali”. He returned in 1907 to spend an entire year there, and documented his experiences in a book called “Wilderness of Denali”, posthumously published by his wife in 1930. The book can still be purchased at Amazon.

Sheldon’s book reads like a logbook, with entries written nearly every day, sometimes as late as midnight after exhausting days of tramping for miles in deep snow, across ravines, or waist deep in frigid water fording streams tracking white Dall sheep. He meticulously documented the health of his specimens, down to the fleas and ticks he found on them, and sent many sheep, birds, squirrels and more to the U.S. Biological Survey for further study.

As a member of the Boone and Crockett Club Sheldon had influential friends in Washington D.C. and was able to move a bill through Congress to create the new Alaskan national park. Sheldon personally delivered that bill for signing to President Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1917.

In 1980 the park was renamed “Denali”, a name that originated with the Athabaskan Indians who inhabited the region during Sheldon’s time there.

This singular conservation act, passed just prior to America’s involvement in World War I, remains a monument to its chief architect, Charles Sheldon. Throughout his adult life he campaigned for protection of migratory birds, forests, parks, and limits on hunting. At one time or other he served on the board of directors of the Boone and Crockett Club, National Parks Association, American Forestry Association, National Recreation Committee, National Geographic Society, and served as Chairman of the Commission on the Conservation of the Jackson Hole Elk. He was a member of such disparate groups as the Explorers Club, American Ornithological Union, Washington’s Cosmos Club, and the New York Zoological Society.

After Charles Sheldon died on September 21, 1928, in Nova Scotia, the story of his McKinley adventures was edited by C. Hart Merriam and Edward Nelson and posthumously published by his wife as “Wilderness of Denali”

Alaska’s crown jewel, Denali National Park and Preserve, began as Mt. McKinley National Park. Anyone who loves nature owes much to the vision of this pioneer conservationist, Charles Sheldon.

References:

  1. The National Parks series on PBS
  2. United States Fish and Wildlife Service
  3. charlessheldon.org
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