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Posted 9/15/2016

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By Eileen L. Williamson

This year, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park established in 1872 by President Ulysses Grant, has close ties to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The connection between the National Park Service and USACE is one that has continued through the years.

In 1883, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed the role of road and bridge construction at Yellowstone National Park. Lt. Dan Kingman, who was Engineer Officer of the Department of the Platte at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, became the first USACE engineering officer to come to Yellowstone. Kingman established a philosophy for those constructing the Yellowstone National Park road system to ensure they would leave the park “as the hand of nature left it – a source of pleasure to all who visit it.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mark on Yellowstone

Many natural and manmade attractions at Yellowstone are named for Army Engineers:

  • Raynolds Pass – Capt. William F. Raynolds
  • Barlow Peak – Capt. John W. Barlow
  • Jones Creek and Pass – Capt. William A Jones
  • Kingman Pass – Capt. Dan C. Kingman
  • Chittenden Road and Bridge –Capt. Hiram M. Chittenden

From 1891 to 1892 and from 1899 to 1906, Capt. Hiram Chittenden, a Soldier and engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers served at Yellowstone. Chittenden was in charge of notable projects including building a bridge across the Yellowstone River and installing a 100-kilowatt hydropower plant for Fort Yellowstone’s facilities. The single-lane road system that was completed by the end of Chittenden’s tenure led to the park officially opening to automobiles in 1915.

But as accessing the park became easier, with it came poachers killing animals and souvenir hunters destroying the natural features. In 1886, Yellowstone National Park sought help from the U.S. Army to preserve and protect the land. In 1890, the Army established a permanent post at Yellowstone National Park.

“In the improvement work which followed the explorations, the [U.S. Army Corps of] Engineers never lost this respect for the power and beauty of nature. The roads they built were smooth and safe and some of their bridges were feats of engineering, yet all were designed to preserve the land as [Kingman said] "nearly… as nature left it." Many of their works were classic models of organic architecture carried out with both the tourist and the landscape in mind. By improving Yellowstone without impairing it, the Corps proved itself an ideal guardian of the natural wonderland willed to the nation.” - Kenneth Baldwin, National Park Service Historian 

Although the Army left Yellowstone National Park under the full control of the National Park Service by 1918, the two have continued working together on various initiatives including several within the Omaha District.

The National Park Service’s Missouri National Recreation River has two Districts, the 39-Mile District from Fort Randall Dam to Running Water, South Dakota and the 59-Mile District from Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park in Nebraska.

In the 39-Mile District, just downstream from Fort Randall Dam are the ruins of Fort Randall, a military post which served as a supply route and had a mission to maintain peace between settlers and nearby Tribes. The post chapel, which also housed a library and lodge was constructed by volunteers in 1875 and was the last standing building at the fort when it was turned over to the Quartermaster Department in 1892.

Over time, the chapel deteriorated and began to collapse. In 2001, Fort Randall Lake Manager, Cody Wilson was part of an effort to help preserve the chapel. “Rapid decay after years of neglect and failed stabilization attempts prompted us to establish a working relationship with the National Park Service office in Omaha to help analyze and prepare a stabilization plan for the Fort Chapel ruins,” said Wilson.

The National Park Service Historic Preservation center helped design a roof structure that the District constructed over the chapel. The project won a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Design Team of the Year award in 2006. Subsequent project work included dismantling dangerously unstable sections of the chapel, replacing degraded masonry sections, and tuck pointing joints to prevent water from causing further damage.

At the north end of the 59-Mile District, Gavins Point Dam Park Ranger, Karla Zeutenhorst said agreements between the National Park Service and USACE aim to provide a consistent interpretive services and programming that benefits both agencies. “We work collaboratively concerning joint preservation, protection and educational interests,” said Zeutenhorst.

From the late 1990’s through 2006 the agencies worked together to promote the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration. During that period, the two agencies hosted a community festival each August at the Gavins Point Dam Training Dike Recreation Area. The festival committee led by USACE and the NPS also included participants from throughout the local community.

Until 2009 when the NPS moved from O’Neill, Nebraska to Yankton, South Dakota, the two agencies shared responsibilities for operating the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Gavins Point Dam.

At the south end of the 59-mile district, a resource and education center at Ponca State Park was completed in 2003 through a collaborative effort from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the National Park Service and USACE with more than 30 partners including federal, state, local and private organizations.

Omaha District Architect Brian Nohr served as project design team leader and architectural designer. He said the design aimed to retain the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps “rustic” construction image to relate to the park’s existing CCC-era structures. The education center’s interpretive exhibits and interactive displays were designed by the National Park Service and provide a direct connection with the Missouri National Recreation River. Among the many awards the project received is the 2004 Honor Award for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chief of Engineers Design and Environmental Awards Program.

Each year, Ponca State Park hosts its Annual Missouri River Outdoor Expo with an average attendance of more than 50,000 visitors to the two-day expo where exhibitors including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission provide activities to encourage participants to learn about the natural and cultural history of Missouri River.

During the summer months, the National Park Service provides interpretive programs at the Lewis and Clark Visitor center and provides staffing and funding for the popular Bald Eagle Days activities.

In May, Riverside Park in Yankton, South Dakota was host to the Annual Missouri River Watershed Festival where over 200 students, grades 7 to 11, participated in hands-on learning opportunities and presentations about the river’s ecosystem, endangered species, invasive species, water cycles, boating and water safety and the importance of river stewardship. The following day, dozens of volunteers gathered to clean up trash at the Yankton Area Missouri River Cleanup. And in June, the Lake Yankton Outdoor Festival hosted several agencies participating in activities to promote outdoor education and safety.

Zeutenhorst said, “The National Park Service and USACE continue working together to provide educational outreach programs that are mutually beneficial to each organization’s mission and goals and offer environmental education that fosters stewardship of natural and cultural resources.”

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