Pruning the Parks: Platt National Park (1906-1976)

U.S. Senator Orville Hitchcock Platt. Library of Congress photo.

Thirty-four years ago today, on March 17, 1976, Congress abolished Platt National Park and folded the property into Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

Let’s make it clear at the outset that Chickasaw National Recreation Area in south-central Oklahoma has much to commend it. On its 9,889-acre premises are partly forested hills and an abundance of mineral springs, pleasant streams and lakes, and associated visitor facilities (including many fine CCC-built ones) supporting such popular diversions as picnicking, swimming, boating, fishing, camping, and hiking. As a National Park System unit, Chickasaw joined the million-a-year visitation club way back in 1949 and is still going strong (1.2 million recreational visits in 2009).

Chickasaw’s basic characteristics, such as location, size, shape, geology and hydrology, ecosystems, cultural/historical sites, and recreation facilities, don’t set this NPS unit sharply apart from the rest. History is another story, for it is anything but usual in that respect. It is the only National Recreation Area in the National Park System that was once designated National Park. Therein lies an interesting (and cautionary) tale.

The dawn of the 20th century found Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians in Murray County, Oklahoma, fearing that private developers would create a spa resort like the one at Hot Springs, Arkansas, and bar their access to around 30 strong-smelling mineral springs with reputed healing powers. To prevent this from happening, they sold 640 acres of their land near the town of Sulphur to the federal government, which earmarked it for public use. On July 1, 1902, Congress designated this one square-mile tract (soon expanded to 858 acres) Sulphur Springs Reservation. Few national parks could have had more humble beginnings. None was launched for more blatantly political reasons than helping Indians retain access to healing waters.

In one of the more conspicuous examples of “park barrel politics” to emerge in the early 20th century, Congress redesignated Sulphur Springs Reservation as Platt National Park on June 29, 1906. This nondescript tract with its cluster of mineral springs was now, at least conceptually, in the same league as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake National Parks.

The new designation honored Orville Hitchcock Platt, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Though seemingly bizarre, this label made sense when viewed through the filter of national politics. Platt, who served with distinction in the U.S. Senate for just over a quarter-century (1879-1905), was not only very actively involved in Indian Affairs and the Dawes Commission, but also sponsored the legislation that established the Sulphur Springs Reservation in 1902. By the time Platt died on April 21, 1905, the idea of formally recognizing his contributions to the country, and in behalf of Indians and the new park, was well established. Congress redesignated Sulphur Springs Reservation as Platt National Park just 14 months after the Senator’s death.

The little park had some problems that no naming decision could cure. It was not only off the beaten path and very small (one of the smallest National Park-designated units ever established), but also lacking in physical and cultural attributes that could pass the national significance test. It was, in brief, a moderately scenic tract of land and water whose root appeal – the allegedly health-giving springs notwithstanding-- could be matched or eclipsed by any number of moderately scenic places in the eastern half of the United States.

During the first quarter-century of its existence, Platt National Park attracted little public notice and few visitors from outside the region. It also suffered for want of funds and physical improvements. Supplementing the park’s small staff and meager budget, concerned citizens raised money, donated manpower, and helped to add some infrastructure (bridges, fences, cisterns) and a few amenities (including some swimming pools). To entertain visitors, deer, bison, and elk were kept on the premises (some bison still remain).

Between 1933 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps invested a lot of time, labor, and capital in an effort to make Platt National Park more deserving of its lofty title. Bulldozers resculpted the landscape, leaving various flat or gently rolling surfaces engineered to a hillier condition. Several hundred CCC workers planted trees and constructed waterfalls, ponds, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, pavilions, parking lots, comfort stations, storm sewers, and dams. Projects completed by the Civil Works Administration and the Public Works Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) also substantially improved the road system. All of this made the place more parklike, though still not patently worthy of national park status.

This is not to say that Platt National Park wasn’t popular. The investment in recreational facilities was well received by the public, and as the regional population and highway network grew, more and more people discovered the park. The end of World War II in 1945 triggered a gush of visitation, and annual attendance was topping one million by 1949.

Testifying to the power of political inertia, the property remained on the rolls as a National Park-designated unit for seven decades. It wasn’t until March 17, 1976, that Congress formally abolished it, declaring that:

The Act of June 29, 1906 (34 Stat. 837), which directed that certain lands now included by this subchapter in the recreation area be designated as the Platt National Park, is hereby repealed, and such lands shall hereafter be considered and known as an integral part of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area
.

In creating the new Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Congress not only incorporated the former Platt National Park into its boundaries, but also added the Arbuckle Recreation Area (with the 2,350-acre Lake of the Arbuckles) and additional lands. After a small land trade with the town of Sulphur in 1983, more boundary changes were made in 1991 and 2004, bringing the Recreation Area’s total holdings to its present 9,889 acres.

Congress didn’t intend for this action to reflect badly on the park’s namesake benefactor, so the legislation abolishing Platt National Park contained a provision for erecting “…. suitable markers or plaques to honor the memory of Orville Hitchcock Platt (1827-1905) and to commemorate the original establishment of Platt National Park.”

A commemorative plaque duly installed on the premises reads:

In 1906, Platt National Park was named in honor of Orville H. Platt in recognition of his distinguished ervices to the Indians and to the country. For Twenty-six years a senator from the state of Connecticut, Platt served for many years as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs. In 1976 Platt National Park and Arbuckle Recreation Area were combined and named Chickasaw National recreation Area.

Postscript: Senator Platt’s work in behalf of Indians and Sulphur Springs Reservation wasn’t the foundation for the fine national reputation he enjoyed. By the time of his death in 1905, Platt had sponsored patent and copyright legislation, chaired a committee that recommended admission of six new western states, and played an important role in the annexation of Hawaii The senator was best known, however, for the Platt Amendment. Actually a rider attached to the Army Appropriations Bill of 1901, the Platt Amendment established terms for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Cuba following the Spanish–American War of 1898, authorized the lease of lands for a U.S. naval base in Cuba, and stipulated the conditions under which the United States could continually intervene in Cuban affairs. Since the Platt Amendment had the effect of making Cuba a U.S. protectorate, many minor interventions and four major ones ensued (in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920). In 1934, Cuba abrogated the terms of the agreement, which had been formalized in the country’s constitution and by treaty with the U.S. The United States retained its naval base lease, however, and that is why the U.S. Navy is still legally ensconced at Guantanamo Bay.

Comments

Thanks for the primer on the Platt Amendment. I never could follow Mr. Hand's explanation.

Anon, let me compliment you on your choice of movies. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a dandy, and the scene that you cite ( Ray Walston as history teacher Mr. Hand ) is truly memorable -- almost as good as Ben Stein's droll economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Thanks for the nostalgia trip!

Haven't seen Ferris--will check it out. Also Chickasaw someday, I hope.

As I sit in my warm computer room next to my cat named Platt on a cold, blustery spring morning in southern Oklahoma, it seems appropriate to take a few minutes to comment on this article. While my job as park superintendent at Chickasaw NRA (formerly Platt NP) undoubtedly gives me a certain bias, I must take strong exception to the interpretation offered by Mr. Janiskee. While his bio indicates him to be a thoughtful and well-intended man, I must say that his musings on Platt NP strike me to be, at best, ill-informed.

He calls the creation of Platt NP a "cautionary tale", but I wonder what cautionary conclusions we are supposed to take away from his story. Is it the fact that Congress can create national parks? This is certainly not a revelation, nor would I call it a problem. Indeed, the fact that Congress has the power to set aside national park areas for the benefit and enjoyment of the American public is part of the beauty of our political system in this country.

Perhaps his "cautionary tale" relates to his assertion that no other national park "was launched for more blatantly political reasons than helping Indians retain access to healing waters"? I'm sorry, but the most charitable description I can apply to that statement is harsh. Let's put the creation of Platt NP into a somewhat broader context. President Andrew Jackson had the audacity to remove the Chickasaw tribe from their homeland in Mississippi and move them to Indian Territory where they are provided with land that they are promised will belong to them forever. Settlement rapidly encroaches on their new lands and they are then subject to allotment which effectively removes their land base in Indian Territory. In the midst of all that, the Chickasaw (and the Choctaw) actually have the foresight to work with the federal government to protect the springs and streams in what became Platt NP. We really should be extolling their vision during very challenging times, rather than deriding them for playing "politics".

Mr. Janiskee’s negative account of Platt NP owes much of its structure to Horace Albright, the second director of the National Park Service. Later in life, Albright dismissed Platt NP as “a travesty.” Albright’s disregard for the park has been repeated by later historians, such as Alfred Runte and Hal Rothman. In fact, the story of the role Platt NP played in developing later standards for park units remains largely unexplored. The negative view of the park was not held by all pioneers of the National Park Service – in 1936, George Melendez Wright stated, “I no longer worry as I used to for fear the National Park System will be loaded with inferior areas. ….The inclusion of Platt is not a burden upon our consciences; the failure to save one good example of our prairie grassland should be a very real cause for mental anguish.”

The cautionary tale I see is yet another indication of the importance of scientific understanding of the resource during the process of park creation. In 1906, it undoubtedly seemed reasonable to assume that you could protect springs by drawing a federal boundary around the confined area where the water comes to the surface. While we can not retroactively fault that decision because of scientific knowledge that was unavailable at that time, we now know that the recharge area for the springs in the original Platt NP is a rather large area extending for miles around the park. To adequately protect those springs, the original park would have needed to be much larger and thereby might have avoided the criticism heaped upon it as a tiny little park not worthy of national park status. Lacking the size and scope to really protect the resource, the 33 springs identified in the park in 1906 have shrunk to only 5 active springs today.

For more subtle and nuanced information about the legacy of Platt National Park, I would recommend the following:

-http://www.nps.gov/chic/historyculture/remembering_platt-np.htm

-Jacilee Wray and Alexa Roberts, "In Praise of Platt--or, What is a "Real" National Park?" (found at www.georgewright.org/151wray.pdf)

-Douglas McChristian, "The Great Health Giving Mecca and Summer Resort: Platt National Park, The Early Years", Santa Fe Support Office: National Park Service, 2003.

-Douglas Brinkley, "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America", Harper/Harper Collins Publishers (see especially his chapter on Oklahoma), 2009.

While I obviously differ with Mr. Janiskee's interpretations, I appreciate his interest in drawing attention to the fate of Platt NP. While I don’t know if Mr. Janiskee has visited the park, history has shown that the most vocal critics of Platt NP had often never visited the park; if that is the case, I invite the author and readers of the National Parks Traveler to visit the Platt Historic District in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and learn more about what attracts over one million visitors to this special place each year.

Thanks, Bruce Noble

We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, Bruce.

Thanks for your comment, Bruce. You beat me to it. Mr. Janiskee's account shows a complete bias against the "flyover states" and our particular brand of scenery and quite frankly, I'm offended by it, especially the part you pointed out regarding the Chickasaws' deeding of the land. Platt/Chickasaw is the only park protecting an example of the transition zone between eastern hardwood forests and the central plains. But apparently Mr. Janiskee has no regard for parks without the glorious scenery of Yosemite and Yellowstone.

I've been visiting and enjoying the Chickasaw National Recreation Area two to three times annually for the past thirteen years. My favorite area of the park is the springs and CCC development within the former Platt National Park borders. While the park does not have the spectacular scenery of the Grand Canyon or Grand Teton it still has a particular beauty and charm similar to Theodore Roosevelt, Petrified Forest, Shenandoah, and Death Valley National Parks.

I would like to see Turner Falls and its surrounding area associated with the Arbuckle Anticline acquired and added to the park. Turner Falls is one of the more beautiful water falls I've ever seen in the U.S.A., but the state park in which it lies is pathetic. The hills surrounding the falls associated with the Arbuckle Anticline have geologic significance as well as a beauty with great potential for amazing hiking and backpacking trails. If this region were added to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area I feel the park deserves consideration for an upgrade to National Park status. The park would no doubt be flooded by people from across the region and the world. The water-related recreational opportunities from Lake of the Arbuckles, the historical significance and scenic beauty of the springs in the old Platt National Park area, the geological significance and greater topographic relief from the Arbuckle Anticline, the spectacular Turner Falls, and a larger size for more hiking trails including backpacking opportunities would probably triple the current number of park visitors. Cities and towns like Davis, Sulpher, Ardmore, Wynnewood, and Pauls Valley would benefit greatly from Tourism.

Just a thought,

Simon Brewer

Personally, I would like to see Platt National Park restored as a separate entity, a "full-fledged" national park. After all, there are quite a few national park unit "pairs" already, such as Yellowstone/John D. Rockefeller/Grand Teton; Sequioa/Kings Canyon; Lake Meredith/Alibates Flint Quarries and, the granddaddy of them all--Lake Mead/Grand Canyon/Glen Canyon/Rainbow Bridge/Capitol Reef. The former Platt National Park has its own, but distinct, qualities that set it apart from the lake-based national recreation area of which it is part. Also, what is the difference between Platt National Park, which protected mineral springs, and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas? If one of them is unneccesary, so is the other and yet Hot Springs exists, even though it is only 5,000 acres, give or take.