Labor History in American National Parks

Labor History in American National Parks

Labor History in American National Parks

The remains of sawmills, company towns, and log camps can still be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Keweenaw National Historical Park staff from the National Park Service (NPS) and cooperating groups interpret copper mining sites with a history spanning millennia at Keweenaw National Historical Park.

At Hampton National Historic Site, there has been a lot of research and public programming about the lives of African Americans who were held as slaves and forced to work on the estate and in nearby iron furnaces.

The past ten years have seen an increase in the importance of work histories and working individuals at NPS locations across the nation. More than ever before, the agency is looking into the significance of work in American life.Union organizing, for instance, is a key concern at places like Pullman National Monument and César E. Chávez National Monument.

Labor History in American National Parks
Pullman National Monument

Early in the 1890s, a strike (and later a boycott) called by Pullman Company workers brought about a collapse of the American economy and brought the enormous wealth disparity of the Gilded Age to light. About 70 years later, Central Valley farm laborers in California risked everything to pressure the area’s grape producers for safer working conditions and higher wages. Labor and civil rights activists are still inspired by the things they do around the country.

Additionally, labor is receiving more attention at Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields and other locations. The park staff and partners connect military and political history to the actual experiences of free and enslaved African Americans in order to provide interpretation that addresses slavery from both a national and local perspective.

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The Reconstruction era is also being addressed, with parks beginning to showcase the revolutionary implications of black emancipation for American democracy, including the recently established Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.

Labor History in American National Parks
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming | SOFIA JARAMILLO

Another major issue is the impact of industrialization on both people and the environment. The intersections of technical evolution and labor in New England are studied at Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site and Lowell National Historical Park. Both parks provide young people with cutting-edge curricula and continual chances for community involvement.

For instance, Lowell’s “Workers on the Line” program asks students to examine what they would do if faced with job layoffs and hazardous working conditions. The differential impacts of early industrial production on Native and non-Native peoples are highlighted by educational programs in Saugus.

The NPS staff is leading the charge in the study of labor history. Employees of the agency are working closely with academics at Hampton National Historic Site and Monocacy National Battlefield to talk to the descendants of slave families, free African Americans, and slave-owning families. They want to learn more about how slavery and freedom have affected people over time.

Labor History in American National Parks
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska| DANIEL A. LEIFHEIT/GETTY IMAGES

Ongoing research at Dayton Aircraft Heritage National Historical Park and Keweenaw National Historical Park provides insight into the lives of workers in the early aviation and copper industries, respectively. This is a distinctive feature of the place-based scholarship that is essential to the NPS, as these efforts are supported by both textual and empirical data. The histories also show that workers’ interests and lives went far beyond the shop floor by connecting the jobsite (a mine or a factory) to the larger community.

Every national park may trace its labor history. This includes the work done over time to establish and maintain parks. For instance, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo Soldiers were crucial to park administration.

Later, during the Great Depression, numerous parks served as home bases for Civilian Conservation Corps participants, who jointly altered the country’s protected regions. The Job Corps program deployed young people to parks to work on conservation during the War on Poverty in the 1960s. These tales deserve more attention, as do the labor histories of NPS employees.

Labor History in American National Parks
Olympic National Park, Washington | NATHANIEL GONZALES/GETTY IMAGES

Have you been to a park where labor history is interpreted that isn’t included here? What suggestions do you have for how NPS can broaden the scope of its definition of work? What tales from labor history are significant to you? Leave a comment below with your ideas for how national parks could show the experiences and lives of people who work now and in the future.

The Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Labor and Productivity at the National Park Service was Eleanor Mahoney. In 2018, she graduated with a PhD in American history from the University of Washington. Her study looks at the relationship between post-World War II economic upheaval and the National Park Service.

This blog post is part of her National Park Service fellowship, which is paid for by the National Park Foundation and made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

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