We have all been asked the question before. “If you could have dinner with a famous person (dead or alive), who would it be?” Over the holidays, we were sitting around with friends, and someone pulled out a “TableTopics” conversation starter game. The dinner question was the first one.
The Oregon State Highway Commission at Vista House. Sam Boardman is third from the right. 1943.
My mind raced just like yours might be now. Robin Williams, my favorite actor. Teddy Roosevelt, my favorite conservationist President. John Muir, my favorite West Coast naturalist. Sigurd Olson, my favorite Northwoods naturalist. My grandmother, who passed when I was in elementary school. I thought for a moment. Samuel Boardman. I would like to have lunch with our very own Sam Boardman.
Samuel H. Boardman was the first Parks Superintendent for Oregon State Parks. He was around for the birth of our Oregon State Park system, and our system grew mightily under his watch. (Between 1929 and 1950, Oregon State Parks blossomed from 46 to 181 park properties with acreage swelling from 4,000 to 66,000 acres.) As charismatic as Robin Williams, as passionate about conservation as Roosevelt, with the heart of a naturalist, and the wisdom of a grandparent, what I wouldn’t give to be in presence of “the father of the Oregon State Parks system.”
I fell in love with Samuel Boardman while working at Silver Falls State Park. Early on, I found in the park archives a lengthy letter dated November 1951 from Sam to his successor, Chester H. Armstrong about the history and future of Silver Falls. I read, reread, highlighted, and read to others my favorite passages in this letter.
Samuel H. Boardman. Oregon State Parks Superintendent from 1929 to 1950.
Most memorable for me was the two entire pages Sam took justify the need for a “carving unit” at Silver Falls—a wonderfully colorful, poetic, and passionate piece with the gist of the argument being that humans have an innate need to carve—and rather than have them desecrate restrooms, picnic tables, and trees, we should designate a place for them to do so. Further, Boardman believed that such a project for open, rather than covert, carving could actually be shocking enough to change a person’s ways:
To make people think, you must jolt them. Can’t you see the carriage of this lesson of preservation lingering with the visitor throughout the day, after he has stood before this shrine of destruction? Can’t you see this same conservationist, after imbibing his entry lesson, stepping up to some carving vandal and requesting him to desist?
Somewhere, somehow, the lesson of preservation must be put over to the American people. Somewhere a start has to be made. If through a log, a privy, then so be it. If you know of a better way of preachment, the house tops are yours for the asking. This merits your deepest consideration for an American principle of “To have and to hold” is at stake.
It seems like too small of a detail to even mention, but Boardman was passionate about all aspects of parks and the preservation of them. He touches all in his letter, leaving Armstrong with these final thoughts: “A recreational kingdom is placed in your hand. Build unto it. Guard that which has been [built].”
Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s when there was a bridge across the middle of the falls. OSU Digital Archives.
In other letters and essays, Boardman writes about the Columbia River Gorge. A place, no doubt, near and dear to him as he was the founder of the town of Boardman at the east end of the Gorge. It was at Latourell Falls that Boardman learned what would to him prove to be one of his most valuable lessons. Guy Talbot State Park has two waterfalls. Latourell Falls—easily seen from the highway—and Upper Latourell Falls—only visible by trail. The upper falls is a double fall (having a whirlpool in the center), and Samuel Boardman thought it a good idea to build a trail in the middle “where the hiker could stand between the two falls.” And so, Boardman blasted in a trail. And the result was, in his mind, awful:
The very foundation upon which depending the beauty of the entire picture has a great gash across it. The aesthetic sense of the individual curdled before reaching the beauty spot. … [The experience] taught me that man’s hand in the alteration of the Design of the Great Architect is egotistic, tragic, ignorant. … From then on, I became the protector of the blade of grass, the flower on the sward, the fern, the shrub, the tree, the forest. … I found man could not alter without disfigurement. Take away, disfigure, and you deaden the beat of a soul. (Oregon State Park System: A Brief History. Samuel Boardman.)
Upper Latourell Falls today, largely unmarred with vegetation hiding scarring from Boardman’s attempted trail.
For those familiar with the Columbia River Gorge, the above might sound a bit familiar. Samuel Lancaster, who designed the Historic Columbia River Highway, is quoted saying something similar about planning and building the road:
When I made my preliminary survey here and found myself standing waist-deep in the ferns, I remember my mother’s long-ago warning, ‘Oh, Samuel, do be careful of my Boston fern! … And I then pledged myself that none of this wild beauty should be marred where it could be prevented. The highway was built so that not one tree was felled, not one fern was crushed, unnecessarily. (The Columbia: America’s Great Highway. Samuel Lancaster.)
Samuel Lancaster designed the Historic Columbia River Highway about a decade before Samuel Boardman became Oregon State Parks first Superintendent.
You can read a large collection of Sam Boardman’s essays by reading his book, Oregon State Park System: A Brief History, available online through the Oregon State University Library. Although, I must mention that I noticed by comparing Sam’s November 1951 letter to Armstrong about Silver Falls to the same section in the book, that book is a meticulously edited version of his original writing—the overall content is the same and reads seamlessly, but some of Sam’s quick wit and humorous storytelling is, at times, watered down or missing altogether. I can only imagine how every other essay must have read before the editors made their marks! How I would love to sit down with Sam and ask the man, himself!
I will link to the book here and leave you with an excerpt of the book’s last paragraph, written about (you guessed it) the Columbia River Gorge.
The Gorge has so many stops and goes, unscored notes, so many varied choruses that it could be blended into a symphony. … The woodwinds in the swaying tree tops. The flutes in the mist of the waterfalls. The bases in the steady roar of wayward gales. The Rhine lives in the historical music composed through the centuries. There must be a composer who could blend the mists, lights, caprices, the songs of the waterfalls, the ripples of the brooks, the sonnets from the tree tops, the boldness of the cliffs into a symphony of the Columbia Gorge that will live in the souls of the generations to come. It is a challenge to Destiny to give birth to a maestro. Who will write a score that will make the Gorge musically unforgettable through the centuries?