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Parking Spaces: The First State Parks

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Sports & Recreation

The evergreen state was in the parks business early. Maybe that’s no surprise since the western United States is practically where parks began.  Yellowstone, the remarkable geothermal wonderland in Wyoming, became the world’s first national park in 1872.  Two other national parks in California followed before Washington’s Mount Rainier joined the ranks in 1899.

After a century of exploration and settlement, the great American frontier was closing.  Over the next generation, regional movements slowly took hold to set aside and preserve tracts of state lands in addition to the new national parks.  Only twenty four years after becoming a state, Washington was one of the first states to officially, if  hesitantly, endorse the idea.*

The state legislature created the Washington State Board of Park Commissioners in 1913.  There wasn’t much to it at first.  Lawmakers offered no guidelines and no money.  The first two parcels of land nevertheless came into the system within two years.  On November 22, 1915, the board accepted the land donations known as Chuckanut, a wooded tract along the saltwater shore south of Bellingham, and the John R. Jackson House (pictured above), an early home and courthouse in the Chehalis area.  Those simultaneous gifts were among Washington’s first state parks.

The board received two smaller properties over the next two years before receiving the mammoth 2,731 acre Moran property on Orcas Island in 1920.  The donation, which expanded over time, included Mount Constitution (whose spectacular summit view is pictured here, left), and a vast partially old-growth forest.  Seattle shipbuilder and former mayor Robert Moran first voiced an interest in converting his land to a park in 1910, but patiently waited until he was confident the state could preserve it.

Although its parcels were few and its lands could hardly match the size and grandeur of  the national parks, with Moran’s donation Washington was ahead of most other states. When the first National Conference of State Parks convened in 1921, the nine year old park system in the seventh youngest state in the country already had several official state parks.  Twenty nine states had none.

That year, the legislature expanded the program. It renamed and empowered the board.  The State Parks Commission could now adopt and enforce regulations, plant trees along highways, improve parks and parkways, permit camping, and acquire more land and shorelines.  The legislature still offered no funding, but allowed the commission to grant concessions for services, and collect concession rentals and camping fees.

In 2013, Washington State Parks‘ centennial year, we wanted to list the earliest state parks.  Tracking them down was not easy, and upon contacting the park offices in Olympia last fall we (and they) discovered that no one had done so before.  The staff were kind enough to check the early records, though, and passed along much of the information below.  They stressed that this “represents the best of our knowledge at this time” but could be “subject to future updates as detailed historic information becomes known or available.”   With that caveat expressed, here is a list of our first 25 state park lands — 14 of which are still park property and most of those are formal state parks.


Year Park or Property Notes
1915 Chuckanut/Larrabee Now Larrabee State Park (2,683 acres).
1915 Jackson House Jackson House Historic Site
1916 Rigney 1.11 acres; no longer in the park system
1917 Matilda Jackson 5 acres; state park property
1920 Moran Now Moran State Park (5,252 acres).
1921 Crawford Now Crawford State Park (49 acres).
1922 Amboy 3 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1948.
1922 Salmon Creek 3 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1958.
1922 Sammamish 4 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1927.
1922 Vashon 5 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1958.
1922 Clearwater 10 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, 1964.
1922 Zillah 40 acres; transferred to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 1961.
1922 Lewis and Clark Now Lewis and Clark State Park (621 acres).
1922 Polson 310 acres; no longer in the park system
1923 Mahler 30 acres; no longer in the park system
1923 Twanoh Now Twanoh State Park (182 acres).
1923 Donovan 2.6 acres; no longer in the park system
1923 Everett Property 10 acres; undeveloped land
1924 Millersylvania Now Millersylvania State Park (842 acres).
1924 Sequim Bay Now Sequim Bay State Park (92 acres).
1924 Schafer Now Schafer State Park (119 acres).
1924 Bay View Now Bay View State Park (25 acres).
1925 Deception Pass Now Deception Pass State Park (4,134 acres).
1925 Rock Island 82 acres; transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1976.
1926 Spokane Plains Battlefield 1 acre; a heritage marker sits on the site.

*NOTE:  We’ve read that several states could claim (and perhaps dispute) early state parks depending on how you define the concept: Massachusetts (1641), Georgia (1825), California (1864), Wisconsin (1878), New York (1885), and Michigan (1895).  The earliest in the Northwest is not so vague: Idaho purchased land at Lake Chatcolet for the first state park in the Northwest on July 14, 1911. Washington had its first parks in 1915; Oregon in 1920.

PHOTOS: Jackson House © Steve Campion. View from atop Mount Constitution (in Moran State Park) courtesy Maria Graver.  Millersylvania State Park entrance by Steve Campion.

SOURCES:  This list had its beginning some years ago when I read that Washington had seven state parks in 1921, before most other states had even one.  I wanted to know which seven those were.  Over time, I checked individual park and local histories but dates were usually elusive.  The best overall history on the subject — Thomas R. Cox’s The Park Builders: A History of State Parks in the Pacific Northwest (1988), gave some information, but dealt primarily with park administration since the beginning.  The best information yet came from Angela Fry at Washington State Parks, who created a working draft last November. We’re grateful for her research.  There may still be an early property missing from the list, however, since it can account for only six parks by the end of 1921.  Maybe more documents will be found.  Maybe there were only six.


One Response to “Parking Spaces: The First State Parks”

  1. Joan Says:

    Our State parks in Washington are both small and large treasures. We can only hope they get enough support both financially from the public and other powers to be kept and maintained.