abraham lincoln birthplace

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Planning America’s Best Idea: Master Plans for National Parks

On the 101st anniversary of the National Park Service, explore this collection of vintage Master Plans of Parks and Monuments from the @usnatarchives Cartographic Branch:


On August 25, 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Organics Act, creating the National Park Service (NPS), a new federal bureau responsible for protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments. In 1933, the National Park Service greatly expanded when all parks, monuments, and historical areas overseen by the government were transferred to the National Park Service’s administration. Today, over 400 diverse units make up America’s National Parks, protecting areas of scenic, natural, historical, and cultural significance.

During the 1930s, a series of acts and executives orders expanded the reach of the National Park Service and  planning began to develop many of these national park areas. The NPS’s Branch of Plans and Design began creating master plans that showed proposed developments of areas of the parks. These master plans included both a textual descriptive statement and a set of maps and drawings showing the proposed developments.

The Cartographic Branch holds most of the National Park Service Master Plans within a series called Master Plans of Parks and Monuments, 1931 – 1941 (NAID 591991). They are part of  Record Group (RG) 79, Records of the National Park Service. Plans exist for some of the most popular national parks that had been created by the 1930s, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smokey Mountains, and Shenandoah. Plans also exist for many notable historical parks, including Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Vicksburg, and Antietam, along with other historical sites like Fort McHenry, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, and Colonial National Historical Park. Many smaller and lesser known parks also have plans within this series. Plans also exist for parks that have since changed names or become parts of other national parks.

Master Plan sets typically consist of a decorative cover, an index, and various plans relating to the existing and proposed developments within a park. The covers are often very artistic, featuring drawings and photographs that are often hand colored.

While the covers are often the visual highlight of the plans, the sets of plans also contain valuable information about the development of our national parks. The plans include both existing developments and proposed roads, trails, and facilities. Most plan sets include maps showing roads and parking areas designed to allow visitors to easily access points of interest by car. The plan sets also typically include maps showing hiking or walking trails, which are common elements in both natural and historical parks.

We invite you to take a closer look at RG 79, Records of the National Park Service. Cartographic not only holds the Master Plans, but also many other maps and architectural plans relating to the National Capital Region Parks and other records relating to the development of America’s National Parks. Other special media branches also hold records on the National Park Service. You never know what you might discover!

Read more via Planning America’s Best Idea: Master Plans for National Parks | The Unwritten Record

More posts from last year’s 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service.

100% autobiographical midwestern gothic
  • You slip on the fruit dropped by the crabapple tree next to your friend’s front walk and bang yourself up pretty badly. As you cry and wait for your parents to come running, you begin to feel as though the tree did it on purpose.
  • You run across your friend’s backyard, chasing after lightening bugs. They always seem to be the same distance away. You fall to your knees in the shin-high grass and everyone else keeps running and laughing without you.
  • The lake you swim in with your cousins seems dangerous and eerie, even on the brightest of days. Just past the pier, the sandy floor drops off into a watery void. You don’t want to know what’s down there. You just cling to your neon pool noodle and float.
  • Every state has a claim to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s birthplace, Land of Lincoln, Lincoln’s Boyhood Home. It feels like he’s still here, somewhere. Your history teacher claims to have met him.
  • Likewise, every state has its own urban legend. Yours is the Black Eyed Children. You don’t believe in them, but you keep one eye on the street and one foot on the gas pedal when you stop in a parking lot at night to check the map.
  • You take a walk by the river in the winter, because your mom wants to take pictures of eagles. You and your friend find a dead fish frozen in the ice by the rocks. Your friend prods it with a stick and a shiver runs down your back as you stare into its one visible glassy eye.
  • The town on the other side of the river is dying. It used to be a destination, people used to live there. Now the granaries are closed and the barges never stop there anymore. The town is dying. A few people struggle to keep it alive with artsy shops and fancy eateries. They all close down within a few years. The town is dying.
  • Native Americans painted a huge, winged monster on a cliff wall outside of the town across the river. At least, you think it was Native Americans. Your dad read a book about it once.
  • The highest point in your state is a mound over a landfill, so you build silos and windmills and spindly metal steeples (purpose unknown). When you drive cross-country at night, the lights on cell phone towers blink on and off like red eyes watching over the land.
  • In early summer, the land is green and lush and could be considered picturesque, in the way that the Windows default wallpaper is a picture, but at all other times the land is browngraytan and barren and sends anyone that looks upon it into a deep depression.
  • On the 4th of July, you and your family and your friends’ families gather in your driveway and light sparklers and throw poppers on the ground. Someone sets up a strobe light and you dance, your shadows flickering on the white garage door behind you. From a distance, it looks like a Bacchanalia.
  • You own a Santa Claus Christmas ornament from your great-grandparents. It’s a tiny, undecorated felt body with a plastic head that hangs from the tree by its hat, and its face haunts you. Even in July.
  • It’s a lovely funeral, but the burial is cut short because the winter wind that sweeps over the frozen, empty fields surrounding the graveyard is too brutal. You can only get out of your car for a few minutes before you’re chilled to the bone and your lips are so cold you can’t speak. He probably wouldn’t have wanted it this way.
  • You pass an abandoned amusement park on the highway. All that’s left is a broken down rollercoaster and a statue of a giant brown cow.