5 Legends from America’s National Parks

John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The national parks’ splendor extends beyond nature. In celebration of National Park Week, here are a few of the many stories that add to the great mystique of these American institutions.

1. The Yellowstone Campfire

The origin story of the world’s first national park is a legend unto itself. Nathaniel Pitt Langford served as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and in The Discovery of Yellowstone Park: Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870 (a man of brevity he was not), Langford details an account of the campfire that started it all

He writes that in 1870, a group of men gathered at the place where the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers meet. A member of the party, Cornelius Hedges, suggested the idea of a national park. The men talked it out, and the idea for Yellowstone was born. For such a momentous occasion, it’s curious that only Langford seems to have written about it in his diary. In the 1960s, the authenticity of the story came into question and has since been largely debunked. It sure makes for a nice campfire story, though.

2. The Lightning Man

Roy Sullivan was a ranger at Shenandoah National Park from 1940 to 1976. During that time, Sullivan was hit by lightning a record-setting seven times. (If you were wondering, the odds of that kind of bad luck hitting one man seven times are 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.) While the “Spark Ranger” reportedly had a burnt hat and wristwatch as artifacts of his experience, his stories became progressively more dramatic, and with few witnesses to confirm the stories, questions arose over their validity. Every instance was recorded with details, though, and Sullivan received medical treatment each time, which was enough to earn him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

3. A girl and her horse

In Morristown National Historical Park, the Wick House commemorates the site where young Temperance Wick famously hid her horse in 1780. New Jersey was suffering a particularly harsh winter in the middle of the American Revolutionary War. The Wick farm shared space with George Washington’s encampment, where the troops were ill-outfitted, poorly fed, and hadn’t been paid in a year. Fed-up soldiers were planning to march on Philadelphia to demand their pay, and they were stealing area horses for the ride.

Wick’s father had just died and her mother was ill. When soldiers attempted to steal her steed, Wick rode home and led the animal into the house, past the kitchen and parlor and into the guest room where she shuttered the windows, put down a featherbed to muffle the hooves and fastened the horse to the wall. Wick reportedly kept the animal in there until New Year’s Day and, as it’s been passed down, the story has taken interesting (and ill-informed) paths. Erroneous reports have stated she saved George Washington, carried a message through British lines, or stashed the pony under the bed.

4. An epic misfire

At Saratoga National Historical Park, visitors can see a quarter-ton Revolutionary War cannon with a strange, mysterious history. The cannon once fired six-pound balls in the service of British general John Burgoyne’s army, who surrendered it to American colonists after the Battles of Saratoga in 1777. Things stayed relatively quiet with the cannon until around 1961, when it disappeared. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, but it turned up at the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art in 2009 and was returned to the National Park Service. 

Oddly enough, General Burgoyne has a different bit of cannon myth surrounding him. Reportedly, when Burgoyne realized his imminent defeat, he took the gold coins from the army’s pay chest and had them stuffed into a cannon barrel and buried. According to legend, finding the treasure required a cryptic map that is now lost.

5. Cave-dwell like an Egyptian

On April 5, 1909, The Phoenix Gazette ran a front page story about two Smithsonian archaeologists who discovered caves and artifacts suggesting that ancient Egyptians had inhabited the Marble Canyon region of the Grand Canyon. The Smithsonian denies that the men—Prof. S. A. Jordan and G.E. Kinkaid—had any affiliation, and today, no record exists connecting them to the institution. Conspiracy theorists claim that the Smithsonian destroyed the evidence. The article is the only lasting evidence of the “discovery,” though it’s a document that’s difficult to ignore