Meet The ‘Father’ of Rocky Mountain National Park As It Turns 100

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<p>Courtesy of John Stansfield</p>
Photo: Enos Mills and his daughter around Rocky Mountain National Park
The "father" of Rocky Mountain National Park, Enos Mills, with his daughter, Enda.
Photo: Enos Mills reenactor John Stansfield in character
Storyteller John Stansfield, reenacting Rocky Mountain National Park founder Enos Mills.

Mills died in 1922, but his story and character regularly come to life thanks to historical actor and storyteller John Stansfield. Stansfield wrote a biography of Mills, called "Enos Mills: Rocky Mountain Naturalist." Read an excerpt below.

Stansfield says he thinks Mills would be happy with the way the past 100 years have gone for the park: "He would be, I'm sure, amazed at the visitorship," which was nearly 3.5 million people in 2014. "And I think he would be very pleased that [almost 95 percent] of the park is, today, designated as a Wilderness... and protected in its wildness and in its naturalness."

Stansfield spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner -- in character -- to recount Mills' experiences before and after the park was established by Congress.

Excerpt from "Enos Mills: Rocky Mountain Naturalist" by John Stansfield. (c)2005 by John Stansfield. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Butte, Montana, of the 1880s sat like a smoke-belching dragon in the bowl of its mountain home. Hundreds of factory stacks spewed smoke, laced with sulfur, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals. Like embers from a dying bonfire, the city glowed red in the dark. Open fire pits continuously burned mining waste. Copper mining, milling, and smelting kept the dragon’s heart rumbling loudly day and night.

The lure of five dollars a day in pay led Enos Mills from Estes Park in the fall of 1887. His strength and stamina much improved, he reportedly walked and camped most of his way to Montana. Along the way, the seventeen-year-old explorer carefully noted the birds, flowers, and trees of the Northern Rockies.

On his first day in town, the Anaconda mine hired the slim teenager as a tool boy. A tool boy was always in motion. He traveled deep underground supplying miners with sharp drills from the blacksmith aboveground. He hauled dulled tools out and began again. The day he was hired, Enos made friends with John Lloyd, also a tool boy.

Mills learned that the booming city offered more than just industry and pollution. Butte was a rich cultural stew. Thousands of people from around the world crowded the streets at all hours. Many stores, restaurants, and saloons never closed. Drunkenness, drug addiction, and gambling were common, but so were churches, good schools, and the arts. In his free time, Enos took advantage of the good things the community offered. “The city is ever ready to honor genius, reward talent or welcome merit,” Mills said of Butte.

Young Enos found Butte’s best educational opportunity at the free public library. As his friend John Lloyd noted, “Enos sat up half the night reading.” The Butte library became a high school and college for Mills. Enos read poetry, essays, plays, science, philosophy, economics. The library, like the world of nature, became an inspiration. “To step from a great mining camp into a library,” he later wrote at age 27, “is like stepping from madness to reason; from darkness to light...Every library is a World’s Fair; it contains the masterpieces of master minds.”

He attended musical performances, lectures, and plays. New ideas were discussed at length with John and other friends. Mills attempted to write in various styles and joined a writer’s group.

For 14 years, beginning in 1887, Enos Mills spent his winters working in the mines of Butte or other western mining boomtowns. He rose rapidly in skill and pay—tool boy, miner, machine-driller, compressor operator, night foreman, stationary engineer. A wealthy mine owner recognized the young man’s initiative and aptitude. He offered Mills the chance to work year-round in mine administration. Enos turned him down. Being a mountain guide was the job he loved best and returned to almost every summer.

Mills found help with his stomach problems from a doctor in Butte, who suggested he drop starchy foods from his diet. To cleanse his system, the doctor recommended fasting for ten days and drinking only water. Enos continued to work during the fast. He felt so good at the end of fasting that he played in a game of baseball. On a starch-free diet, his health improved steadily.

California and an Eventful Meeting

Winters underground paid for summers outdoors on Longs Peak and around western North America. Enos lived simply, always saving what he could from his pay. Places described in books called him to travel farther afield. Mills took up what he called a “poetic” life. His was a life of exploration—a playful vagabond and daredevil pursuing the call of the wild. He sought out extreme experiences in untamed lands, tracking grizzly without a gun, descending cliff faces without ropes, outrunning forest fires, outskiing avalanches. The adventurer took serious risks and lived to tell about it.

Searing fires swept through Butte’s mines in fall 1889. The damage was so extensive that many miners were put out of work for months. Mills took advantage of the layoff and set out to see California’s natural wonders. His first sighting of the ocean, rolling to the horizon like the Kansas plains, thrilled him. While walking the cliff-lined beaches of San Francisco, Enos made an unexpected discovery, one that would set the course for the rest of his life. As he tells the story, the discovery was not a plant or wild animal, but a man:

On the beach near the old cliff house I came upon a number of people around a small gray bearded man who had a hand full of plants which he was explaining. As soon as these people scattered, I asked him concerning a long-rooted plant that some one had dug from a sand dune. The man was John Muir...After giving a stirring biography of the plant [yerba buena]...he invited me for a four-mile walk across the sand hills and through Golden Gate Park...During this walk he incited me to do so many things some of which I fear will not be done by the time I reach three score and ten [years].

In 1889, John Muir (1838-1914) was a nationally-known writer and naturalist, famous for his solo treks through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, especially the Yosemite (Yo-SEM-it-ee) region. His efforts to preserve remarkable natural resources were rewarded in 1890, when Yosemite was designated the second national park in the United States. (Yellowstone was the first national park on earth, designated by the U. S. Congress in 1872.) Later, 
Muir worked to create other national parks in the West and founded the Sierra Club, a hiking and environmental protection group. Mills later stated that the “mere chance meeting with Muir was epoch marking” for him. Muir must have recognized potential strengths in the young man. On their first walk and in later meetings and correspondence, Muir “chided, scolded, commanded and enthused” Enos to study nature carefully and constantly, to organize his thinking. He urged him to develop writing and public speaking skills. Muir told him, “I want you to help me do something for parks, forests and wildlife.”

Taking Muir’s advice, Mills explored the wild places of California for nearly six months. He explored the redwood and giant sequoia forests, Yosemite and western Nevada, remote ocean beaches, Death Valley, and the Mojave Desert.  

Over the next decade, wanderlust—and Muir’s suggestions—sent Enos traveling far away. Twice, in 1892 and 1894, he journeyed to southeast Alaska. Trekking in Yellowstone National Park alone and as part of a government survey crew filled seven months in 1891. He stated that river trips carried him down the “Missouri-Mississippi from source to sea, the Columbia, the Connecticut and the Ohio.” In 1900 Mills toured Europe for a month with his uncle, Elkanah Lamb.

Mills began photographing scenes from his travels during the 1890s. Using a small Kodak camera, he used his photos in publications and to illustrate speeches. 

Before returning to Colorado in summer 1890, Enos hiked Muir Woods with the man for whom it is named. Now a national monument, Muir Woods is a coastal redwood forest north of San Francisco. Muir was Mills’s role model as outdoorsman, writer, naturalist, and conservationist. 

Mills said of their relationship, “[Muir] became the factor in my life.” The two remained lifelong friends.