What makes something a national park?

Vendome Well

The town of Sulphur, Oklahoma, lies a few miles off the interstate between Oklahoma City and Dallas. After you fight your way through the modern chain stores and gas stations, you arrive at small-town America. On the right is a lovely city park, well cared for, and a fine example of the civic virtues of small-town America.

That lovely city park is actually a former national park.

Once known as Platt National Park, this site exemplifies a long battle over the question, “What is worthy of being a national park?” From the moment of its creation in 1906 until its decommissioning in 1976, people fought over whether Platt “deserved” to be a national park. The National Park Service and its allies in the environmental movement generally said it did not.

Former Park Headquarters

Congress established Platt National Park in 1906, ten years before creation of the National Park Service. At the time, there were no procedures to establish standards or review park proposals. There were no outside groups dedicated to the parks, like the National Parks Association today (now the NPCA).


Travertine Creek

Both the NPS and NPCA worry about the “standards” of national park status, and see clearly the risks of not setting standards. In the most egregious example, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall tried to create an “All-Weather National Park” that consisted of a handful of scattered parcels centered on . . . Albert Fall’s ranch.

Even without Albert Fall’s corrupt intent, standards are important. If you don’t worry about standards, politicians will press for more and more parks of ever-lower quality. After all, every state has some lovely spots that aren’t really national in significance, such as Starved Rock in Illinois or Turkey Run in Indiana. I’m a big fan of both, but they are properly state parks.

Travertine Nature Center

Platt is one of those lovely spots. It preserved a group of cold springs, some mineral and some freshwater. Many of the springs are in a surprisingly deep valley of Rock Creek. The hills provided some shade, and the springs some water, supporting an eastern deciduous forest on the valley floor. The shaded valley, trees, and cold water made Platt a great place to keep cool on hot summer days in Oklahoma and North Texas, an “oasis on the prairie.”

Swimming hole

Pleasant it may be, but Platt lacks any distinctive natural resources, culture or history. The NPS, NPA, and some members of Congress recognized this. People made serious attempts to disestablish Platt National Park in 1910, 1913, 1924, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1938, 1941, 1957, and 1958. In each case the Oklahoma congressional delegation stopped the effort.

As Americans’ recreational interests changed, Platt became less popular – though it still gets more than a million visitors a year. When the Bureau of Reclamation dammed Rock Creek to form the Lake of the Arbuckles in 1968, the NPS took over management of recreation on the lake. That provided an opportunity to create Chickasaw National Recreation Area here in 1976, and to fold Platt into the NRA.

Platt Historic District

Today, the NPS tells the story of Platt National Park in a historic district here.  That interpretation ignores the debates over standards. Perhaps it would be too awkward to admit that the National Park Service still manages lands that it found unworthy for seventy years.

This blog post draws from material in my book manuscript, “Telling America’s Stories: How the National Park Service Interprets Westward Expansion.”

For more photos, see my Flickr set.

If you’d like to read a more favorable account of Platt, see
Parker, Albert J.  2010.  “A Park of the People: the Demotion of Platt National Park, Oklahoma.” Journal of Cultural Geography 27(2): 151-175 (June).

Wray, Jacilee and Alexa Roberts.  1998.  “In Praise of Platt: Or, What is a ‘Real’ National Park?” George Wright Forum 15(1): 68-78.