Thomas Moran played role in creating park system

March 18, 2011|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • Thomas Moran at his easel at age 78.
Submitted photo

Special to The Herald-Mail

"In painting the Grand Canyon ... I have to be full of my subject," the famous American landscapist Thomas Moran (1837-1926) told reporters in 1912.

Something of a character but a learned one, Moran went on to reassure his fans that he was a scientist. He knew the geology of the canyon, the atmosphere that hovered over it, the torrents of the Colorado River far below and even the wildlife that inhabited the area.

Tourism to the famous landmark had come into its own by the turn of the century, and Moran was the artist who assisted it. Born into a family of painters in Philadelphia, he fell in love with the American West after his first trip across the Mississippi in 1871.

Over the years he accompanied surveyors to Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountain region and the Grand Canyon. He traveled as well to Lake Tahoe, Donner Pass and the Teton Mountains of Wyoming, making sketches on his trips that were the basis of spectacular paintings he created over the rest of his life.

Railroad entrepreneurs made the most of Eastern tourists' developing interests in traveling west. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway System, chartered in 1859, created a route from Chicago to San Francisco by way of New Mexico and Arizona. The railway took travelers as close to the south rim of the Grand Canyon as Williams, Ariz, about 50 miles south of the canyon. 

Soon the newly developed Grand Canyon Railway took visitors from Williams to the canyon, where they could stay at the famous El Tovar Hotel and enjoy facilities developed by Fred Harvey, who created the nation's first chain hotel. Many of those facilities are still attracting tourists.

Recognizing the power of Moran's images, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway System provided the artist room and board whenever he visited. The railway also lithographed such images as his "Grand Canyon of Arizona from Hermit Run Road, 1912" as advertisements and for calendars and stationery.

Moran played an important part in the creation of the National Park System. His huge painting "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872," made after his first trip west, was purchased by Congress for $10,000 and displayed in the nation's Capitol. (It is now at the Department of the Interior Museum.) The painting inspired Congress to establish Yellowstone as a national park that year. In 1916, Congress established the National Park Service and, in 1919, it created the Grand Canyon National Park.

Made famous because of his painting of Yellowstone, Moran called himself "Tom 'Yellowstone' Moran," devising the monogram TYM to sign his work. The monogram is clearly visible in the lower left-hand corner of the lithograph on display at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in the 19th-century American Art installation.

Elizabeth Johns, Ph.D., of Hagerstown, is professor emerita of art history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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