It took a city kid to begin saving America’s wild places

.Time Before Now, January, 1901 – The country’s 25th president, William McKinley, would not live to serve until the end of his term, assassinated in September.  His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt would succeed him. Robert Montgomery of Decater, Illinois was awarded a patent for the fly swatter in the last days of 1900.  The new immigrant station at Ellis Island was finally completed at a cost of $1.5 million, as much as $37 million now.  And four days before the New Year, Carrie Nation first began taking an axe to public saloons,  starting with the Carey Hotel in Wichita, Kansas.

January 2, 1901

On this day in 1901, rich city kid Robert Marshall was born and grew up to preserve more wild places in the West than any other single individual in history.

A native New Yorker, Marshall (left) would spend most of his time and much of his treasure saving the American wilderness.  The son of successful Constitutional lawyer, Marshall’s father, Louis, was also a avid amateur conservationist, social activist, cofounder of the American Jewish Committee and a director of the NAACP. 

The young Marshall’s populist views were ignited early at the Adler Culture School, (left) founded by reformer Felix Adler in the 1870s as a free kindergarten for New York’s immigrant poor.  

After earning a degree in forestry and a PhD in plant pathology, he spent 15 months in Wiseman, Alaska, a remote mining town along the Middle Fork Koyukuk River in the Brooks Range.  Made up of gold miners and Native Alaskans, Marshall called it “the happiest civilization for which I have knowledge.”  His statistical analysis recorded data on everything from the resident’s diet to their finances and captured their views on subjects ranging from sex to religion.  

The Wiseman, Alaska, post office

It was the basis of his 1930 book, “Arctic Village.”  Considered an American classic, it was a surprise best seller at the time.  Marshall  donated royalties from the book to  the people of Wiseman.

One of four founders of the Wilderness Society, he inherited a fortune following his father’s death.  Louis Marshall’s legacy helped establish the fledgling organization as one of the county’s premier conservation groups and considered by many environmentalists to be the genesis of the conservation movement.

Marshall and fellow founders of the Wilderness Society

Named head of the Forestry Division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933, he beset government officials with letters and visits to Congressmen in the cause of conservation. Not only was it imperative to save significant spaces in the natural world, he argued, it was the right of poor and average working citizens of the country to have access to them.

 As head of the recreation and land use for the Forest Service Marshall fought to increase recreational use of the National Parks and end policies that discriminated against minority and low income visitors.

The battle against the gentrification of the parks was his last and largest challenge.  At age 38, Marshall died of an apparent heart attack February 11, 1939, while taking an overnight train from Washington D.C. to New York.  He was buried at Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn with his parents and sister Ruth, who also died at the age of 38. 

His estate totaled $1.5 million, amounting to more than $25 million today.   Half went to further “the theory of production for use and not for profit,” while the remainder was to be used for wilderness preservation and furthering civil liberties.

Marshall’s brother, George, picked up the conservation baton, editing Robert’s unpublished writings and his most influential book in 1956 entitled “Alaska Wilderness:  Exploring the Central Brooks Range.”  The book inspired the creation of Alaska’s eight-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1980.  The second largest and the most northern national park, it includes the Endicott Mountain Range and six scenic rivers. (Above, the park’s  Mount Doonerak)

According to many environmentalists, the Wilderness Society has been instrumental in the preservation of more than 100 million acres through the 1964 Wilderness Act.  That same year the Robert Marshall Wilderness Area was created in Montana, part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.  Known as “the Bob” it is considered by many to be one of the most pristine areas in the nation.  

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana is administered by four National Forest Units, Flathead National Forest, Lewis and Clark National Forest, Lolo National Forest and Helena National Forest.  Consisting of 1.5 million acres of the world’s most pristine mountain ecosystems, its home to more than 1,000 miles of well-developed trails and paths for hikers, packers and climbers of nearly all experience levels along with stock unloading areas for trail riders.  

Camping facilities at Montaire Creek are maintained by the Forest Service and located near a Forest Service Guard Station. Various areas and facilities within the complex can be accessed from a number of points. Complete directions are provided by the Forest Service website.  For more information go to, call (406) 758-5200 or write Flathead National Forest, 659 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell, MT 59901.

 Gates of the Arctic National Park is a challenging environment for visitors not experienced in wilderness skills.  There are no established trails, camp sites  or service within the park and cell phones do not work.  The Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, 101 Dunkel Street, Suite 110, Fairbanks, Alaska AK 99701 is open 8 to 5 Monday through Saturday, year-round and can assist with lists of outfitters and guides. For more information on visiting the park, go to of the Arctic or write Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, 101 Dunkel Street, Suite 110, Fairbanks, Alaska AK.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.