Way-Back Wednesday:A Look At Impact Of Rockefeller Philanthropy On Wyoming’s National Parks, Teton County

While the surname Rockefeller is familiar, many people don't know how John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway came to be or some of the other impacts that are direct results of Rockefeller philanthropy in the Jackson Hole area.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

December 29, 202120 min read

Teton barn
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

For anyone who was truly seeking a ‘White Christmas’ for 2021, your travels may have taken you to the Jackson Hole area in Wyoming, a place with a beautiful landscape enveloped in a soft blanket of powder snow. If you traveled in or out of Jackson Hole Airport by vehicle then chances are very likely that you traveled on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects Wyoming’s two national parks.

Yellowstone National Park was established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. and is also widely held to be the first national park in the world.

Neighboring Grand Teton National Park includes the northern portions of the Teton Range and the valley of Jackson Hole. Viewed from the east, the Tetons rise abruptly from the flat valley floor, their jagged outlines sculpted by moving ice during the last glacial period. In Jackson Hole at the base of the mountains, several glacial lakes feed the river as it winds south through the valley, lakes that are also contained within the park.

Located at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem you’ll find the 27-mile long John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The late conservationist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. made significant contributions to several national parks including Grand Teton, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, and Virgin Islands.

While the surname Rockefeller is familiar, many people don’t know how John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway came to be or some of the other impacts that are direct results of Rockefeller philanthropy in the Jackson Hole area.

In 1972 Congress dedicated a 24,000-acre parcel of land in Wyoming the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to recognize his generosity and foresight. Congress also named the highway from the south boundary of Grand Teton to West Thumb in Yellowstone in honor of Rockefeller.

The parkway provides a natural link between the two national parks and contains features characteristic of both areas. In the parkway, the Teton Range ramps down a gentle slope at its northern end, while rocks born of volcanic flows from Yellowstone line the Snake River and form outcrops scattered atop hills and ridges.

Grand Teton National Park administers the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

John Davison Rockefeller Jr. was born on January 29, 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was an American financier and philanthropist, and son of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller. He was often known as “Junior”, to distinguish him from his father.

Junior was involved in the development of the vast office complex in Midtown Manhattan known as Rockefeller Center, making him one of the largest real estate holders in the city. Towards the end of his life, he was quite famous for his philanthropy, donating more than $500 million to a wide variety of different causes, receiving the Public Welfare Medal in 1943.

Rockefeller was the fifth and last child of Standard Oil co-founder John Davison Rockefeller Sr. and schoolteacher Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman. His father John Sr. and uncle William Avery Rockefeller Jr. co-founded Standard Oil together.

At an early age Junior was careful with money, setting him apart from the sons of other wealthy men. While he had intended to go to Yale University, he was encouraged by the president of the University of Chicago, and others, to enter the Baptist-oriented Brown University instead. He was nicknamed “Johnny Rock ” by his roommates and before being elected junior class president he joined both the Glee Club and the Mandolin Club. Additionally, Junior taught a Bible class. 

Public Domain image of J.D. Rockefeller Jr., circa 1900

In 1897, Junior graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and in October of that year he was setting up operations in the newly formed family office at 26 Broadway,  also known as the Standard Oil Building or Socony–Vacuum Building, in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan in New York City. The 31-story, 520-foot-tall structure was designed in the Renaissance Revival as the headquarters of Standard Oil, once one of the largest oil companies in the United States. In 1897 Junior became a director of Standard Oil and later a director at J. P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel company, which had been formed in 1901. 

Standard Oil logo in front of Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway.

His future wife was philanthropist/socialite Abigail Greene “Abby” Aldrich. The two had first met in the fall of 1894 and had been courting for over four years. Junior married Abby on October 9, 1901, in what was seen at the time as the consummate marriage of capitalism and politics. She was a daughter of Senator Aldrich and Abigail Pearce Truman “Abby” Chapman. Moreover, their wedding was the major social event of its time – one of the most lavish of the Gilded Age. It was held at the Aldrich Mansion at Warwick Neck, Rhode Island, and attended by executives of Standard Oil as well as other companies.

The couple had six children; Abby in 1903, John III in 1906, Nelson in 1908, Laurance in 1910, Winthrop in 1912, and David in 1915.

Junior resigned from both Standard Oil and U.S. Steel companies in 1910 in an attempt to “purify” his ongoing philanthropy from his commercial and financial interests. The resignations followed news reported by the Hearst media empire of a bribery scandal involving John Dustin Archbold, who was the successor to Senior as head of Standard Oil, and two prominent members of Congress.

More controversy arose in September 1913 when the United Mine Workers of America declared a strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) company in what would become the Colorado Coalfield War. Junior owned a controlling interest in CF&I (40% of its stock) and sat on the board as an absentee director.

 In April 1914, after a long period of industrial unrest, the Ludlow Massacre occurred at a tent camp occupied by striking miners. Men, women, and children died in the altercation and this was followed by nine days of violence between miners and the Colorado National Guard. 

Although he did not order the attack that began this unrest, there are accounts to suggest Junior was mostly to blame for the violence, adverse working conditions, death ratio, and no pay for ‘dead work’ which included securing unstable ceilings and workers were forced to work in unsafe conditions just to make ends meet. In January 1915, Junior was called to testify before the Commission on Industrial Relations. Many critics blamed Rockefeller for ordering the massacre.

Junior was advised by William Lyon Mackenzie King and Ivy Lee, known as the pioneer public relations expert. Lee warned that the Rockefellers were losing public support and developed a strategy that Junior subsequently followed to repair it. Part of that strategy required Junior to overcome his shyness, go personally to Colorado and meet with the miners and their families, inspect the conditions of the homes and factories, attend social events, and listen closely to their grievances. This was novel advice and attracted widespread media attention, which opened the way to resolve the conflict, and present a more humanized version of the Rockefellers. 

King said that testimony proved to be the turning point in Junior’s life and restoring the reputation of the family name. The tragedy was said to have solidified Rockefeller’s devotion to humanitarian causes.

During the Great Depression, Junior was involved in financing the development and construction of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, and as a result, became one of the largest real estate holders in New York City. In charge of the family office, Junior decided to move the location from 26 Broadway to the 56th floor of the landmark 30 Rockefeller Plaza upon its completion in 1933. The office formally became “Rockefeller Family and Associates,” and informally, “Room 5600.”

Rockefeller was known for his personal philanthropy, giving more than $537 million to causes over his lifetime. He had become the Rockefeller Foundation’s inaugural president in May 1913 and proceeded to dramatically expand the scope of this institution, founded by his father. 

Junior had demonstrated a special interest in conservation, having purchased and donated land for many American National Parks, including Grand Teton, hiding his involvement and intentions behind the Snake River Land Company. 

John D. Rockefeller Jr. is the author of the noted life principle, among others, inscribed on a tablet facing his famed Rockefeller Center: “I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty”.

The National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, limits development, strictly regulates visitor activities and places its first priority on long-term preservation of the natural state of the area. Residents who disliked the prospect of increased federal government control in any form were hostile to the Park Service, expressing their views at public meetings and in the local newspaper.

This attitude changed over the next decade as development proceeded and tourism increased in Jackson Hole. 

Between 1919 and 1923, private irrigation companies proposed a series of dams on lakes within the national forest while lodges and summer cabins sprouted on private and public land throughout the valley. 

The Park Service, with a veto over Forest Service plans, prevented the irrigation project and canceled a plan to construct up to 6,000 summer tourist cabins in the more accessible parts of the national forest.

These actions appear to have lessened the distrust of some residents, particularly dude ranchers whose livelihoods depended on tourists attracted by the scenic value of the area. In 1923, several dude ranchers invited the superintendent of Yellowstone Park, Horace Albright, to meet with them and discuss future conservation of the Tetons and Jackson Hole. 

As explained later by longtime Jackson Hole naturalist Olaus Murie, one of the biggest conservation problems in the area at that time was the increasing development of private land. As a solution, the dude ranchers suggested that a rich philanthropist be found to buy a large amount of land in northern Jackson Hole and donate it to the government. 

Albright, encouraged by this local support, began searching for such a backer. In 1927, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. agreed to buy as much as 114,170 acres in northern Jackson Hole at a cost of $1,397,000. But to prevent inflation of land prices, Albright wanted the source of the money and purpose of the acquisition to remain secret.

So in 1927, Junior established the Snake River Land Company, a.k.a. the Snake River Cattle and Stock Company. The company acted as a front so Rockefeller could buy land in the Jackson Hole valley without people knowing of his involvement, or intentions for the property, and then have the land held until the National Park Service could administer it, but went on to face 15 years of opposition by ranchers plus refusal by the Park Service to take the land. Allegations that the company conspired with the Park Service by using illegal land purchasing tactics led to United States Senate subcommittee meetings in 1933 during which the company and Park Service were exonerated. Opposition by ranchers to sell was alleviated during the Great Depression.

Discouraged by the ongoing stalemate, Rockefeller sent a letter to the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, advising that if the federal government did not accept the land, “It will be my thought to make some other disposition of it, or to sell it in the market to any satisfactory buyers.” Soon after receipt of the letter, on March 15, 1943, Roosevelt declared 221,000 acres of land as Jackson Hole National Monument. 

The land, however, did not enter federal stewardship until December 16, 1949 when it was added to the monument. The next year the monument was merged into the expanded Grand Teton National Park.

The Snake River Land Company Residence and Office are structures located in the park, in the village of Moran. They served as the residence and office for SRLC vice-president Harold Fabian and foreman J. Allan from 1930 to 1945. The buildings are still used by the National Park Service. 

The history of Moran is also interesting. Ed “Cap” Smith and Clara Smith established a homestead at Moran in the 1890s, but found themselves catering to travelers on the road to Yellowstone National Park to the north, or to Idaho on the Marysville Road. The Smiths built a two-story log hotel. Their neighbors, the Allens, built the Elkhorn Hotel, which housed the post office and a store. The Smith hotel burned around November 1900.

Moran began to grow after 1903, when Ben D. Sheffield bought two homesteads on the Snake River and built up an outfitting business at the location, called the Teton Lodge Resort. A toll bridge over the Snake, possibly operated by Sheffield, was a major link in the local transportation network. Sheffield also operated the Moran post office from 1907 to 1919. His brother Edward ran the Flagg Ranch farther north, just outside Yellowstone National Park.

Public Domain Stereograph showing Jackson Lake Dam and spillway on the Snake River near Moran, Wyoming, Copyright by July 9, 1920 by Keystone View Company.

The construction of Jackson Lake Dam from 1910 to 1916 temporarily made Moran a much larger town, with a construction encampment built by the Reclamation Service to the north of the Sheffield ranch.

The Sheffield ranch’s lodge, which housed the post office, burned in 1916. A replacement lodge was built around 1922. The Sheffield complex of cabins comprised the bulk of the town. In 1928, Sheffield sold out to the Snake River Land Company (SRLC), which then renovated and expanded the facility, in part to head off new development in the area. 

During the location shooting of 1930’s The Big Trail, the cast and crew travelled to Wyoming. The location was quite primitive and the only lodging available to them were a couple of trappers cabins. The crew set about building more cabins (which would be needed for specific scenes as well as lodging), and John Wayne helped build some of those cabins. The site later became the village of Moran.

The house, also known as Building 117 and as “Buffalo Dorm”, is a 1-1/2 story log structure dating back 1926. SRLC added onto the house and built a log garage when the property was acquired. The original central gabled block was flanked by shed-roofed extensions on the east and west sides, with the stone chimney centered in the eastern side. A later shed-roofed addition covers the front of the central unit. A further gable-roofed addition covers much of the western shed wing. The main entry opens into a large office, with a living room to the north and a kitchen and pantry to the west. The sun room, an enclosed former porch, is reached from the living room. The living room has a raised ceiling that forms the floor of the storage loft above. The stone fireplace dominates the room, with bookshelves to either side. Three bedrooms and a bathroom are in the northwestern portion of the house. On the second floor a central landing leads to two bedrooms on the south and southeast and a storage loft (stated to be “bat infested”) to the northeast. The interiors retain many of their historic furnishings and contribute to the ranch’s significance.

The SRLC established the Teton Lodge Company to operate the ranch, which expanded to a capacity of 200 guests. The main lodge was destroyed by fire in 1935. There were four guest cabins, a barn and an ice house on the property that no longer exist. The remaining cabins, and thus most of the community, were moved to Jackson Lake Lodge in 1955.

The Jackson Hole Preserve, which succeeded the Snake River Land Company, used the house as a residence for Sonny Allen, manager of the nearby Jackson Hole Wildlife Park at Oxbow Bend. The house was taken over by the Park Service and used as a dormitory before being abandoned. In April 2019, work began restoring the home for park rangers. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was awarded the Public Welfare Medal in 1943. The Medal is awarded by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences “in recognition of distinguished contributions in the application of science to public welfare.” It is the most prestigious honor conferred by the academy. First awarded in 1914, the medal has been awarded annually since 1976. 

Abby died of a heart attack at the family apartment at 740 Park Avenue in New York City in April 1948. Junior remarried in 1951, to Martha Baird, the widow of his old college classmate Arthur Allen. Martha, a concert pianist, arts advocate and philanthropist, died at the age of 75 on January 24, 1971 in Manhattan.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. preceded Martha in death; he died of pneumonia on May 11, 1960, at the age of 86 in Tucson, Arizona. He was interred in the family cemetery in Tarrytown, New York, approximately 25 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. 

The Rockefeller impact on the Jackson Hole area in Wyoming didn’t end with Junior. 

Laurance Spelman Rockefeller was born on May 26, 1910 in New York City. He graduated from Princeton University in 1932 and attended Harvard Law School for two years, until he decided he did not want to be a lawyer.

On August 22, 1934, in Woodstock, Vermont, Laurance married childhood friend Mary French. Laurance and Mary had three daughters and a son. 

Public Domain image of Mr. & Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller, half-length portraits, seated at table, facing each other, at champagne party, in Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center in 1965.

In 1937, he inherited his grandfather’s seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He served as founding trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for forty-two years, from its inception in 1940 to 1982; during this time, he also served as president (1958–68) and later its chairman (1968–80) for twenty-two years, longer than any other leader in the Fund’s history. He was also a founding trustee of the Rockefeller Family Fund from 1967 to 1977.

He was noted for his involvement in conservation. In 1967 Lady Bird Johnson labeled him “America’s leading conservationist.” With his passion for the protection of wildlife he served as chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. He was also a recipient of the Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award. He served on dozens of federal, state and local commissions and advised every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower on issues involving recreation, wilderness preservation and ecology. He founded the American Conservation Association and supported many other environmental groups.

He funded the expansion of Grand Teton National Park and was instrumental in establishing and enlarging national parks in Wyoming, California, the Virgin Islands, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii. 

In September 1991, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for contributions to conservation and historic preservation. Awarded by President George H. W. Bush, it was the first time in the Medal’s history (since 1777) that it had been awarded for outdoor issues, effectively naming Rockefeller as “Mr. Conservation”, who more than any other American had put this issue on the public agenda. Rockefeller said at the award presentation that nothing was more important to him than “the creation of a conservation ethic in America”.

In 2001, Rockefeller transferred ownership of his landmark 1106-acre JY Ranch to Grand Teton National Park. It was accepted by Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of the Federal government. 

The lands that formed the JY Ranch were first homesteaded in 1903 by Dave Spalding. He sold the property in 1906 to Louis Joy, who, with Struthers Burt, converted the property to Jackson Hole’s first dude ranch, abbreviating Joy’s last name to “JY.” The ranch was purchased by the Rockefellers’ Snake River Land Company in 1932, becoming a family retreat.

Rockefeller hoped that his project, located between Moose and Teton Village, sitting to the west of Jackson Hole Airport, would serve as a model for our National Parks. 

As a prerequisite to creating the LSR Preserve, the cabins, stables and other built environment that had been part of the Rockefeller family’s presence at the JY Ranch were removed and those sites were carefully bio-remediated with seeds or plantings collected from nearby locations within the site. 

Laurance Rockefeller died at the age of 94 on July 11, 2004 in New York City.

Today, Laurance S. Rockefeller (LSR) Preserve is a system of hiking trails that lead through sub-alpine and wetland habitat, with vistas along the southern edge of Phelps Lake. The visitor experience is enhanced with the visitor center situated at the lowest elevation of the Preserve at 7,573 ft. The visitor center building was designed by Carney Architects of Jackson with the Rocky Mountain Institute consulting on energy and daylighting analysis. Hershberger Design prepared the landscape design plan for the visitor center site and trails. A team of designers, cinematographers, photographers, sound recordists, writers and others contributed to the displays inside the visitors center and those efforts are noted on a plaque in the center, which was dedicated on June 21, 2008. 

In continuing honor to “Mr. Conservation,” the visitor center was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified property in Wyoming and only the fifty-second Platinum rating in the LEED program. Featuring composting toilets and a 10 kW photovoltaic system, the facility earned all 17 LEED energy points.

Visitors of all ages and abilities will enjoy the tranquil and family-friendly atmosphere of the preserve that has a wheelchair accessible entrance. To emphasize inclusivity, the Lake Creek trail provides a steel feature that allows those traveling via wheelchair to hover safely at the cusp of a lovely waterfall. Along with bridges and well-maintained, broad trails, the preserve’s entire 16-plus mile trail network serves to emphasize personal moments of interaction with nature. 

The Lake Creek and Woodland Trail Loop as well as the Phelps Lake Trail Loop offer good hiking options for families, complete with interpretive signs along the way. In summer, you’ll find an inviting Sandy beach on Phelps Lake. On a hot day, you’ll want to seek out not only the beach but “Jumping Rock.” You’ll have no difficulty picking out “the jumping rock” as there will likely be some brave souls perched at the top, daring one another to jump in for a refreshing summertime dip. 

Moose-Wilson Road is seasonally closed to this destination, from November 1-April 30, so make a plan to visit Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve a New Year’s resolution for 2022. You may also use the philanthropy of the Rockefeller family as inspiration to find new ways to be kind and generous in the new year!

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter