June 10, 2016

From Acadia to Zion: 100 Years of the National Park Service

CBS' Conor Knighton Talks About "On the Trail"

  • By: Katharine Keane

Conor Knighton is dedicated to helping the National Park Service (NPS) celebrate its centennial. By the end of 2016, the "CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent will have visited all 59 of the parks as part of his bi-monthly series “On the Trail.” From seeing the first sunrise of the year in Acadia National Park to exploring the implications of increased visitation in Zion National Park, Knighton is highlighting stories from NPS sites around the country in honor of the Park Service’s 100th year.

But national parks are not all forests and mountains, so we caught up with him to learn about the cultural and historical resources being preserved in some of America’s most picturesque locations.

Conor Knighton smiling at camera

photo by: Efrain Robles

Knighton is the host and producer of the CBS Sunday series "On the Trail."

How did you get the idea for the series “On the Trail?”

Sometime last year I’d seen some mention of 2016 being the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. So I started to think, well that would be a cool piece to do for "CBS Sunday Morning." I don’t know what came over me but I was like, maybe it not just a piece, maybe it’s a series of pieces. So that’s what I pitched to my bosses in New York, and we launched “On the Trail” earlier this year.

All year long, every other Sunday, I’ll be doing a piece that’s set in and around a different national park or sometimes a series of parks. On New Year’s Day I started the year by hiking up to Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park, seeing the first rays of sun that hit the United States. Since then I’ve been working my way south, and west, and all over the place, often trying to find the type of story that wouldn’t necessarily be the video at the visitor center, but rather an interesting, unique angle about each park.

People have long heard about the natural grandeur of the national parks, but are there historic or cultural resources that visitors have access to?

Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a park that really doesn’t fit the stereotype of what you think of when you think of national parks. It’s mostly this stretch of buildings in a downtown along the main drag of Hot Springs. Back then they thought [the springs] had magical healing properties, so people used to come to Hot Springs with a doctor’s note for a round of baths. These really opulent bath houses were built along what they call Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs.

There is some nature that the park protects; they do have a couple of hiking trails and some hillsides, but you’re not really going there for the views. You’re going to learn that history: the rise and fall of the great American bath house.

“It’s been a pretty dream year in terms of getting to see all of these places that have been on my bucket list for such a long time.”

Conor Knighton

So how did Hot Springs transition to become a destination for tourists?

What ultimately happened was people realized there might be other medical treatments that were better than sitting in a hot tub of water for three weeks to cure some of these diseases. Also, tourism opened up, the West opened up. So it wasn’t as much of a vacation destination anymore.

The bathhouses started to shutter—there’s actually only one, the Buckstaff, that’s been open for one hundred years and it’s still gives these hot springs baths very much in the way that they did a hundred years ago.

But then the other bathhouses, they just didn’t have the business to sustain staying open as a bath house. So one is now the park visitor center, while another is more of an art space and a museum.

Conor sitting in a thermal bath

photo by: CBS News

Initially created in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation, Hot Springs National Park was officially established in 1921.

What has the Park Service done with the other bathhouses?

One that I thought was particularly interesting is the Superior Bathhouse, which has transitioned into a brewery. There’s a young woman who had been into brewing beer and realized that the first thing that you have to do when you’re making beer is heat the water. Well, in Hot Springs, the water is already hot so you really only have to heat it just a few degrees more to make it the correct temperature for brewing beer. The Park Service was looking for folks that might have a cool idea in terms of how to reuse some of these buildings, and so she sent an application with a plan for what she was going to do, and [now] they're thriving.

They have a full restaurant with food, but then all the drinks, the beer, and even the root beer is made with hot spring water. I think that’s an interesting way of keeping the history alive because the building still looks very much like it did when it was constructed [in 1916] and there are lots of nods in terms of their signage or the names of the things on the menu to the original use of the bathhouse. But today it is full of people, and yeah, they’re drinking beer and they’re eating a meal, but at least there’s still some use for [the structure].

Conor Knighton scuba diving near Lugano wreck marker

photo by: CBS News

"It’s tough to have a bad time at a national park. I think you always leave with either a stronger tie to nature or a deeper connection with history," says Knighton.

Did any of the parks take you by surprise?

Biscayne National Park has an underwater maritime heritage trail. It’s basically a series of shipwrecks that you have to dive to. They are forty feet underwater and there are placards like you see on a more traditional trail in a forest except these are on the floor of the ocean and they tell you the history of the wreck that you’re looking at.

[One of those is] the Lugano, which was a ship that sank in 1913. You can read what happened to it and see the bones of it on the floor of the ocean. There are actually far more ship wrecks than just the ones on the trail that are a part of the park. That tract of the Florida reef was particularly dangerous; it still is dangerous, ships still run aground on it. But back before there was GPS—there wasn’t even a lighthouse for a long time out there—it was really treacherous. I spoke with Chuck Lawson who is an underwater archaeologist, and what he does full time is explore, preserve, and interpret these sites to the public.

It was interesting to hear him talk about how, really, those wrecks kind of tell the story of South Florida. A lot of Florida was developed because of these shipping lanes and because of the maritime commerce that was happening around there.

You go to the Visitor Center and the park doesn’t look like much of anything. It’s a couple of cute picnic tables and some views of Miami off in the distance; but the second you head underwater, that’s when most of the park comes to life in terms of the aquatic life but also in terms of the history. It’s just on the floor of the ocean.

Do you have any advice for people planning to visit a national park?

My advice is just to do it. And it doesn’t have to be one of these 59 national parks because there are so many sites managed by the Park Service—you [can] go to a state park or a city park. I think its healthy for the mind and the body to get out and see these places. It doesn’t necessarily mean flying out to Yosemite. You can have a lot of these experiences closer to home.

Partners in Preservation: The Votes Are In!

We are excited to announce the winners of the Partners in Preservation: National Parks campaign. Thanks to our partnership with American Express, these parks will receive a portion of $2M in grant funding to help their preservation projects.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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