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Adventure / August 31, 2017

This Labor Day, remember what it’s all about

Written by: Brenna Stevens

In my family growing up, Labor Day weekend was a camping holiday. Every year, my parents, two brothers and I loaded all of our camp gear into the family minivan for a trip to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. And every year, we got there just in time—campgrounds in the park fill up fast over the holiday weekend, so we always had neighbors in the campgrounds on either side.

I didn’t mind. Campsites sort of blurred together on those weekends, so my brothers and I ended up hiking, playing, and eating s’mores with seemingly every kid in the park. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was probably the most socio-economically diverse group of kids I’d ever played with. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, machinists, schoolteachers, landscapers, custodians, and fast-food workers… and all of them had chosen to spend this three-day weekend in one of our country’s most beautiful places.

They (and I) were among the millions of Americans who choose to celebrate the Labor Day weekend on public lands. Campgrounds in most National Parks fill up during the first weekend of September—the holiday draws crowds on par with those of Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.

To most of us, that’s understood as a normal part of life. We think of Labor Day as a natural bookend for the summer season (though that season doesn’t officially end until September 21), and of national parks and monuments as available, low-cost ways to spend that well-earned free time.

But neither of those things has always been true. Both Labor Day and public land were hard-fought prizes won by movements that remain active today: labor and conservation.

Labor Day weekend, of course, is about Labor. It was officially designated in 1894 as a sort of apology for the results of the Pullman Strike, during which National Guard troops killed 30 unionists and injured 57 more in their attempts to end an unruly demonstration. The workers, who lived in a company-owned town, had gone into open revolt when their wages were cut but their rents remained high.

The holiday is a nod to one of the lesser-taught elements of American history. Unionists, who sometimes espoused openly socialist or anarchist platforms, regularly clashed with their employers and with police in their fights for higher wages or safe working conditions.

For their efforts, we now enjoy things like OSHA regulations, overtime pay, and the 40-hour workweek. Many historians credit organized labor with the institution of the weekend in general (not just the three-day weekend that bears their name).

This sketch, published in Harper's Weekly, depicts National Guard troops firing into a crowd during the Pullman Strike.

Workplace protections that are common now, like the eight-hour workday, were once sources of heated debate.

This history of public land in America is a long, complex, and bloody one—to tell it properly would require more space (and, frankly, more knowledge) than I have here.

But our national parks and monuments, which are extremely popular Labor Day travel destinations, have an easier story to tell. They were the brainchild of the traveling painter George Catlin, who had dedicated his career to painting the lands of the American West and the indigenous people who inhabited them.

Fearing that the lands he loved would be spoiled by America’s westward expansion, he called for the creation of a national park to preserve them. Nobody listened.

But by the late 1800s (around the same time Labor riots were reaching a fever pitch), Americans began to warm to the idea of national parks. Unchecked industrialism had wreaked havoc on many areas along the eastern seaboard, and even natural wonders like Niagara Falls had been “ruined” by private owners who sold tickets to the view.

Around that time, an eccentric, bearded wanderer named John Muir began publishing lyric essays from the mountains of what is now Yosemite National Park. Explorers and scientists published photos and articles about the volcanic wonder of Yellowstone. Reading these stories, and watching the juggernaut of industry march west, Americans came to recognize their lands as finite and endangered resources.

President Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into law in 1874, establishing the first natural national park on the planet. Yosemite gained the same protection in 1906. Today, more than 84 million acres of land are protected as national parks and monuments. The park system saw 305 million visits in 2015—almost one for every citizen of the United States.

California's first hippie: geologist, writer, and conservationist John Muir.

The towering rocks of Yosemite are, frankly, a pretty easy sell for conservationists.

Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, myriad voices rightly ask us to remember the men and women those holidays were instituted to honor. But come Labor Day, those voices are curiously silent.

So I’m being one of those voices. As you turn your marshmallows on the fire this Labor Day weekend, please give a moment of your thoughts to the those radical, offbeat folks who made this long weekend possible.

Oh, and don’t forget to put those white pants away.

Featured photo by Paxton Woelber. 

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Please email them to [email protected]

about the author

Brenna Stevens

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Brenna has spent more of her life outdoors than in. An avid camper, backpacker, and wine drinker, she writes primarily about outdoor culture for Shoulders of Giants.

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