WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Muir Woods

   By Fern L. Nesson, June, 2020

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

        In these days of pandemic and civil unrest, lay-offs and economic insecurity, anxiety and depression, the WPA Guides can be a source of comfort. The Guide’s writers would have related to our pain, as it mirrors so eerily their own experience in the Great Depression. Our capacity to travel is now limited, as it surely was back then, but we can look to the Guide for descriptions of natural places that provide us solace at least in our minds. One truly magical place is Muir Woods.

Muir Woods National Monument is an old-growth redwood forest just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Donated to the US government in 1908, it is named after John Muir, the most famous and ardent conservationist of the late19th century. Muir first hiked through California in 1868 and throughout the West in later years. He published more than 300 articles and 10 books recounting his travels, expounding his naturalist philosophy, and urging conservation of American wilderness lands. Due in great part to his efforts, Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890, and Sequioa National Park, the Pertrified Forest and the Grand Canyon National Parks shortly thereafter.

The Calfornia Guide’s succinct description of Muir Woods hardly does it justice:

“MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT (picnicking facilities), [is] a 427-acre grove of redwoods in Redwood Canyon. The grove, named in honor of John Muir, the naturalist, contains redwoods as much as 2,000 years old and as tall as 250 feet, frequently growing in great circles around the fire-blackened stumps of trees burned in the remote past.  Among the other trees found in the woods are California laurel, tan-bark oak, Douglas fir, alder, madrone, nutmeg, and buckeye. Ferns and wild flowers grow in abundance. The park owes its existence to William Kent, an ardent conservationist, who purchased the nucleus 295 acres and donated it to the Government in 1907 to save the grove from destruction by a water company which had filed condemnation proceedings to secure Redwood Canyon for a reservoir. The grove became a National Monument in 1908.” (p.366)

Thankfully, photographs can supplement it quite nicely. 

Of Muir, the Guide says little, but no matter, he spoke very well for himself:

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” 

“Going to the mountains is going home; wildness is a necessity; mountain parks are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.” 

                                                                                                   —  John Muir