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Harriman State Park

The Railroad Ranch was the private domain of the wealthy Harriman family; it was their home away from home. At some point in their lives, Roland and Averell Harriman decided they wanted to preserve the ranch, to keep it from being chopped up into subdivisions or resort developments.

The Railroad Ranch in 1948 [Courtesy IDPR]
The Railroad Ranch in 1948 [Courtesy IDPR]

It was the late 1950's, and Robert Smylie was Idaho's governor. He had been trying to get Idaho a share of the tourism bonanza that was sweeping the country, but he was getting nowhere with the legislature.

"There were all sorts of road blocks," said Thomas Cox, author of The Park Builders. "People said, oh, that’s socialistic. People said, oh, that costs money. A lot of opposition from the Democrat party at the time because they controlled the state land board, and there were some nice patronage jobs there that they didn’t want to lose."

The Harrimans decided they could work with Smylie.

Roland Harriman and Gov. Smylie in 1963 [Courtesy Smylie Archives]
Roland Harriman and Gov. Smylie in 1963 [Courtesy Smylie Archives]

If northern Idaho's Heyburn Park was an accidental park, this park in eastern Idaho was meticulously planned out, years in advance. But some of it was done in secret, as the Harrimans and Smylie worked out the details.

"It had to be kept sort of secret until the negotiations were nailed down," explained Cox; "and governor Smylie flew off to New York to work out the final details of the agreement. And The Statesman in Boise jumped all over him: 'Oh, he’s always off flying around someplace. He ought to spend more time in the state.' And then, of course, when he came back with the agreement in hand, they quickly changed their tune because this was a multimillion dollar gift and a once in a lifetime kind of an opportunity."

Cox says governor Smylie himself added one stipulation to the deal. "I think he was the one that said, 'hey, put this one in, the requirement that for the donation to become final, Idaho had to have a professional parks department,' which, in spite of Smylie's ten years of effort, it still didn’t really have."

It took a few more years, but by 1965 Republicans had won a comfortable margin in the legislature. That, coupled with park funding through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, gave Smylie what he wanted: a professional parks system free from political patronage.

Doing it the old fashioned way [Courtesy Jay Krajic]
Doing it the old fashioned way

Parks manager Keith Hobbs has helped move Harriman State Park toward profitability, by renting out many buildings of the original Railroad Ranch. "We have about 27 buildings that all were gifted over to the state of Idaho by the Harrimans when they gave the property to the state. When I first got here, we had maybe two rental facilities. Now we have seven; so it changes the management of the park. But we try to maintain them as best we can, to maintain that little slice of history for Idaho here at Harriman."

At 11,000 acres, Harriman is one of the largest parks in Idaho's park system. There are animals here that you won't find in other state parks, like trumpeter swans and an occasional grizzly bear. The park also boasts eight miles of the famous Henry's Fork, which attracts fly fishermen the world over.

Georgia visitor Peggy Thompson explained what she likes about this park. "We like the laid back way of life here. We like being out in the country and staying in a cabin and cooking together and riding horses and fishing the rivers. We just love the climate. It's wonderful. It's beautiful. We love it."

Henrys Fork at Harriman State Park
Henrys Fork at Harriman State Park

Park manager Keith Hobbs thinks Harriman's wide open spaces are key to its attraction. "People enjoy that relaxed atmosphere that I think the Harriman’s sought when they came here, that retreat atmosphere. Visitors when they come to the park should be able to say to themselves, 'right now this is where I belong. This is what I should be doing.' If we can provide that experience, it’s a perfect goal to shoot for, in my opinion." 

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