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In 1983, the husband and wife historian team of Mary Reed and Keith Petersen wrote a short booklet, Virgil McCroskey: Giver of Mountains. We conducted this interview with the couple in 2013. Petersen is now the Associate Director and State Historian with the Idaho State Historical Society. Reed is the Vice Chair of the Idaho Association of Museums and served as the Executive Director of the Latah County Historical Society in Moscow for 23 years.
Mary McCroskey State Park
What kind of a man was Virgil McCroskey and why did he want to donate the land that became McCroskey State Park to the State of Idaho?
His first project was to acquire the land on the butte that he viewed every day from the family farm. Steptoe Butte is an ancient mountain top of granite, 400 million years old, surrounded by a sea of lava-flow basalt 15 million years old. It is now a National Natural Landmark; indeed the word "steptoe" is the term used by geologists worldwide to describe such ancient mountain tops surrounded by younger rock flows. But in the 1930s, Steptoe Butte was under a patchwork ownership of various land holders, and inaccessible to the public. McCroskey set out on the laborious task of convincing those landowners to sell him their property so that he could preserve the land. He also purchased an 80-acre picnic site at the base. In 1946, McCroskey donated the property-with its spiral road to the top providing one of the most spectacular 360-degree views in the West-to the State of Washington, "for the enjoyment of all the people, forever and ever." Today it stands as McCroskey State Park.
If you stand atop Steptoe Butte and gaze eastward, you will see a beautiful mountain ridge that separates the Palouse country of eastern Washington from the mountainous Idaho beyond. This is where the McCroskey family used to picnic in Virgil's youth. In 1939, at the age of 63 and while in the process of acquiring land at Steptoe, McCroskey began a project that would take him the rest of his life: developing a 25-mile secluded roadway along the crest of the ridge. McCroskey spent thousands of dollars and negotiated dozens of deals to consolidate the land that would allow a person to travel uninterrupted on what he called Skyline Drive in Latah and Benewah Counties. By 1951 he had gained clear title to more than 2,000 acres and had created a spectacular road. He offered this as a gift to the State of Idaho. And Idaho refused.
A view of the Palouse
The Idaho legislature refused to accept his generous gift not once, but several times. Why?
There were several reasons-one might less charitably say excuses-why the legislature declined his earlier offers. Benewah County in 1951 complained about a loss of tax revenue if the land moved out of private ownership-a loss of $178 a year. Others in Idaho questioned the wisdom of a park with a road "luring" tourists out of Idaho and into Washington, since visitors entering the park off of Highway 95 could exit either into Idaho or Washington. There were those who complained about the land's isolation. As the State Land Commissioner noted, "Other areas in the state could be developed for less money and would be of more recreational value."
But essentially, all of the arguments came down to the issue of whether or not Idaho even wanted to have state parks. Although Idaho boasted the first state park in the Northwest (Heyburn), it was one of the last states in the nation without a state parks department. By the 1950s, Washington had 70 state parks; Oregon 140. Idaho had two, but no parks department to operate them. In 1954, Robert Smylie won election as Idaho's governor on a platform of increasing tourism and improving the environment. Smylie is really the "father" of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and his negotiations with the Harriman family in the 1960s over the donation of the spectacular Harriman State Park in eastern Idaho led to the Harrimans' requirement that Idaho at last establish a professional parks department.
Often overlooked in the history of Idaho state parks is the key role that McCroskey played. The Harrimans literally forced the state into establishing a state parks department if the state wanted the family's spectacular gift of the former Railroad Ranch. But the debate over McCroskey's gift a decade earlier, and Smylie's advocacy of its acceptance, foreshadowed the Harriman gift. As Smylie wrote when the legislature finally accepted McCroskey's offer, "This act looks to the future. Future generations will thank Mr. McCroskey, and I feel certain that they will applaud the State's decision to accept his gracious gift."
A picnic shelter at Mary McCroskey State Park
Virgil McCroskey was 79 years old when the state finally accepted his land. Remarkably, he fulfilled his obligation of maintaining the site, working there nearly every day that the road was passable. He even purchased additional land, and donated that to the State of Idaho. Virgil McCroskey died in September 1970, a few days short of his 94th birthday-having fulfilled his obligation of 15 years of volunteer labor for the State of Idaho. He left nearly his entire estate-$45,000-to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to care for what had become Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park, named for his mother.
In many ways McCroskey State park seems to break the rules of what a state park should be. What is it about this state park that you personally appreciate?
It is good that we have diversity in our state parks. It is good that many of our parks are located near population bases so that the greatest number of people can take advantage. It is good that some of our parks have paved trails, swimming beaches, boat launches, parking lots, restrooms, and visitor centers. But we don't need those amenities in every park.
In places, McCroskey State Park is only as wide as the dirt Skyline Drive. In other places, McCroskey consolidated land that offered off-road hiking possibilities, picnic opportunities, and expansive vistas. There are trees and springs, an occasional picnic table or fireplace. But mostly this is simply a beautiful scenic drive, virtually undeveloped. It is a place for contemplation, and almost always one of isolation. So many times we've traveled the entire course of Skyline Drive, appreciating Virgil McCroskey's wonderful legacy, and have never seen another person. It is that seclusion that lured McCroskey there in the first place. It remains a peaceful place for communing with nature.
A picnic shelter at Mary McCroskey State Park