As a boy and as a man, Enos Mills (1870–1922) lived a remarkable life. His bond with nature and wildlife inspired him to overcome personal hardship and become a successful speaker, author, naturalist, businessman, and driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Today, Mills is remembered as Colorado’s premier conservationist.
As a boy, if he felt well and his chores were done, Mills loved to explore the woods and fields around his family’s eastern Kansas farm. But an undiagnosed digestive ailment frequently laid him low. When he turned fourteen and finished formal schooling, Mills’s doctor sounded a warning: the boy’s malady, mixed with the endless rigors of farm work, might prove fatal.
In the 1880s thousands flocked to the Rockies in attempts to restore their health in the clean, dry air and sunny climate. Ann and Enos Mills, Sr., sent their oldest son to live near the Lamb family, relatives who ranched in Colorado. Though sad to leave his family, the young Mills relished living in Colorado’s mountains, a place he had heard about in family stories but never seen. Soon, from an open railway car window, he had his first glimpse of snow-topped peaks.
Making His Own Way
In spring 1884, Enos Mills came to Lamb’s Ranch and guest house, known as Longs Peak House, lying below its namesake peak near Estes Park. The ranch remained his home base for the rest of his life. In the summer he worked in many capacities for the Lambs, including as a trail guide.
During cooler seasons Mills extended his knowledge of nature and mountain geography on treks beyond the Longs Peak region. Despite occasional bouts of stomach illnesses, he grew in stamina and self-confidence. Near the ranch, he built a log cabin on land he eventually homesteaded. He found lucrative wages for thirteen winters—starting in 1887—working for mines in Colorado and Butte, Montana. He also found a cure for his digestive disorder when a Butte doctor diagnosed his “allergy to wheat”—what we know today as Celiac Disease.
A Fortuitous Meeting
Death-dealing fires wracked Butte’s Anaconda Copper Mine in fall 1889, putting Enos Mills out of work. Wanting to explore California and its Sierra Nevada mountains, he headed to San Francisco.
The Pacific Ocean topped his sightseeing list. Strictly by accident, Mills met someone on the beach who was knowledgeable about plants and animals of the shoreline. The young man offered his hand. The older man, with long, graying beard and hair, firmly shook it, saying, “I’m John Muir and I come from the Yosemite.” Though Mills had never heard of Muir, they began a four-mile walk filled with conversation about wild places and creatures.
Mills found that Muir, a writer, explorer, botanist, and pioneer conservationist, was a perfect mentor. Muir “became the factor in my life,” Mills later wrote. During this meeting and afterward, Muir encouraged his protégé to develop writing and public speaking skills and to travel, studying nature carefully and constantly. Muir told Mills, “I want you to help me do something for parks, forests, and wildlife.”
Mills took all of Muir’s words to heart. For nearly six months in 1890, Mills trekked California’s deserts, forests, and mountains. The next year he worked on a survey crew in Yellowstone National Park. There, he first conceived the idea of a national park in the Estes Park region. In 1892 and 1894 he sought out glaciers in southeast Alaska. 1893 found him visiting family and the Chicago World’s Fair.
In most summers of the 1890s, Mills guided parties from Longs Peak House. He spent “time camping alone without any gun . . . I tried everywhere to get acquainted with the birds, the flowers and the trees.” Beaver, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bear became his favorite mammals to trail and study.
Wherever he went, Mills kept track of observations in a pocket notebook. The notes became the basis for several hundred magazine stories and chapters of many books, starting with 1909’s Wild Life on the Rockies.
Earning a Reputation
In the winter of 1901–2, Mills bought the Lamb ranch, renaming it Longs Peak Inn. As innkeeper, he expanded the hostelry for a growing number of summer guests. Soon after, Colorado state engineer L. G. Carpenter named him Colorado’s first snow observer. For three winters Mills roamed the winter heights, making reports of snow depth, water content, and forest condition and, as he quipped, being “careful not to lose my life.” He helped Carpenter demonstrate the link between healthy headwater forests and downstream water quantity and quality.
Many organizations asked Mills to speak on forest and wildlife subjects. In early 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as a forestry agent for the new US Forest Service. In little more than two years, Mills gave hundreds of forest conservation lectures in almost every state.
Mills coined the term nature guide for himself and inn employees who led groups outdoors. He believed that exposing participants to nature held greater importance than simply reaching a destination. Mills also felt that women often made better nature guides than men.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In fall 1909 Enos Mills began pouring considerable energy into a new project: the “preservation of scenery” visible from his own doorstep. His proposal for a 645,000-acre “Estes National Park” that stretched from Wyoming to the present Indian Peaks Wilderness area near Mt. Evans diverged from the Forest Service’s consumptive conservation principles—grazing, mining, timbering—and advanced the more protective ethic of John Muir and other preservation advocates. His proposal initially drew positive reactions from many. Mills made more speeches and contacted influential people: newspaper editors, civic organization heads, business leaders, and state and federal legislators.
Mills encouraged the founding of the Colorado Mountain Club in 1912, which advocated the establishment of the national park. A 1913 park recommendation by the US Secretary of the Interior boosted the campaign’s momentum. Club president and lawyer James Grafton Rogers introduced to Congress legislation to create the park.
On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating Rocky Mountain National Park on 230,000 acres between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. The park was much smaller than Mills envisioned, but it expanded to its current size of 265,761 acres with the addition of the Never Summer Mountains in 1929. Though many deserved credit for the park’s formation, newspapers saluted Enos Mills as the park’s “father.” At the park’s dedication on September 4, 1915, Mills said, “In years to come when I am asleep forever beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park.”
Within seven years, Mills, by then a husband and father, was “asleep forever” after suffering blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth, which induced a heart attack at Longs Peak Inn on September 21, 1922.