Roger Wolcott Toll (1883–1936) was a mountaineer, author, and early employee of the National Park Service (NPS), serving as superintendent of Mt. Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone National Parks before his untimely death in a car accident in 1936. Toll’s career is an example of effective National Park management and offers insight into the role of the NPS in establishing backcountry safety through line placement and shelter construction. Today, Toll’s legacy is evident in his guide books, several monuments in the national parks he served, and the Agnes Vaille storm shelter that stands just below The Keyhole on Longs Peak.
Roger Wolcott Toll was born in Denver in 1883, the second of four sons of Charles Hansen Toll and Katherine Wolcott Toll. His mother was one of five Wolcott siblings who came to Colorado in the 1870s. Roger Toll attended Denver Public Schools and graduated from Manual Training High School in 1901 before enrolling in the University of Denver (DU) for a year. After DU, he entered Columbia University. Toll joined the Engineering Society and was elected vice president of the sophomore class; he also served on the board of the school yearbook, the Columbian. His quote for the yearbook was “Continued cheerfulness is the true sign of wisdom.” Toll earned his B.S. in engineering from Columbia in 1906 and spent a full year after graduation traveling around the world with his brother Carl.
Upon his return, he worked as an engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Health. By March 1908 Toll had been accepted by the Coast and Geodetic Survey as an aide. He stayed briefly at the Washington office of the survey and shipped out on the S.S. MacArthur. He was assigned to survey the southern half of the Cook Inlet, sailing out of Seattle and arriving in Alaska in April 1908. After his six-month assignment, he was back in Denver in early October of 1908. On his return, Toll began a position as an engineer with the Denver Tramway Company, a position he held for seven years and through which he served as the chief engineer for the last three.
Mountaineer and Author
In April 1912 the Colorado Mountain Club was established at a meeting organized by Assistant US Secretary of State James Grafton Rogers and schoolteacher Mary Sabin. Roger Toll was among the twenty-four founding members, served on the organization’s first board of directors, and served as an early vice president. The group of mountaineering enthusiasts aimed to teach people how to safely enjoy the mountains and participate in the protection of the mountain environment. In one of its first forest-preservation moves, the club joined with other groups and individuals working for the designation of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), which came in 1915.
At this time Toll began compiling the first of his two books, Mountaineering in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Published by the National Park Service in 1919, Toll’s first work is both a precursor to today’s hiking guidebooks and a contemplation of the virtues of wilderness exploration. He opens with a meditation on climbing: “In the open, one learns the character of his companions with more rapidity and certainty than in the more conventional life of cities. A friend is defined as one with whom you would like to go camping again. Strong and weak characteristics rapidly develop. Selfishness cannot be hidden. True and lasting friendship is often built up in a short time.”
Then follow thirty pages of advice—much of it as relevant today as it was then—about equipment, food, weather protection, and the essentials for safe and enjoyable climbs in Colorado’s high country. In the midst of his advice, Toll mused, “To some, camping out seems a hardship not to be undertaken if it can possibly be avoided, to others, however, a night out under the stars, far from human habitation, has a charm and a thrill that make it well worthwhile for the pleasure of the camp alone, if for no other reason.”
In October 1916, Toll left the Denver Tramway Company to join Sweet, Causey, Foster & Co. to sell investment bonds. When the United States entered World War I in November 1917, the army commissioned Toll as a captain in the Ordnance Department. Senator John F. Shafroth wrote one of Toll’s letters of recommendation to the secretary of war. Toll worked his way to the rank of major by war’s end. In the army Toll struck up a friendship with Horace Albright, assistant director of the National Park Service, whom he had met earlier in Colorado. Several versions of Mather and Toll’s first meeting exist, but Albright later related that after the war he had recommended Toll to NPS director Stephen T. Mather for the vacant superintendent position at Mt. Rainier National Park.
Toll and the National Park Service
Toll served as superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park from 1919 to 1921. During his tenure there, he made the first recorded ascent of Rainier’s challenging Kautz Glacier. When Claude Way, the first superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park, resigned from the NPS in 1921, Toll was Albright’s natural choice as Way’s replacement. Toll’s tenure as RMNP superintendent would run through early 1929.
Toll’s arrival as superintendent was timely. It coincided with the rising popularity of the national parks, and RMNP’s established reputation converged with Toll’s administrative talents and enthusiasm for the area to produce seven years of major, progressive changes. The park added campgrounds such as Aspenglen and Endovalley, as well as ranger stations, a mess hall, machine shop, and entrance checkpoints. Educational programs grew to include all-day nature hikes and evening talks with lantern slides. All the while, Toll continued writing to publicize the mountains and the park. In Mountain Magazine Toll published a description of ten days of hiking in the park. The experience, he wrote, was “not for a tenderfoot, but assumes you are a good hiker, have had experience in the mountains . . . and that you can go through a little hardship for the sake of the objective that you started for.”
As an increasingly mobile public began motoring to the national park, Toll’s administration undertook construction projects with these early tourists in mind. In August 1925, Toll oversaw the placement of a steel cable on the treacherous north face of Longs Peak. Several rangers, each carrying a length of cable, used horses to carry it across the Boulder Field to the site, where the installation proceeded smoothly. The cables were removed in 1973 in accordance with the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964. In 1926 Toll designed the Boulder Field Shelter Cabin, basing the design on facilities he had seen in Europe. The Forest Service Cabin was completed the following year. The masonry cabin provided dining facilities on the first floor and sleep areas on the second. Adjacent to it were a stable and latrine. The shelter and stable were eventually removed after 1935, as the cabin walls were continuously cracking due to the constant movement of boulders.
A third construction project on Longs Peak, the Agnes Vaille Storm Shelter, still stands today. Prompted by the climbing death of Toll’s cousin, Agnes Wolcott Vaille, and one of her rescuers on Longs Peak, the shelter was modeled by Denver architect Arthur Fisher after ancient dwellings in Apulia, Italy; it was completed in 1927. In addition to the agony of his cousin’s death, Toll had the added administrative and emotional burden of dealing with the death of Herbert Sortland, innkeeper for the Longs Peak Inn, who was found dead a short distance from the inn after turning back from the rescue expedition.
During his tenure at RMNP, Toll compiled his second book, The Mountain Peaks of Colorado. This directory of all of the named points of elevation in Colorado—peaks, mountains, ridges, and hills—was published in 1923 by the Colorado Mountain Club. The booklet was typical of Toll’s comprehensive and orderly approach. In early 1929, Horace Albright was called from Yellowstone to take over the directorship of the Park Service from an ailing Stephen Mather. Toll took the superintendent’s position at Yellowstone, where he continued until his untimely death in 1936. In his seven years at Yellowstone, Toll displayed the same administrative talents he employed at RMNP while continuing his dedication to preserving the natural environment.
In February 1936 Toll returned to Texas’s Big Bend as part of a six-man commission to study possible sites along the Mexican-American border as international parks or wildlife refuges. On February 25, 1936, Toll was near Deming, New Mexico, en route from Big Bend to the border mountain district of Arizona when an oncoming vehicle blew out its left rear tire, swerved, and struck Toll’s car head-on. Toll died on impact.
Adapted from Giles Toll, “‘Now We Are Entering That Other World’: Roger Wolcott Toll and Rocky Mountain National Park,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 24, no. 4 (2004).