Finding Aids to Official Records of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 74
National Zoological Park
In 1989 the National Zoological Park celebrated its centennial. However, as early as 1855 the Smithsonian had received gifts of live animals. In addition, the United States National Museum acquired living animals for life studies in order to create lifelike specimens for exhibit in the Museum. Since there were no facilities for caring for animals not used as specimens, those animals were either transferred to the Superintendent of the United States Insane Asylum (now St. Elizabeth's Hospital) for the amusement of its patients or else sent to the Philadelphia Zoological Garden.
However, parochial needs were not the only source for the idea of a national zoological park. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was growing concern that a number of animals would soon become extinct in their natural habitats, among them the American buffalo. William T. Hornaday, taxidermist at the Institution since 1882, had found the National Museum with only a few inferior specimens of the buffalo; and, with the support of Secretary Spencer F. Baird, he traveled to Montana in May and again in September of 1886 to collect specimens while they could still be had. Hornaday was able to collect numerous specimens. However, the state of the buffalo herds he observed during these trips evidently affected him deeply. In 1888, he published his The Extermination of the American Bison. Already, in March 1887 he had proposed to Secretary Baird that a zoological park be established in Washington under the Smithsonian's direction. Baird died before anything could be done; but in October 1887, with the consent of the new Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, a new Division of Living Animals was created in the U. S. National Museum and Hornaday was made its curator. In 1888 Hornaday had, at Secretary Langley's direction, undertaken a survey of land along Rock Creek in northwest Washington lying between the White House and Georgetown to determine its suitability as a zoo site.
The National Zoological Park was established by an Act of Congress in March 1889. The Secretary of the Smithsonian, the Secretary of the Interior, and the President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, were constituted as Commissioners of a National Zoological Park in order to purchase land for a zoo in the District of Columbia, "...for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people." The commissioners ultimately acquired one hundred and sixty-four acres at this site, some by condemnation, most by purchase. In April 1890 Congress passed another act, placing the National Zoological Park under the direction of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Half its operating funds were to come from the federal government, half from the District of Columbia. The Board was authorized to expend funds, transfer and exchange specimens, accept gifts, and to generally oversee Zoo operations.
Secretary Langley wanted the best professional advice in planning the layout and design of the Park, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the noted landscape architect, was consulted about all aspects of the Park's layout and design, including pathways, animal enclosures, public access, and the like. Copies of Olmsted's drawings and sketches are at the National Zoological Park today. In practice, however, much of Olmsted's advice was ignored, either because the Park lacked funds to follow his plans or because Secretary Langley often chose to follow his own counsel.
Hornaday became the first Superintendent of the Park but soon resigned because of differences of opinion with Secretary Langley over the scope of the superintendent's authority to control Park operations. In 1890 Frank Baker, Assistant Superintendent of the Light House Service, was appointed Acting Manager in place of Hornaday. From 1893 to until his retirement in 1916 Baker served as superintendent. These early years were full of difficulties. While the Rock Creek site had much natural charm, it was necessary to balance the demands for building construction, park layout and roads, and acquisition of animals--all on an extremely tight budget. Still, as the more mundane affairs of the Park moved slowly forward, there were important "firsts" as well. In 1891 Dunk and Gold Dust, the Park's first elephants, arrived. They were great favorites at the Park, notwithstanding their reputations as troublemakers in the circus which sold them to their new owner. That same year came French, the first lion, then only a cub, who was sold to the Park after he began to alarm the neighbors of his owner in Alderson, West Virginia. During its early years the Park was also the site of Secretary Langley's efforts to study and film the flight of birds, work he undertook as part of his effort to produce a manned flying machine.
On Baker's retirement in 1916, Ned Hollister, an assistant curator of mammals in the U. S. National Museum, was appointed to succeed him. Hollister served until his death in 1924. During his tenure the Park continued to receive very modest appropriations. On that account, it was not possible to purchase much zoo stock; but gifts were numerous. In 1922, they ranged from an opossum given by President Harding to the 15 mammals, 50 birds, and 17 reptiles collected by William M. Mann while on expedition with the Mulford Biological Exploration of the Amazon Basin. Housing for the animals remained inadequate, and many old structures had to remain in use. In 1924 the Park did manage to construct its first restaurant for the use of visitors, who numbered more than 2.4 million people in that year. Superintendent Hollister died in 1924 and was succeeded by Alexander Wetmore, who served only five months before leaving to become Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1925, Dr. William M. Mann became Superintendent (Director after 1926) of the National Zoological Park, a job he was to hold until his retirement in 1956. He hoped to build a zoo which housed a first-class collection in a first-class environment. As in the past, there was little money for purchase of animals, so he continued to rely on gifts. Mann was a good publicist, and he enlisted the sympathies of Walter P. Chrysler. On March 20, 1926, the Smithsonian-Chrysler Expedition set out, arriving at Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika, on May 5 of that year. The expedition was a splendid success and returned with 158 mammals, 584 birds, 56 snakes, 12 lizards, 393 tortoises, and 1 frog. Many specimens, like the giraffe, were quite new to the Park. The male and female impala obtained were the only ones in any zoo in the world at that time.
On his return, Mann finally succeeded in obtaining an appropriation for a new bird house to replace the one erected 37 years before. A reptile house followed in 1929. In 1935 some of the Zoo's remaining need for new buildings was finally met. The Public Works Administration, a New Deal relief program, allocated $680,000 for the construction of a Small Mammal and Great Ape House, a Pachyderm House, an addition to the Bird House, and several operations buildings. One of the New Deal's programs for the relief of artists, the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, furnished artists to decorate areas of the Zoo. In fact, the Park employed more artists than any other local institution.
In 1937 the Park was once more the beneficiary of a collecting expedition, the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the Dutch East Indies. Mann brought back with him 74 crates of mammals, 112 crates of birds, and 30 crates of reptiles. In 1940 Harvey Firestone, Jr., offered to finance a collecting expedition to Liberia. Again, the expedition supplied the Park with many specimens, including a female pygmy hippopotamus, Matilda, as companion for the lonely Billy, already at the Park.
When World War II began, the Zoo could not escape its effects. In fact, in 1942 for fear that poisonous snakes might be released from their cages if the Reptile House were struck by an air raid, all the Park's collection of cobras and other venomous snakes was traded to other locations less likely to undergo air attacks. Subsequently, the Park spent some time making repairs and resuming normal activities. In 1956 Dr. Mann retired and was succeeded by acting Director Theodore H. Reed, who was made Director in 1958. In 1958 the Friends of the National Zoo, a group dedicated to supporting the National Zoo and maintaining its reputation as one of the world's great zoos, was organized. In 1960 the Park's budget exceeded a million dollars for the first time. For many years the formula which charged half the Park's expenses to the budget of the District of Columbia had caused a great deal of difficulty. Local residents felt they were being taxed to pay for an institution national in character. Park officials argued that they needed more money than the existing formula could provide. Finally, in 1961, a compromise was reached. All costs for construction and repair of the Park would be carried in the appropriation for the Smithsonian Institution. The District of Columbia would contribute only to the Park's operating costs. As if to give the new arrangement a good send-off, in 1962 Congress appropriated four million dollars for the Park, more than half of it earmarked for a perimeter road around the Zoo and a tunnel to carry automobile traffic through the Zoo. In this way, it was at last possible to close the Park proper to through traffic and to devote the Park reservation solely to strengthening and improving the National Zoological Park's programs.
- October 1887
- Department of Living Animals created under the direction of the United States National Museum
- William T. Hornaday, curator of the Department of Living Animals, directed by Secretary Samuel P. Langley to draw up a preliminary plan for the Zoo
- March 1889
- Congress authorized the formation of a National Zoological Park Commission to select and purchase land for a zoological park
- April 1890
- Congress placed the National Zoological Park (NZP) under the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents
- May 1890
- Frederick Law Olmsted invited by Langley to consult on the layout of the Zoo
- May 10, 1890
- Hornaday appointed superintendent of the Zoo
- June 1, 1890
- Frank Baker appointed temporary acting manager of the NZP
- June 9, 1890
- Hornaday resigned
- 1891 Buffalo and elk barn built
- January 29, 1891
- William H. Blackburne appointed first head keeper
- April 30, 1891
- First animals, two male Indian elephants, Dunk and Gold Dust, brought to Zoo grounds
- June 27, 1891
- First group of animals moved from Mall to NZP
- Authorization to purchase and transport animals revoked for six years
- First permanent building completed. Called the main animal house, it was later renamed the Lion House.
- Baker appointed superintendent
- First beaver arrived from Yellowstone National Park. They inhabited "Missouri Valley," later called "Beaver Valley."
- Antelope House built
- NZP given authorization by Congress to purchase animals
- Illustrated circular on animals desired by NZP distributed to United States officers stationed overseas
- As a result of the circular, animals were received from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, and the Philippine Islands
- New iron bridge constructed across the creek at Harvard Street (then called Quarry Road)
- Twenty-inch sundial purchased in London and installed on lawn near the Animal House
- A flying cage was completed
- November 1902
- Two fifty-foot towers erected in order to provide platforms for photographers to take pictures of flying vultures. Work was in conjunction with Langley's research on flight.
- New Elephant House completed
- NZP received its first Kodiak bear
- November 24, 1904
- President Theodore Roosevelt gives the Zoo an ostrich, the gift of King Menelik of Abyssinia
- Last of the bear cages were completed
- Theodore Roosevelt in British East Africa on a Smithsonian collecting expedition. Friend William Northrup Macmillan offered NZP his animal collection if transported by a Zoo official. Assistant superintendent A. B. Baker transferred the animals to the Park.
- Cook House used for food storage and preparation was built
- Estimated attendance reached over one and one-half million visitors
- November 1, 1916
- Baker retired. Ned Hollister appointed superintendent.
- August 13, 1917
- Zoo purchased first motor truck
- October 1, 1920
- Visitor attendance reached two million
- Two giant tortoises received from Albemarle and Indefatigable Islands
- May 24, 1922
- African Cape big-eared fox transported to the Zoo. First of its species to be exhibited alive in America.
- November 3, 1924
- Ned Hollister died. Alexander Wetmore appointed interim superintendent.
- May 13, 1925
- William M. Mann appointed superintendent
- May-October 1926
- Smithsonian-Chrysler Fund Expedition to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). 1,203 animals transferred to the Zoo.
- First breeding of an American white pelican on record
- June 1928
- New Bird House opened
- February 27, 1931
- Reptile House opened. Voted by the American Institute of Architects as the outstanding brick building in the east.
- October 7, 1932
- Eagle Cage completed
- November 23, 1933
- The only maned wolf from South America to be exhibited in a zoo was received by the NZP
- June 21, 1934
- Zoo received its first Komodo dragon
- January 16, 1935
- NZP received a $680,000 Public Works Administration appropriation. Funds would provide for the construction of a Small Mammal and Great Ape House, Elephant House, addition to the Bird House, two shops, and a central heating plant.
- January 12, 1937
- Lucile and William Mann depart on the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the East Indies
- September 27, 1938
- 879 specimens from the East Indies Expedition are received at the Zoo
- April 6, 1939
- Lucile and William Mann leave for a collecting trip in Argentina
- June 27, 1939
- 316 specimens are received at the Zoo from the trip to Argentina
- November 11, 1939
- Zoo keeper Malcolm Davis sailed with Admiral Richard E. Byrd to establish bases during the Antarctica Expedition.
- February 17, 1940
- Lucile and William Mann leave on the Smithsonian Institution-Firestone Expedition to Liberia
- March 5, 1940
- Zoo received first emperor penguin collected by Davis while on Antarctica expedition
- August 6, 1940
- Zoo received 195 specimens collected in Liberia
- December 31, 1943
- Blackburne retired from Zoo at 87, after fifty-two years of service
- June 29, 1950
- Smokey Bear, a four-month old cub, arrived at the Zoo
- November 5, 1953
- Two Philippine macaques, Pat and Mike, launched by an Aerobee rocket to an altitude of 200,000 feet, were transferred to the Zoo by the United States Air Force
- July 15, 1955
- Theodore H. Reed became the Zoo's first full-time veterinarian
- October 31, 1956
- Mann retired. Theodore H. Reed appointed acting director.
- The Zoo was the first to use the Cap-Chur gun for the immobilization and/or treatment of animals
- March/April 1957
- United States Signal Corps transferred two hero pigeons to NZP. Anzio Boy and Global Girl completed sixty-one missions between them.
- March 12, 1958
- Reed appointed director of the Zoo
- April 10, 1958
- Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) organized
- April 16, 1958
- Female banded linsang received as a gift from a staff officer stationed in Kuala Lampur, Malaya. The species had never been exhibited at the Zoo, and was the only one in captivity.
- May 16, 1958
- Julie Ann Vogt, two-and-a-half years old, was killed by one of the Zoo's lions
- May 18, 1958
- First birth of a female snow leopard in the Western Hemisphere
- September 1958
- First wisent born in this country
- July 1, 1960
- Davis retired after spending thirty-three years at the Zoo
- December 5, 1960
- Female white tiger, Mohini, received as a gift from the chairman of the board of Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation
- December 16, 1960
- A master plan for the development of the Zoo was presented to the Smithsonian by the president of FONZ
- September 9, 1961
- A male gorilla, Tomoka, was born, the second born in captivity in the world
- An appropriation of 1.3 million dollars was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee as an initial investment on a ten-year capital improvement program
- April 17, 1962
- The Zoo hired its first zoologist
- April 5, 1963
- Ham, the chimponaut, was formally transferred to the Zoo by the United States Air Force. On January 31, 1961, Ham handled the controls on a Redstone rocket. Traveling up to a speed of 5,887 miles per hour, Ham was on-board the rocket for a 16.5 minute flight. Three months later, Commander Alan B. Shepard operated Mercury 3, the United States' first manned space mission.
- Several construction projects, including reconstruction of the Bird House, a new Great Flight Cage, parking lots and roads were going on at the same time
- January 6, 1964
- Mohini gave birth to three cubs, one of which was white
- September 1, 1965
- Zoo hired first resident scientist to supervise the Scientific Research Department
The earliest records concerning the National Zoological Park date from 1887. They were kept by the Office of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution until 1890, when they were transferred to Holt House, the Park's administrative headquarters. During the late 1960's the records were transferred to the custody of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The finding aid for these records was first written in 1972 and revised in 1989.
The Archives would like to thank Dr. Theodore H. Reed, former director of the National Zoological Park, and Sybil E. Hamlet, Public Information Officer, NZP, for their support and assistance in the transfer of the records to the Archives, and in providing historical information necessary for the processing of these records.
The records of the National Zoological Park document the development of the Park, from the site survey work begun by William T. Hornaday in 1888 through the beginnings of its modernization plans in 1965.
Several series of records are of particular importance. They include records of the National Zoological Park Commission, 1889-1891, and records created by William T. Hornaday, who had a significant part to play in the early development of the Park. Some of these records also demonstrate the important influence of Secretary Samuel P. Langley, who succeeded in persuading Congress to authorize the Park, and who kept it under his close personal supervision until he died in 1906. This material consists of minutes of the founding Commission, plats, maps, blueprints, photographs, and correspondence documenting acquisition of land for the Park, as well as records detailing the Park's changing boundaries, layouts of buildings and grounds, and construction of buildings. A more detailed description of the Park's correspondence system can be found in series 12 through 14. Additional information regarding the Commission's activities and Langley's close involvement with the Zoo may be found in Record Unit 31, the incoming correspondence of the Office of the Secretary (Samuel P. Langley), 1891-1906, and related records to 1908, and Record Unit 34, the Secretary's outgoing correspondence, 1887-1907.
Correspondence in these records embraces a number of other subjects as well. Acquisition of specimens is extensively documented. Animals were obtained from donors, from dealers in wild animals, from circuses, from American military and diplomatic personnel, from participation in various American expositions, and from expeditions abroad for the purpose of collecting animals for the Park. Collections gathered abroad came from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition (1909), the Smithsonian-Chrysler Expedition (1926-1927), the Argentine Expedition (1938-1939), the Antarctic Expedition (1939-1940), and the Firestone-Smithsonian Expedition (1940-1941). In addition, the Park provided specimen exhibitions and built facilities for several expositions, including the Pan-American Exposition (1901-1902), the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904), the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909), and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1914-1917). Record Unit 70 documents the Smithsonian's participation in expositions in detail.
The records also document the more mundane aspects of Park administration. There is considerable correspondence between the Park's director and colleagues at other institutions at home and abroad, and with various federal agencies. There is particularly full documentation of dealings with federal offices in control of animal quarantine regulations and with the rebuilding of the Park by various New Deal agencies in the 1930's. There are daily diaries of the superintendents, directors, and assistant directors of the Park (1895-1930), as well as diaries and daily reports of various subordinate staff members.
Lastly, records of the Park document Samuel P. Langley's 1901-1903 research on the flight of birds, Frank Baker's survey of private and public zoological parks and his buffalo census, 1902-1905, and Baker's involvement on a subcommittee entrusted with recommending a site for a zoological park to the New York Zoological Society.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Langley, S. P. (Samuel Pierpont), 1834-1906
- Hornaday, William Temple, 1854-1937
- Baker, Frank, 1841-1918
- Hollister, N. (Ned), 1876-1924
- Wetmore, Alexander, 1886-1978
- Mann, William M., 1886-1960
- Reed, Theodore H.
- National Zoological Park Commission (U.S.)
- United States. Government Printing Office
- National Zoological Park (U.S.). Animal Department
- United States National Museum. Department of Living Animals
- Pan-American Exposition (1901 : Buffalo, N.Y.)
- Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904 : Saint Louis, Mo.)
- Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915 : San Francisco, Calif.)
- Smithsonian African Expedition (1909-1910)
- Smithsonian-Chrysler Expedition to East Africa (1926)
- Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia (1940)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
- Black-and-white photographs
- Serials (publications)
- Plates (illustrations)
- Letterpress copybooks
- Picture postcards
- Architectural drawings
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 74, National Zoological Park, Records