National Park Service pioneer Dr. Irving Townsend celebrated his 100th birthday today. Townsend is one of just a handful of park rangers alive who predate the 1916 establishment of the NPS and might very well be the oldest living park ranger.
Townsend began his career as a seasonal park ranger in Yosemite in California in 1929 and remembers patrolling the park via motorcycle, horseback, or skis depending on the season. Some summers the family home was a tent along the Merced River. Housing was even an issue when he was named superintendent of Aztec Ruins National Monument in 1944. Townsend recounts, “Our house was not ready when we arrived at Aztec in New Mexico. We ate out of a tent that was placed somewhere back of the museum. At first we lived in two places. My wife and I in an old adobe and my son, age 4, and daughter, age 11, in some old barracks. It was a challenge being a house away from the kids. They thought they had the biggest playground in the world.”
Townsend spent seven years as a temporary employee performing a variety of duties before getting his first permanent NPS job. Many of his favorite memories are from the years he spent as a seasonal in Yosemite. He also vividly remembers working at Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico when the access to the cave 700 feet below the surface was via a long and steep trail.
Townsend’s first permanent position was at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas in 1936. The following year he transferred to the newly created Boulder Dam National Recreational Area in Nevada. Townsend returned to Hot Springs NP as the Chief Ranger in 1939.
In 1944 Townsend was named the superintendent of Aztec Ruins NM. He had to receive permission from the War Price and Food Rationing Board to buy the 110 gallons of gasoline needed to move his family from Arkansas to New Mexico.
Townsend made a lasting impact at Aztec Ruins NM. He discovered upon arrival that many of the ancient structures were in dire need of stabilization and repair. Three kivas and 39 rooms had been undermined by extensive water damage caused by the local topography, soil conditions, surrounding irrigated fields, and a nearby unlined canal. Many roofs, including the Great Kiva’s, leaked and some had exposed roof timbers. Several walls had collapsed due to the disintegration of wall bases. Townsend undertook the construction of a complex deep trench drainage system to protect the resource. The 17 month long task was hampered by mechanical break downs, labor shortages, and cave-ins. Townsend even operated some of the heavy equipment himself in order to successfully complete the elaborate project.
Townsend was a pilot and traveled by plane to keep in touch with family members when separated by work. He and his family also loved road trips. His son said, “I believe that we toured every national park and monument in the western United States. My folks would always fix really neat picnic lunches for all of us. Sandwiches made with potted meat, mayonnaise, and chopped olives. Man, that was living high on the hog!”
Townsend remained at Aztec Ruins NM until 1953 when he retired from the NPS to pursue a teaching career. He received his MA and ED from the University of New Mexico. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Albuquerque and became Dean of the Graduate School before retiring from his second career in 1973. Throughout his life, he has continued to explore different parts of the country and the world. His travels include trips to Australia, Europe, Libya, Japan, Russia, and Africa.
The lifetime member of the NPS Employee and Alumni Association now resides near San Diego, CA and fondly recalls his time in the ranger ranks. “The twenty years I spent with the NPS were most inspiring. I always tried to do my best for the Service,” said Townsend.