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National park history has local family tie

The much ballyhooed television series by Ken Burns chronicling the establishment of the National Park Service has a bit of a local tie.

Local resident Bill Langford is the great-great-nephew of Nathaniel Pitt Langford, who was a member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition which was the first to officially explore portions of what eventually became Yellowstone National Park.

Bill Langford never knew his famous relative, but many stories of his adventures have been passed down through the family.

"My dad knew him, and he said that my great-great-uncle would always tell stories about the West," Langford said.

Langford said his great-great-uncle, who was a bank examiner and tax collector in Montana at the time, set out with the others in the summer of 1870 to try and verify the stories that mountain men from the region told.

"They'd heard all these stories, so they decided to explore it," Langford said, noting that they weren't sure if they would discover anything noteworthy. "The mountain men had great imaginations."

The expedition, which was privately funded, found the stories of geysers, hot springs, majestic scenery and impressive wildlife were not imaginary.

The expedition members created detailed maps and wrote descriptions of what they saw. Several journals were kept to help recall the details witnessed. Nathaniel Langford eventually wrote a book, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park.

A second expedition to the region included a photographer, who was able to provide pictures to further prove the stories.

The expeditions eventually led to Congressional action to protect the United States' greatest treasures.

"He eventually went to Washington, D.C.," Langford said. "He was very instrumental in lobbying elected officials and getting it done."

Nathaniel Langford eventually became the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, even though he was paid no salary and had no legal means to protect the park. A few short years later, he was replaced by a new superintendent.

Bill Langford said it was fun hearing his great-great-uncle's name prominently mentioned in the early segments of the six, two-hour episodes of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The special series began airing on PBS on Sept. 27.

"I had a hunch that he would be mentioned," Langford said. "They were saying that the program was going to be more than a travelogue with a lot of photography. They said they were going to talk about the development of the concept for national parks."

Although he hasn't seen every episode of the Burns' program, Langford said it's very well done. He plans to purchase the DVDs when the series is eventually for sale.