New York Aquarium. Office of the Director. Charles H. Townsend records
Scope and Contents
The Charles H. Townsend Records collection includes correspondence and subject files during his tenure as New York Aquarium Director, articles and reports on such subjects as Northern fur seals and Galapagos tortoises, whaling records that he used to create maps of whale distribution, and photographs he took during trips and expeditions to locations including the Bahamas, Canada, California, and Alaska.
- 1885 - 1936
- Townsend, Charles Haskins, 1859-1944 (Person)
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Biographical / Historical
Charles Haskins Townsend served as the Director of the New York Aquarium (NYA) from 1902 to 1937. Townsend started his tenure when Aquarium management was taken over by New York Zoological Society (NYZS).
Townsend was born in Parnassus, Pennsylvania in 1859. His family expected him to follow tradition and become part of the clergy, but as Townsend himself wrote in an autobiographical piece entitled “Old Times with the Birds” in a 1927 issue of The Condor, “I was too fully occupied with the natural world to consider the supernatural.” In 1879, Townsend met William T. Hornaday for the first time at Ward’s Natural Science, and the two would later work together at NYZS as directors.
His early interest in wildlife led to his work at the United States Fish Commission in 1883 as an assistant in the salmon propagation program. Townsend took part in expeditions to the Arctic, his first in 1885 on the U.S.S. Corwin.
From 1886 to 1896 Townsend served as the resident naturalist aboard the U.S.S. Albatross, which spent time in the Bahamas and the Canadian Maritime Provinces before voyaging to the Pacific, making stops around the Galapagos Islands, islands off the California coast, up the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. From 1897 to 1902 Townsend was Chief of the Fish Commission's Fisheries Division.
When Townsend became Director of NYA in 1902, he began making improvements and renovations inspired in part by his trip to aquariums in Europe. He spent four years convincing New York City officials to support the installation of a water purification system for the exhibits and improved the exhibits themselves by renovating the Aquarium. He also added laboratories and a library. During his tenure as NYA Director, the annual number of visitors rose to over two and a half million.
While he did not attend higher education, his successful career led to Washington and Jefferson College awarding him an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1909. Townsend used the experience he gained from managing the Aquarium to write the book The Public Aquarium: Its Construction, Equipment, and Management in 1928.
While director, Townsend continued his own research in wildlife and conservation. Townsend is credited with working to save the Galapagos tortoise from extinction by establishing colonies in California, Hawaii, and the Gulf of Mexico. Galapagos tortoises collected by Townsend were also placed in zoos around the country, including the Bronx Zoo. It was through his interest in Galapagos tortoise populations that Townsend began collecting nineteenth-century whaling records. He used these records to create maps of the distribution of whale populations; in turn, this data collected by Townsend has proven valuable for modern conservationists seeking to study and protect whales.
Townsend worked as a leading voice in the protection of fur seals. In his early career he spent several years studying the animals in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea and worked on legislation for their protection, serving as a member of the Bering Fur Seal Commission.
In 1902, as his last task working for the State Department, he was selected to represent the United States at The Hague in the arbitration of a fur seal dispute between the U.S. and Russia. The dispute was between the countries over a sealing vessel, and Townsend was called to answer general questions about sealing activities. The U.S. won the dispute.
As a member of the Advisory Board of Fur Seal Service during the 1910s, Townsend believed that removing young male fur seals from land would be beneficial for their overpopulation. Townsend’s beliefs stemmed from his time in Alaska on the Pribilof Islands taking censuses of the seals and examining sealing logbooks. William T. Hornaday, then Director of the Bronx Zoo and a close friend of Townsend, believed the opposite. Hornaday's views were shared by the Camp-Fire Club and the naturalist Henry Wood Elliot, and together they challenged the U.S. government. Tension spilled into the Society with President Henry Fairfield Osborn disagreeing with Hornaday. Eventually, a truce was called on the matter.
In 1911, House Representative John H. Rothermel of Pennsylvania began holding hearings about the fur seal industry. Townsend was called into be questioned, and Elliot asked him questions about the 1902 arbitration rather than the matter at hand. This led to Townsend’s role in the dispute being put under question with fraudulent claims of compensation, but he was exonerated and the Society stood by Townsend.
As a result of Townsend’s work with fur seals, researchers later named a newly discovered species, the Guadalupe Island fur seal (Arctocephalus townsendi) in his honor.
Townsend retired as Director in 1937 but continued to study wildlife. He died on January 28, 1944 in Miami, Florida.
6.8 Linear Feet (17 Hollinger boxes)
3.5 Cubic Feet (7 flat boxes)
Language of Materials
Charles Haskins Townsend served as the Director of the New York Aquarium (NYA) from 1902 to 1937. This collection includes correspondence and subject files during his tenure as Director, articles and reports on such subjects as Northern fur seals and Galapagos tortoises, whaling records that he used to create maps of whale distribution, and photographs he took during trips and expeditions to locations including the Bahamas, Canada, California, and Alaska.
The whale distribution maps created by Townsend and printed in Zoologica 29(1), 1935, can be found in the Archives Room map case.
- Albatross (Steamer)
- Aquarium animals
- Aquatic animals
- Bering Sea controversy
- Galapagos tortoise
- New York Aquarium
- Northern fur seal
- Northern fur seal—Law and legislation
- Pribilof Islands (Alaska)
- Public aquariums
- Public aquariums -- Administration
- Public aquariums -- Design and construction
- Scientific expeditions -- Galapagos Islands
- Scientific expeditions -- Pacific Ocean
- United States. Bureau of Fisheries
- Whale populations
- Whaling ships
- Wildlife conservation
- Wildlife conservation—Galapagos Islands
- Townsend, Charles Haskins, 1859-1944 (Person)
- Guide to the Records of New York Aquarium Director Charles H. Townsend, 1885-1936
- Sana Masood
- October 2018
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Code for undetermined script
Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository
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