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History and Culture

Early Day Travel Was Hard on Tourists

In the early years of Yellowstone National Park, the number of visitors was very light. In those years, there were no roads, and even as late as 1882, only 1,000 people a year came to Yellowstone. Travel was mostly by a good saddle horse or mule and the trails were poor at best. As the trails were cleared, the going got better, but even on a good traveling horse, a visitor would be lucky to cover twenty miles in a day.

In 1883, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to build some roads into the park, bringing a boost in visitation that very year-to 5,000. Most people rode stagecoaches from various railheads, but there were still horseback travelers and even a bicycle or two.

To even get near Yellowstone Park was an ordeal in itself. At the time, Yellowstone was served by three main routes, with most people coming in on the Northern Pacific Railroad to Livingston, Montana, and then catching a spur line south to the railhead at Cinnabar, which was extended into Gardiner in 1903.

The rail journey took passengers through the vast loneliness of the northern plains, across the prairies of Minnesota, and through the wind-swept plains of the Dakotas and eastern Montana. By the time the passengers disembarked to take the spur line south toward Yellowstone, they were hot, tired and thirsty. And their journey was not done.

The writer Rudyard Kipling took one of these journeys into early-day Yellowstone and when he stepped off the train at Livingston, he was not impressed. Kipling later wrote that he explored all the town had to offer, including all the saloons, in about ten minutes-a far cry from singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett’s “Livingston Saturday Night.”

From the west, visitors to early day Yellowstone could take the Utah and Northern narrow-gauge railroad to Monida, Montana, and then take a stage to the west entrance. This line was extended to West Yellowstone by the Union Pacific company in 1908.

Finally, the Burlington railroad would also take passengers to Cody, Wyoming, where they would disembark and could take a motor bus to the east entrance of Yellowstone.

For all the trouble of getting to just the railheads, it’s little wonder that the visitation hovered so low in those first years. In all, the era of the stagecoach and train combination lasted three decades, until the automobile came onto the scene in a big way.

It was a colorful way to travel, and those passengers who took the time and spent the money to tour the park were introduced to a primitive Yellowstone that is a far cry from today’s Yellowstone with its guardrails and walkways.

The Cinnabar route was especially interesting. After disembarking at this railhead, the visitors took an eight-mile stage ride to the National Hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs. Here, many of the visitors took the time to explore the hot springs terraces, and met with troopers from the U.S. Army, which had jurisdiction in the early days of the park. If you wanted-and you were the appropriate gender-you could even take a dip in Bath Lake, which was a males-only swimming hole, as bathing suits were hard to come by in those early days.

Most of the early-day tourists paid an extra $40 for five days of transportation, meals and lodging throughout the park. The next day, they embarked onto their Yellowstone adventure. The tourists climbed into 11-passenger wagons pulled by four horses and driven by a colorful, cursing character who was likely a young cowboy trying to make an extra buck that summer. For the duration of the trip, passengers would be assigned to that particular coach with that particular driver.

Aubrey L. Haines, in his definitive history of Yellowstone, “The Yellowstone Story,” noted the colorful names of the teamsters: “Society Red (who took in every dance he could get to); Cryin’ Jack (from his features); Big Fred (a 320-pound behemoth of a man); Scattering Jesus (a particularly flighty kid); White Mountain Smith (from his New Hampshire origin); and Geyser Bob (a teller of tall tales).”

Imagine as the teams pulled out of Mammoth and took a long, hard pull up into the Yellowstone country. There’s Cryin’ Jack at the reins, cursing and cajoling his team, flicking the reins as the wagon bounces over the rough road. Ahead, another team with its passengers kicks up dust into the mountain air. It was certainly an adventure, as the road passed along gorges, over wooden bridges, fording rivers. All the while, the teamster is regaling his minions with tales of the Yellowstone country. After descending the Gibbon River and dropping to Norris, the guests were treated to lunch at the Norris Lunch Station. After lunch, they could visit the Norris Geyser Basin and then continue on their journey. That night, they’d rest in either the Firehole Hotel or, later, the Fountain Hotel, which was built in 1891.

Today’s travelers in Yellowstone certainly have it much easier than those early-day adventurers. It’s hard to imagine discovering the park by horseback and stagecoach; those adventures of old certainly were a long way from 55 miles per hour over paved park roads and excellent accommodations at any number of modern facilities from Yellowstone campgrounds to Yellowstone hotels.

After the National Park Service was formed in 1916, the directors of the service, including Stephen Mather and, later, Horace Albright, were tremendous promoters. Visitation jumped remarkably and by 1917, touring cars replaced the stages. Quickly, America’s love of the automobile led to the annual visitation to three million today.

It’s worth noting one last road-a building concept that never came to pass-the proposed southward expansion of the park that took place in the late Teens and early Twenties. As early as 1882, General Phil Sheridan had suggested that the park was much too small, and he proposed expanding it southward and eastward to take in some big game winter range, nearly doubling the size of the park. If Sheridan’s vision had come to pass, the area beyond the park’s eastern border-the ranches and subdivisions of the Wapiti Valley outside Cody-would be part of the park. So, too, would be some of the country that is now the Teton Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

In the early 1900s, some of Sheridan’s vision was proposed and an attempt was made to expand the park southward to take in all of the country to the Tetons, and east to the Buffalo Fork of the Snake River, some 1,200 square miles. This included all of the Thorofare country, which is the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and today is some of the most remote country in the Lower Forty Eight.

The proposal to expand was met by derision from locals in Jackson and elsewhere, primarily because the park officials wanted to run a road up Pacific Creek, over Two Ocean Pass, down into the Thorofare Country at Hawk’s Rest and around Yellowstone Lake to meet the highway at present-day Fishing Bridge. Eventually, this expansion of the park was killed by opposition.

Today, this is still some of the most remote and beautiful country in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Each year, hundreds of hardy travelers take the rugged trail into the Teton Wilderness, visit Two Ocean Pass-where Two Ocean Creek splits and one branch becomes Pacific Creek and the other Atlantic Creek-and drop into the Thorofare country. Here, they can fish for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout or hunt elk in country that is alive with grizzly bears and wolves. This is country as remote as it gets in the state of Wyoming.

One wonders what this modern day wilderness would have looked like with a road instead of a trail into this tall country.