How a Campfire Talk and a Painting Saved Yellowstone

Around a campfire in 1872 the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition first suggested establishing a national park in Yellowstone country.
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
2
Around a campfire in 1872 the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition first suggested establishing a national park in Yellowstone country.
Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" presented to Congress

Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" presented to Congress

Above: Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" presented to Congress

It began, they say, where a lot of good ideas do - by a campfire

The members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition of 1872 were on the final leg of what had been an amazing journey through the Yellowstone country. Now, sated with a meal and the comradeship that only comes from weeks in the mountains together, they sat around a crackling fire, watching sparks spin off into the night air.

It was September 19, 1870, and they were at the place where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers join to form the Madison. In a few more days, they would head down the Madison in the direction of Virginia City, Montana. Perhaps somewhere not far off, a bull elk bugled its challenge to the night, or a coyote yipped.

Photograph of Yellowstone. 1871, by William Henry Jackson. Camp on Mirror Lake during the Hayden Geologic Expedition of 1871

Photograph of Yellowstone. 1871, by William Henry Jackson. Camp on Mirror Lake during the Hayden Geologic Expedition of 1871

Above: Photograph of Yellowstone. 1871, by William Henry Jackson. Camp on Mirror Lake during the Hayden Geologic Expedition of 1871

What Would Become of Yellowstone?

The conversation turned to what the men had seen over the past month, to the scenic wonders of Yellowstone country and to what would become of those wonders. In those years after the Civil War, more and more people were pushing into Wyoming and Montana in search of their futures. Perhaps, speculated a few at the fire, great fortunes would be made by building resorts and such near some of the great geysers they had seen. There was money to be made in Yellowstone country, to be sure.

But then, the story goes, a man named Cornelius Hedges offered a suggestion that was recounted by Nathaniel Langford: "Mr. Hedges then said that he did not approve of any of these plans-that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but the whole ought to be set apart as a great National Park, and that each one of us ought to make an effort to have this accomplished."

Two years later, the idea came to reality and Yellowstone National Park came into existence. Whether or not you believe in the campfire idea-and some historians doubt its veracity-the idea of a national park certainly was a good one. If it was hatched that fine September evening in 1870 or not is a matter of some debate, but regardless, there was enough foresight among those early explorers of the region to set it aside for all subsequent generations to enjoy.

Hot Springs of the Yellowstone painting by Thomas Moran, 1872. Public domain image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Above: Hot Springs of the Yellowstone painting by Thomas Moran, 1872. Public domain image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Convincing Congress With Paintings, Photographs, and Surveys

The actual formation of the park was the work of many men, including William H. Clagett, a territorial delegate to Congress who introduced a bill into the House of Representatives in December 1871. Clagett and others lobbied hard for the creation of the park. F.V. Hayden, the famous surveyor who had explored Yellowstone as well, arranged for a display of geological specimens in the Capitol, along with some photographs taken by the remarkable William H. Jackson and sketches by the famous artist Thomas Moran.

On March 1, 1872, after much hard work by many people, President Ulysses Grant signed S. 392 into law, creating the nation's first national park.

Writer Tom Reed is an avid outdoorsman and the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories. He lives in southeastern Wyoming.

Related

The Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone's north entrance at Gardiner, Montana

How Much Does Yellowstone cost?

Entrance to see Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and other wonders of America’s first national park comes with a small price tag.

Stagecoach at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone

The History of West Yellowstone

The trip E.H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and Frank J. Haynes, president of Monida & Yellowstone Stage Line, made to Yellowstone National Park in 1905, led to the existence of the town of West Yellowstone.