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Historic Roads in the National Park System





Raynold Expedition

Barlow Expedition

Jones Expedition

Ludlow Reconnaissance

Dan C. Kingman

Hiram M. Chittenden




When Charles W. Cook returned from an exploration of the future Yellowstone Park in 1869, he submitted a description of the marvels which he had encountered to Lippincott's Magazine. His manuscript was returned with a polite rejection: "Thank you but we do not print fiction." A year later Scribner's Monthly published two articles on Yellowstone by Nathaniel P. Langford. One reviewer declared "that 'this Langford must be the champion liar of the Northwest,'" and more than one reader reminded the editor "that his prospectus had guaranteed a moral tone." [1]

Incredulity was the usual reaction to early reports of the Yellowstone region. This attitude was hardly surprising. In his history of the Mormons, published in 1852, Lt. John W. Gunnison presented a view of the Yellowstone wonderland as related to him by the famous mountain man, Jim Bridger:

He [Bridger] gives a picture, most romantic and enticing, of the headwaters of the Yellowstone. A lake, sixty miles long, cold and pellucid, lies embosomed among high precipitous mountains. On the west side is a sloping plain, several miles wide, with clumps of trees and groves of pine. The ground resounds with the tread of horses. Geysers spout up seventy feet high, with a terrific, hissing noise, at regular intervals. Waterfalls are sparkling, leaping and thundering down the precipices, and collect in the pool below. The river issues from this lake, and for fifteen miles roars through the perpendicular canyon at the outlet. In this section are the "Great Springs," so hot that meat is readily cooked in them, and as they decend on the successive terraces, afford at length delightful baths. On the other side is an acid spring, which gushes out in a river torrent; and below is a cave, which supplies "vermilion" for the savages in abundance. [2]

To any one unfamiliar with the area, Bridger's words could have called to mind the fantastic topography of Xanadu depicted by Coleridge in "Kubla Khan." Yet, as Hiram Chittenden pointed out, many prominent features of Yellowstone were recognizable in Bridger's account — Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon, the falls, the geyser basins, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Cinnabar Mountain.

Throughout the greater part of the nineteenth century, Yellowstone existed in the public mind as just another tall tale. Well past the Civil War it remained an "enchanted enclosure," its secrets protected not only by disbelief but also by the rugged mountains surrounding it. Explorers, trappers, and gold-seekers tended to bypass the area which Indians called "the summit of the world." The red men generally avoided Yellowstone; only the Sheepeaters, a small, hermit-like band of Shoshone inhabited the future park, and ancient Indian trails which crossed it showed infrequent passage. [3]

Thus Yellowstone was the last important region of the West to be explored. It was the "outer space" of its day, a relic of earlier ages when fantastic volcanic and glacial forces formed the Western half of the United States. Commentators have frequently argued that the early names assigned to certain Yellowstone features — Hell Roaring Mountain, Devil's Cauldron, Satan's Arbor, and the like — were a special tribute to the infernal aspects of the landscape. But the satanic nomenclature was more than matched by the depicting of geysers and hot springs as "temples," "sanctuaries," and "sacred places." Confronted with a spectacle such as Yellowstone, man reached for a vocabulary — demonic or Arcadian — to designate the extraordinary and to express his feelings at coming face to face "with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." [4]

Credit for the national park idea belonged to no one individual. According to tradition, Cornelius Hedges, a member of the Washburn — Langford — Doane Expedition of 1870, was the first to suggest saving Yellowstone for the people. But Hedges proposal, made during a campfire conversation*, reflected not merely one man's philosophy but an attitude of the age. The dedication of Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872 was primarily a testament to the romantic movement. "In a sense," one writer noted, "the parks were our first massively endowed works of art." [5] Long before Yellowstone was officially explored, George Catlin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau argued, independently, for "a Nation's Park," "magnificent parks," and "natural preserves." The relationship of romanticism to the creation of Yellowstone National Park was clearly identified by an authority on western explorations:

As late as 1860, what was called science was still an attempt, pre-Darwinian in nature, to comprehend . . . a vast system that was the mind of God. The search was for unity, totality, oneness with the whole "Kosmos."

Immensity — sublime, endless, empty immensity with here and there an Indian or a buffalo as allegorical nature god — was most often depicted by the explorer-artists of the day. . . . Man, especially civilized man, whenever he did appear, was usually only a figure in the foreground, almost insignificant in the face of the immensity of nature and nature's wonders. This philosophy, or point of view, characterized the entire romantic era and indeed carried over into the post-Civil War years, culminating finally, at its happiest and best, in the creation and preservation of such natural wonderlands as Yellowstone Park and Yosemite. [6]

*Web Edition Update: The 'campfire myth' has subsequently proven to be untrue.

In an age of expansion, the creation of Yellowstone Park was a signal victory of the esthetic over the practical. "That," a park historian observed, "was the wonderful thing: that a hustling, restless, dollar-chasing young nation, with much of its population swarming like locusts over rich virgin land, should have been able to pause long enough to look into the future with such spiritual prudence; it had not happened before." [7]

Nevertheless, Yellowstone Park does owe a heavy debt to specific individuals and groups, and in the history of its discovery, preservation, and improvement no organization was more outstanding than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Names of Engineers who made major contributions have been memorialized in natural and manmade attractions of the park: Raynolds Pass, Barlow Peak, Jones Creek and Pass, Kingman Pass, and Chittenden Road and Bridge. Other officers, who played smaller roles, left no names on the land; yet they, too, shared in the record of accomplishment and in the spirit of dedication that marked the Corps' involvement in Yellowstone. Among the figures in the annals of the park were these military engineers: Lieutenant Gunnison, who preserved Bridger's early and graphic description for posterity; Maj. George L. Gillespie, a future Chief of Engineers, who in 1875 helped to popularize the region; Col. Orlando M. Poe (aide-de-camp to General William T. Sherman), who in 1877 made a significant contribution to park literature; Capt. William S. Stanton, chief engineer of the Department of the Platte, who in 1881 provided an accurate table of distances; and Lt. Col. James F. Gregory (aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan), whose reports of 1881 and 1882 helped to focus attention on weaknesses in the Interior Department's stewardship. [8] Moreover, the park's well-known road and bridge builders, Capt. Dan C. Kingman and Capt. Hiram M. Chittenden, were but the first and foremost of ten Engineers whose improvements transformed a nearly trackless wilderness into a true pleasuring ground. [9]

This volume attempts to make known the more remarkable achievements of the Corps of Engineers in Yellowstone National Park by presenting excerpts from the journals and reports of six outstanding Engineer officers: Capt. William F. Raynolds, Capt. John W. Barlow, Capt. William A. Jones, Capt. William Ludlow, Capt. Dan C. Kingman, and Capt. Hiram M. Chittenden. Their individual exploits as explorers, conservationists, and engineers clearly emerge from their separate writings. Although differences in their achievements and personalities were striking, Yellowstone engaged the imagination of each man, in addition to eliciting his technical skill. Their writings are a rare combination of the practical and the visionary, the empirical and the poetic. Passages such as Captain Raynolds' description of a bucolic camp scene are common:

While returning to the [wagon] train my first view of the camp struck me as one of the most singular beauty. The dark and varied outlines of the mountains formed the background to a landscape of wide extent and attractive features. In the centre, the circle of white tents and wagon covers reflected the bright rays of the sun, and the smoke of camp fires, the groups of men, and the grazing animals, added the charm of busy life to the scene; while, upon either hand, the striking contrasts were mellowed down by gently-sloping hills clad with verdure of all the picturesque tints of autumn. [10]

Raynolds was not alone in painting verbal portraits that evoked the atmosphere captured by such artists of the West as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Indeed much of the descriptive terminology of the Engineers — "picturesque," "grandeur," "majestic," "sublime" — showed their precise knowledge of romantic esthetics. A romantic bias toward idealizing reality was evidenced also by their tendency to anthropomorphize natural phenomena. Captain Ludlow's description of Giantess Geyser, in which he began by citing exact measurements and gradually built to a dramatic climax of Shelleyan prose, is a perfect example:

Again and again the geyser renewed its strength, sending out vast volumes of steam with a deafening roar that shook the whole valley, and occasionally snatching hold of a new reservoir of water and instantly ejecting it; each fresh access of wrath or travail being heralded by deep mighty thuds, as though some vast machinery were at work beneath. The exhibition of enormous power wasted in these prolonged spasms of blind rage was both fascinating and terrible, and the imagination, powerfully stimulated in the presence of such strength and fury, could not avoid imputing to the scene the attributes of gigantic passion and suffering. It seemed as though the geyser, maddened by some inexpressible and mysterious torment, were imprisoned beneath and gradually exhausting herself in unavailing struggles to escape it by bursting the bonds that held her, the paroxysms of efforts being alternated with intervals of stupor, again and again overcome by her still unabated rage. [11]

In the improvement work which followed the explorations, the Engineers never lost this respect for the power and beauty of nature. The roads they built were smooth and safe and some of their bridges were feats of engineering, yet all were designed to preserve the land as "nearly . . . as nature left it." [12] Many of their works were classic models of organic architecture carried out with both the tourist and the landscape in mind. By improving Yellowstone without impairing it, the Corps proved itself an ideal guardian of the natural wonderland willed to the nation.

When the National Park Service assumed control of Yellowstone in 1918, the Corps' endeavors there ended. But, even today, the Engineers continue to foster the national park idea by providing hundreds of recreation areas at their manmade lakes. And their Yellowstone legacy is still viable. In 1860, when Captain Raynolds reached the bluff overlooking the Yellowstone River, he gazed into a wide valley and poignantly forecast that "the sight was one which, in a few years, will have passed away forever." [13] It is a happy irony that his own Corps proved him wrong by helping to save the pristine wilderness which so struck Raynolds. His work and that of his brother Engineers did much to spread knowledge of the park, open it to the general public, protect its wildlife and natural wonders, and enable modern tourists to share the awe experienced by pioneers of an earlier age.

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