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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


William A. Jones
William A. Jones, 1841 - 1941. (U.S. Military Academy Archives)

The Jones Expedition of 1873

After Yellowstone Park was set aside as a national trust in 1872, it quickly became a focus of scientific interest and a goal of official junkets. Few tours of the later 1870's and the 1880's were authentic explorations, valuable though they were for explaining the natural phenomena of the region and for bringing both the problems and the potential of the park before the public. But at least one more exploration of the first order took place when Capt. William A. Jones reconnoitered the area in the summer of 1873, as part of a larger survey for military defenses in northwestern Wyoming. The purpose of his journey through Yellowstone was to discover, "if possible, a good route from the south, via the Wind River Valley and Upper Yellowstone, into Montana."

Jones, who would return to the park in the early 1890's to supervise construction and improvement of roads and bridges, was well trained for his first Yellowstone assignment. His prior service included field duty in the Civil War and a term as assistant professor of engineering at the U. S. Military Academy. As engineer of the Department of the Platte, he witnessed completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 and led an expedition into the Uinta Mountains in 1871. Reflecting his intellectual bent and geological expertise, the report of his expedition of 1873 included not only elaborate topographical maps and a general descriptive journal but also separate sections on physical geography, meteorology, and the new Yellowstone route to Montana. Appended to the report were detailed studies by two eminent scientists, botanist Charles C. Parry and geologist Theodore B. Comstock, who accompanied the expedition; an entomological resumé by J. D. Putnam; an analysis of mineral and thermal waters by Army Surgeon Charles L. Heizmann; and the astronomical observations of Jones' assistant, Lt. Stanhope E. Blunt. All in all, it was a substantial contribution to knowledge.

Succeeding where others had failed, Jones found a passage through the high Absaroka Range near the head of Stinkingwater or Shoshone River. Entering the park near the creek that bears his name, he experienced the thrill of discovery. Considering how many previous explorers and adventurers had been thwarted by these imposing ridges Jones' excitement is easily appreciated:

After the Indian guides, I was the first to reach the summit of the pass, and, before I knew it, had given vent to a screeching yell, which was taken up with a wild echo by the Indians; for there, seemingly at their feet, and several miles nearer than I had expected, was spread out a scene of exceeding beauty — Yellowstone Lake — embosomed in its surrounding plateau, and a mass of green forest extending as far as we could see. Slowly, and in single file, the remainder of the party came toiling and panting up, leading their animals, and, in spite of lack of breath, each gave the same involuntary yell as the wonder-land burst upon their view. Perhaps there was something that moved us in the broad and startling contrast between the dreary deserts, the sage-brush plains, the awful and majestic mountains, and that broad expanse of fresh, hazy, and sensuous beauty that looked up so invitingly at us from below; but there was also the proud feeling that we had crossed the "impassable" mountains.

After visiting the major wonders of the park, traveling by way of Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Creek, Mount Washburn, the Grand Canyon, Mud Volcano, and the Lower Geyser Basin, then back to the lake by way of the Upper Geyser Basin, Jones again made history on his way out of the park. First, he verified the existence of Two-Ocean Water, a place where, as Bridger had for years insisted, water flowed simultaneously to both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Moreover, Jones discovered a passage, Togwotee Pass, over the Continental Divide between the Snake and Wind Rivers. In crossing the mountains to the south of the park, he noted with pride that he had again conquered the "impassable barrier never scaled by white man or Indians."

Inspired by the beauty and uniqueness of the area, Jones predicted that Yellowstone would eventually "become the most popular summer-resort in the country, perhaps the world." His success in twice piercing the Absaroka Range would, in time, prove instrumental in opening the park to wonder seekers from every corner of the globe.

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