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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 Ludlow
William Ludlow, 1843 - 1901. (Army Audio-Visual Agency)

The Ludlow Reconnaissance of 1875

Writing to the Chief of Engineers in March 1876, Capt. William Ludlow summed up his impressions of Yellowstone National Park:

The region . . . is, for its area, the most interesting in the world. It is situated at the very heart of the continent, where the hidden pulses can, as it were, be seen and felt to beat, and the closely written geological pages constitute a book which, being interpreted, will expose many of the mysterious operations of nature. My own interest in this land of wonder is so keen as to lead me . . . to hope that it will be protected from the vandalism from which it has already suffered. . . . [18]

As chief engineer of the Department of Dakota, Ludlow had journeyed through the park the previous summer while on a road reconnaissance. Resourceful and perceptive, he was an exceptional man. Graduated from West Point in 1864, he attained the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel before Lee surrendered. His later successes in molding the first topographic company in the Army, in organizing a new Engineer depot, and in designing a hydraulic hopper dredge, and his humane proposal to reserve the Black Hills for the Sioux marked him as a creative individual. His Yellowstone report was a pioneer conservationist work.

Ludlow's party was small but versatile. The well-known frontiersman Charlie Reynolds was hunter and guide. Lt. Robert E. Thompson of the Sixth Infantry and a detachment of Engineer soldiers acted as topographers and surveyors. Also accompanying the expedition at their own expense were three cultivated Easterners: the captain's brother, Edwin Ludlow, and two Yale professors, George Bird Grinnell and Edward S. Dana. Grinnell, who afterward as editor of Forest and Stream did much to promote the park, described the zoological and paleontological features of the region, while Dana submitted a worthwhile report on geology. Following trodden routes, Ludlow made no major discoveries, though he was the first to measure accurately the height of Yellowstone Falls.

The value of Ludlow's expedition lay not in the field of exploration but in the realm of conservation. A sensitive and cultured observer, Ludlow observed with the eye of a naturalist the splendors of the park, the general purity of atmosphere which gave objects a "wonderful transparency and distinctness," the "wealth and luxuriance of color almost supernatural" in the Grand Canyon, and the unique geyser basins where nature, "abandoning for the time all thoughts of utility, seems to have been amusing herself in this far-off and long-hidden corner of the world by devoting some of her grandest and most mysterious powers to the production of forms of majesty and beauty such as man may not hope to rival." Yet nearly everywhere he turned he witnessed men and women chopping and hacking and prying loose nature's irreplaceable handiwork. Around the crater of Old Faithful he saw delicate formations shattered, specimens removed, and everything immovable defaced by the "names of great numbers of the most unimportant persons." Lamenting the havoc worked "by the rude hand of man," he noted: "Miracles of art . . . can be ruined in five minutes by a vandal armed with an axe, and nearly all the craters show signs of [this] hopeless and unrestrained barbarity." Equally disturbing to Ludlow was the wanton slaughter of wildlife. Of the elk, he wrote: "A continuance of this wholesale and wasteful butchery can have but one effect, the extermination of the animal . . . from the very region where he has a right to expect protection, and where his frequent and inoffensive presence would give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number."

In his report Ludlow outlined a plan to save the park: call in the Army, let troops patrol the area, and have the Engineers build roads. Fortunately for the public, these proposals were eventually carried out. In the mid-1880's the Corps began road construction and the Cavalry moved in to protect the park.

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