VII LABORS OF LOVE:
The Projects of Hiram M. Chittenden
A remarkable and lifelong commitment to Yellowstone National Park began inauspiciously in 1891 when Hiram M. Chittenden was transferred from his duties on the Missouri River near Sioux City to Yellowstone as assistant to Maj. William A. Jones. Chittenden, then a young lieutenant with seven years service in the Corps of Engineers, reached the park in the midst of a dismal spring rain. Still recovering from a bout with typhoid fever contracted the previous autumn, he nevertheless immediately joined a party that was to locate a road from the Geyser Basins to the Lake. As a portent of the skill and energy which would characterize his later work, he proceeded to lay out a road from Firehole River to the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake with only two assistants, a hand level, and a five-foot stick.
Chittenden, a graduate of West Point and the Engineer School of Application, had served with the Engineer Battalion, the Department of the Platte, and the Missouri River Commission previous to his Yellowstone assignment. It is ironical that in 1891 he viewed the park assignment as routine and incidental. Many years later, at the close of a distinguished career as soldier, engineer, and author, he looked back on his Yellowstone work as one of his more important accomplishments. Certainly no other project was so revelatory of the man.
During his first season in the park, roads were still rudimentary and budgets still pitiably lean. The small appropriation for the next fiscal year was so late that the work period was drastically shortened. Chittenden took advantage of this opportunity to conduct an opinion poll of "the traveling public." The responses indicated that tourists were of one mind in viewing "the present imperfect conditions of the roads, the steepness of the hills, the presence of mud or dust, [and] roughness of the roadway" as "the principal drawbacks to the enjoyment of the Park." The poll confirmed Chittenden's contention that "the problem of road construction in the Park [had] yet to be solved." Realization of Kingman's plan awaited adequate funds.
In 1893 Chittenden left Yellowstone, not to return until late in the decade. The following year responsibility for park improvements reverted to the superintendent, who held it until 1899. Despite his other assignments, river and harbor duty, and service in the Spanish-American War, and despite the Corps' noninvolvement in park affairs, Chittenden's interest in Yellowstone continued, and in 1895 he published The Yellowstone National Park, the first book-length study of the subject. Chittenden himself revised the volume three times, and, after three-quarters of a century, fresh editions still appear regularly.
When the Engineers resumed work in Yellowstone in 1899, Chittenden took charge of operations and remained there for six years. His annual reports for 1899 to 1905, together with his earlier reports as assistant to Major Jones, reveal a dramatic transformation in the road system under his care. By 1905 he could assert that "all the roads which it has ever been proposed to build are now open to travel" and that "there are but few portions of the roads that can not now be traveled with speed, safety, and comfort."
Chittenden's engineering feats in Yellowstone included at least five masterpieces: the imposing masonry Entrance Gate at Gardiner, the Melan arch bridge over the Yellowstone River above the Upper Falls, the splendid road through Sylvan Pass, the road over the almost impossible summit of Mount Washburn, and the exquisite Golden Gate viaduct, the most difficult piece of work he executed in the park. The Melan arch bridge and the Mount Washburn Road were both renamed in his honor.
With the help of the Chief of Engineers, Chittenden persuaded Congress to vote the funds that made these projects possible. Before the Corps entered the picture in 1883, appropriations for the park totaled less than $70,000. Between 1883 and 1900, sums available for the dual purpose of protection and construction averaged but $40,000 a year. By pointing out the growing importance of the park, the increased traffic, and especially the false economy of sacrificing quality to total mileage, Chittenden was able to obtain a three-year appropriation of $750,000 in 1902, a sum greater than he had dared to hope for.
His construction was remarkable, esthetically as well as practically. Whenever possible he provided the tourist with "a sense of expectancy" by avoiding monotonous straight stretches in favor of roadways that were adapted to the natural terrain and passed by points of interest. The phrase "for the improvement" of the park used in appropriation bills, he once confessed, grated harshly on his ears. Chittenden was always to feel that, almost without exception, "the greatest service which official authority [could] render to posterity [was] to maintain and transmit this possession as it came from the hand of Nature."