Historic Resource Study
The History of the Construction of the Road System in Yellowstone National Park, 1872-1966
NPS Logo

Part One: The History of the Construction of the Road System in Yellowstone National Park, 1827-1966 and the History of the Grand Loop and the Entrance Roads


. . . the public highway was cut through the timber over rolling ground with stumps left from 2 to 20 inches above the ground, and instead of grading a hill it went straight up on one side and straight down on the other. Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage, 1880

Carrie Strahorn

Yellowstone National Park remained a mysterious land until late in the 19th century. For years, tales of this wondrous area were recounted, but most of the descriptions were questioned or denied. In 1860, weather, scheduling, and rugged topography prevented Capt. William F. Raynolds, the head of a government survey expedition to explore the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, from penetrating the park. However, he did produce a map based upon the celebrated Jim Bridger's description of Terra Incognita, and in his report Raynolds wrote, ". . . I cannot doubt, therefore, that at no very distant day the mysteries of this region will be fully revealed, and though small in extent, I regard the valley of the upper Yellowstone as the most interesting unexplored district in our widely expanded country." [1]

Raynolds' perceptions were true. The next decade saw official and semiofficial expeditions successfully explore the Yellowstone, each making contributions of different sorts. As late as 1869, three years before the park's establishment, Charles Cook of the Folsom, Cook, and Peterson Expedition submitted a description of the area to Lippincott's Magazine which elicited the response "Thank you but we do not print fiction." [2] Nevertheless, prompted by the descriptions, the urging of members of these expeditions and of other interested citizens and politicians, Congress set aside the area as the Nation's first national park on March 1, 1872. [3]


In Superintendent Nathanial P. Langford's first report to the secretary of interior for the year 1872, he wrote, "The park is at present accessible only by means of saddle and pack trains, a mode of travel attended with many privations and inconveniences." [4] He advised the secretary of the interior that he would report on the park after he had completed a "thorough exploration" of it, and shortly afterwards, he joined the United States Geological Survey expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden and spent the next two months exploring the Yellowstone and Teton area. As a member of such a well organized and scientifically focused group, Langford probably added much to his prior knowledge of the topography and of the locations of the significant points within the park. [5]

Among Langford's concerns about administering the park, was the need for a park road system and good wagon "approach" roads, which resulted in a road system that was an almost mirror image of the present-day configuration. His idea for a "circuit of perhaps ninety miles" would enable visitors to reach all of the significant scenic or scientific wonders and would become the genesis of the Grand Loop. [6] Carriage-bound tourists would be able to explore the interior of the park from these important points.

In 1872, there were two routes into the Yellowstone: travel by Union Pacific Railway to Corrine, Utah, then via stage on the Montana Stage Line or the Wells Fargo and Company lines to Virginia City, Montana; or by river transportation to Fort Benton, Montana, then stage conveyance to Bozeman or Virginia City, Montana. Between 1872 and 1873, the final leg of the journey into the park was over very rough "roads," either from the north entrance, through the Yankee Jim Canyon to Mammoth Hot Springs, or through the west entrance, via the Madison Canyon to the Lower Geyser Basin.

Gilman Sawtell built the west entrance road which originated in Virginia City, Montana, and reached the Lower Geyser Basin by way of the Madison Canyon in 1873. Sawtell named the toll-free west entrance road The Virginia City and National Park Free Road, in order to differentiate it from the North Entrance toll road. Sawtell, who catered to the park visitors at his hotel on Henry's Lake, observed the behavior of his clientele toward the park resources, and in 1874, offered his services as Superintendent for the park. Sawtell felt that a person who lived nearer the park could protect it better. [7]

The privately built toll road to Mammoth Hot Springs from Bozeman, completed in 1873, covered 75 miles. The first Yellowstone National Park guidebook, Henry J. Norton's Wonderland Illustrated: or, Horseback Rides Through the Yellowstone National Park, describes it as an "excellent wagon road." [8] However, some travelers revealed more critical views about the condition of the road in published accounts of their journeys. In her reminiscences, Mrs. George Cowan wrote: "The road through the Yellowstone canyon below Cinnabar was scarcely more than a trail, but by careful driving, unhitching the horses and drawing the wagon by hand over the most dangerous places, we made it safely." [9]

Edwin Stanley, a Methodist minister who toured the Park in 1873, called the road, "a passable wagon road"; [10] but another account called it:

a dangerous road as an upset wagon inevitably lands in the river and is lost. The wagon road winds among these masses and over a projecting spur, high above the river thence descends over boulders to the level of the stream.

It is a bad place for a long team and in one place the animals have to be detached or pulled at right angles up the bank in order to give a wagon room to make the turn. [11]

The situation created by the conditions of the roads and the imposition of tolls to the tourists worried Langford. He perceived that the Yellowstone National Park would become a destination for travelers from both across the United States and abroad, and with good wagon roads, the park could provide the government with considerable revenue. Langford requested from the secretary of the interior an explanation of his authority in regard to the building of public houses and the protection of the rights of the visitors, since he had received numerous applications for leases of property for lodging purposes at the important points in the park. [12] Regarding the protection of visitor rights, he feared that the toll-road company that had recently "graded a few steep hills in the line of travel" would charge the park visitor exorbitant rates. [13]

At the time of the park's creation, most road building responsibility across the country lay with the local towns and/or private road companies, and road conditions throughout the country were considered to be in a wretched state of repair and neglect." [14] The territories of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho were crisscrossed with Indian, fur trade, exploring expeditions, and emigrant trails, military roads, and stage and freight line roads. In 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad crossed the southern part of Wyoming Territory connecting both coasts, but it would be 1879 before the Utah Northern, a branch of the Union Pacific, extended to the Montana Territory boundary. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which reached the eastern boundary of the Montana Territory in 1881, joined the Utah Northern at a junction west of Butte in 1883.

During the park's infancy, the area was considered an important knot in geographic determinants of migration. Thus, all of the major trails and/or wagon roads were to the north and west in Montana Territory and to the east and south in Wyoming Territory.

The enabling legislation for Yellowstone National Park allowed the secretary of the interior to "make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same," but it would take the passage, in 1894, of the Lacey Act, before specific rules were outlined. In the efforts towards the creation of the park, Professor F.V. Hayden, who had done the survey of the Yellowstone area for the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Territories, was "compelled to give a distinct pledge that he would not apply for an appropriation for several years at least," otherwise he felt the legislation would probably not pass. Thus, no appropriations for management of the park, the construction of roads and trails, or salaries had been requested in 1872. [15] Apparently without knowledge of this "distinct pledge," in February of 1873, Langford appealed for an appropriation of $15,000 to enable him to open the park and to construct roads within the park. In a letter to the secretary of the interior, Langford wrote that the opening of roads would lead to "men of entire reliability" leasing properties, which would in turn "lead them to preserve, in all their beauty, the surroundings of the springs." [16]

Not being successful with the Forty-second Congress, Third Session, Langford made additional requests of the Forty-third Congress during the fall of 1873. Governor Potts of Montana and Gov. Benjamin Campbell of Wyoming wrote to the secretary of the interior seeking money for the protection and improvement of the park, including a "liberal appropriation to employ a resident superintendent of the park, and make such roads as are necessary, and preserve from spoilation the numberless curiosities of that wonderful region." [17]

Again Langford had no success, nor would any result from repeated requests including one that was based upon Capt. William A. Jones' expedition of 1873. Captain Jones had surveyed northwestern Wyoming for a wagon-road route from Camp Brown, Wyoming, via Yellowstone Lake, to Fort Ellis, Montana. He recommended a wagon-road route through the park that followed the Upper Yellowstone River, via the east side of Yellowstone Lake, to Tower Junction and on to Gardiner, through Mammoth Hot Springs. While Jones did suggest that "There was good reason for believing that the Yellowstone National Park will, in time, become the most popular summer-resort in the country, perhaps the world, this, of itself, is a sufficient reason for opening the way to it at once." His proposal was mainly based on economics. His proposed route would save great distances in reaching the major cities of Montana and would open the Wind River Valley and the Teton Basin for settlement. [18]

Professor Hayden wrote to Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano pointing out that "good roads approaching the park from various points can be readily made by private enterprise. A moderate rate of toll might be levied on visitors to keep these roads in repair." He felt it was the government's responsibility to construct the roads to the principal points in the park, but the income from the leases of public facilities could be used to maintain the roads. He advised the secretary that if the government initiated steps toward opening the park, private enterprise would be ready to establish stagelines and telegraph lines within the park. [19]

In 1874, Superintendent Langford asked for an appropriation of $100,000 for the protection and improvement of the park. He stated more than 500 people visited the park during 1873 arriving on "good roads to its borders," but that accessibility in the park was by packtrains. He explained again to the secretary that the construction of roads would in turn lead to better protection of the park by responsible persons and an income for maintenance by the leases. Langford pointed out that since the creation of the park, more than $150,000 in destruction to the park had taken place. Without an adequate appropriation, the other choice for the needed improvements and protection would be leasing the entire park for a term of years, to responsible persons who would provide the needed improvements and protection. [20]

Also in 1874, Secretary of War William Belknap sent a recommendation from the Commanding General of the Department of the Platte for construction of a military road between Green River, Wyoming, via Yellowstone National Park, to Fort Ellis, Montana. [21] None of the 1874 recommendations for appropriations were satisfied.

Two more military expeditions during 1875 demonstrated the Army's continuing attention to the park. Secretary of War Belknap made a tour through the park with Lt. Gustavus Doane and Brig. Gen. W.E. Strong, Ret. The other military expedition led by Capt. William Ludlow produced sound recommendations for the improvement and protection of the park. A guest of the expedition, William Bird Grinnell, later editor of the Forest and Stream magazine and a leading late 19th-century conservationist, drew the nation's attention to the "reckless destruction" of the elk in the park. Eventually, some of Captain Ludlow's recommendations came to fruition:

1. transfer of the park to the control of the War Department until such time that a resident civilian Superintendent can hire mounted police to provide protection

2. troops should be stationed at Mammoth, Lake, and Geyser Basin

3. an appropriation of $8,000 to $10,000 for a thorough and accurate topographical survey to locate the best routes for roads and trails

4. an observatory on Mount Washburn

5. rough bridges constructed where needed

6. worst portions of trails corduroyed

7. lodging facilities constructed at Mammoth, the bridge, the falls, the lake, and the geyser basins

8. visitors should be forbidden to kill any game

9. arms and spoils should be confiscated and persons liable to prosecution [22]

But, despite Captain Ludlow's sound recommendations for Yellowstone's management, no appropriation was approved after submittal of his report in 1876.

It was June 13, 1878, before the first appropriation of $10,000 for the improvement and protection of Yellowstone National Park passed the Congress. [23] A new Superintendent, Philetus W. Norris, appointed in 1877, would begin the first road projects in the park.


Philetus W. Norris wasted little time in getting to Yellowstone National Park after his appointment as superintendent on April 19, 1877. Norris, who had made two previous visits, would take a very aggressive approach on road construction, as well as other issues. Prior to his arrival, only packtrains could manage the park "roads;" but in 1877, the first wagons entered the park. One, an ox-drawn wagon bound from Gardiner to the Clark's Fork mines just east of the park, had to be disassembled before it could be taken over Baronett's Bridge. The bridge, built in 1871 by the Scot, C.J. "Yellowstone Jack" Baronett, was the first built across the Yellowstone River and predated the park by one year. During August of 1877, Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard pursued Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce with his troops, wagons, and horses along the Madison River to the Lower Geyser Basin, and on to Nez Perce Creek. At the creek, Howard's men had to cut a "road" over Mary Mountain on the Mary's Lake trail to the Yellowstone River. From there, the group followed the Nez Perce by way of Dunraven Pass to Baronett's Bridge. [24] On August 30, 1877, a band of the Indians partially destroyed the bridge by burning the stringers on the east abutment.

Norris did not receive an appropriation the first year, but he did understand the necessity for pressing for sufficient funds to "survey and plainly and permanently mark its boundaries, and also salary of a superintendent to justify his residence there, and efforts to protect the wonders, open roads, and assist tourists with information and guidance." [25] In fact, before he officially arrived at the park, he explored the Slough Creek-Rosebud area for another potential northern route. [26] During the 1877 season, Norris placed a "large number of spirited cautions against fire and depredations in the park." These printed cloth signs affixed to trees were placed at strategic points of interest throughout the park. [27]

In Norris' first report to the secretary of the interior, he devoted a large section to transportation issues. The construction of a wagon road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Henry's Lake, via the Tower Falls, Mount Washburn, Cascades, Yellowstone Falls, the Lake, Firehole Basin, and the Nez Perce route through the west side, was deemed a "pressing necessity." Norris felt this route would connect almost all of the major points of interest; the existing north and western approach roads, and the southern approach route proposed by Capt. William A. Jones in his 1873 exploration report of the Wind River Valley and Togwatee Pass; and his other northern approach route from near the forks of the Yellowstone via Slough Creek, to the Stillwater River and on the navigable part of the Yellowstone River. Norris also proposed the immediate construction of a bridle path from the Stillwater River to the Upper Geyser Basin, via the Clark's Fork mines and Soda Butte, into the park through the petrified forests, to Amethyst Mountain, Pelican Creek and the outlet of Yellowstone Lake, then by way of Shoshone Lake, and to Old Faithful in the Geyser Basin. The other bridle path he recommended connected the Firehole to Mammoth Hot Springs via Gibbon's Fork and Gardner Falls. Norris recognized that "many short, and some tolerably elevated, bridges will be required" and "some long causeways, especially in the miry, often nearly impassable, Upper Firehole Valley" may be needed. [28]

Superintendent Norris believed that the construction of roads into and through the Yellowstone National Park would be of great benefit to many. Not only would the "teeming throngs of tourists to the bracing air, the healing bathing-pools, and matchless beauties of the 'wonder land'," be encouraged to come, but the opening of a route through the park would reduce the cost of transportation to the government of supplying the chain of military posts in the west. The improved transportation route through the "knot" in the Rockies would promote settlement in the nearby areas and assist with the "Indian question." [29]

Before leaving the park for his home in Michigan, Norris realized that the question of the pre-park improvements, the Baronett Bridge and the McCartney accommodations at Mammoth Hot Springs, had not been legally addressed. He felt that Baronett Bridge and the McCartney Hotel should be purchased by the government outright or that C.J. Baronett and J.C. McCartney should be allowed a fair preference for a ten or twenty years' lease on their holdings. Norris preferred the lease option for McCartney and Baronett and suggested to the secretary of the interior that leases of ten or twenty years be given for other hotel accommodations at Yellowstone Falls, the geyser basins, and at Yellowstone Lake. He also recommended leases for yacht and ferry operations at Lake. [30]

Norris arrived in the park for his second season with the park's first appropriation of $10,000. Due to the Nez Perce activities from the previous summer and the continuing potential threat from the Bannock Indians, Norris discarded his plans for building facilities at Mammoth Hot Springs in favor of building a road from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Lower Geyser Basin. The park road would facilitate the movement of the military from Fort Ellis, Montana, to Henry's Lake in Idaho or Virginia City, Montana, and of course, be used by the ever-increasing number of visitors to the park. [31]

Superintendent Norris began his active role in the road construction program by writing to the secretary of the interior stating that he would need to hire an assistant at a salary of $1,000 per year so he could proceed with the road plans. He also said that he planned monies for the purchase of a small barometer, prismatic compass, field glasses, thermometer, and other necessary equipment. [32] Prior to his explorations for appropriate routes, Norris took "some 20 well-armed, mounted, equipped, resolute, and reliable mountaineer laborers" to build a road up the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces and through a pass into the Swan Lake Flats. Using his field glasses, Norris viewed other possible park routes in the far distances from the top of Sepulcher Mountain. He could spot the route that his party took in 1875 and he visualized a route to the south, through the park, via Gibbon Canyon, Firehole Basin, the continental divide, and on to the Tetons. He knew construction through the canyons and the geyser basins could prove to be difficult and dangerous, but it appeared to be the most straightforward and practical wagon route. [33]

The condition of this area in 1878 was described by Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly, a frontier scout, in his account of his travel through this part of the park:

In the chill mist of early morning we passed like ghosts along a rude road into the geyser basin, . . . the trail had disappeared and we were treading a crust that sounded hollow and was hot to touch. I dismounted and led my horse carefully around the thin places for fear he would break through and scald his legs. . . . At this time there were practically no trails in the park aside from the game trails, only a rough track connecting the geyser basin with Mammoth Hot Springs. The east side of the lake was heavily timbered with considerable underbrush. It was not easy traveling and the course I took, as nearly straight to the head of the lake as was feasible, was rough enough. . . . I knew there was no trail from the west side of the lake. [34]

While Norris was exploring for new routes and examining some of the trails, a small crew began improving roads to the geyser basins and one toward Fort Ellis. They began a new road on the Gardner River toward the falls and Yellowstone Lake and several new bridle paths and bridges. After bad weather began in the autumn, Norris relieved the construction crews, and he and several reliable scouts set off for more exploration of the mountain passes and to determine new routes for roads and bridle paths. Norris felt that exploration of the Grand Canyon to Mount Washburn and of the routes connecting the wagon roads approaching the park entrances were his most significant accomplishments. However, he also felt that much of the other scouting was "of considerable interest and value." [35] "Various paint pools, fossil forests, and other places of interest were "discovered" during Norris' search for possible wagon road routes and bridle paths. [36] These features would later be described and illustrated by Ferdinand Hayden of the U.S. Geological Survey.

In addition to necessary proposed work, Norris' 1878 report revealed the inhospitable conditions and the potentially difficult situations for road construction. With two veteran mountaineers, Adam Miller and R.B. "George" Rowland, Norris sought a more desirable route around Mount Washburn, the unavoidable obstacle between the forks of the Yellowstone River and its falls and lake. This route was lower in elevation and thus less snowy than the existing route over the western spur of the mountain. Norris trekked through the Tower Falls Canyon, on to the canyon of Antelope Creek to the forested plateau between them and on to the Grand Canyon. He found the spectacular plateau "very elevated, but open, smooth, and grassy, with a fine lake upon its summit, and mainly an excellent route." [37] He saw this as an excellent wagon road route.

From this area, Norris headed for the Yellowstone Falls describing his venture as follows:

. . . I sent my men with the animals to seek a route through the remaining spurs and timber to the cascade and Great Falls, instructing them to await there a day before searching for me, should I fail to arrive. Then with rifle and hatchet, afoot, and alone, I descended a side canon through all its labyrinth of windings, tangled timber, and crumbling walls, to the pent-up, roaring Yellowstone in the nearly hidden recesses of the Grand Canyon. Nearly fronting me was the mouth of a yawning side canon soon hidden in its windings, somewhat above a side cascade nearly lost in spray in its fully 1,000 feet descent, and about and above me the stifling sulphur fumes of hissing fireholes, alike a serious obstacle to my purposed exploration of the canon to the falls, and a warning to leave it without delay. Through great exertion, I breathless and exhausted reached the timbered plateau, and through fast-descending, large, downy, snow-flakes ascended to the Great Falls, the thunders of which for miles came in rumbling echoes from the fearful depths. I there, in the gathering twilight, thankfully enjoyed the greeting shout and blazing camp fire of my men, just safely arrived with the welcome intelligence that they had found a route in all respects preferable to that over the mountain to Cascade Creek. . . . the snow, which was more than a foot deep before night, really benefit, plainly disclosing the various hot springs and sulphur basins, as well as the clearest edge of the Grand and side canyons, and brink of the large yawning land slides. [38]

Not seeing any traces of man, hatchet-hacks, or trails, Norris believed that he was the first man to explore the brink of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Norris concluded that any wagon road along the brink would have to be elevated and it would be very expensive. He discounted the eastern rim as impractical, but found one of the other explored routes to be preferable. Norris felt that the canyon and the falls were "a leading wonder of the park and of the world, every way worthy of a route along or as near as possible to its misty and sulphur-tinted walls." [39]

Norris made his way to Yellowstone Lake, but deep snow and Indian activity prevented completion of a planned trip around the lake. Instead, he departed Steamboat Point for Mammoth Hot Springs, via Pelican Creek, Amethyst Mountain, the forks of the Yellowstone, and the East Gardner canyon. Shortly after his return home to Norris, Michigan, he summarized his thoughts and proposals in the Annual Report for 1878. In regard to transportation and the construction of roads, Norris believed that the Park needed to open a wagon road along the route he explored, as well as a route that would complete a circuit passing by the great wonders of the Park—Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone Falls, and the Canyon. The building and extension of railroads and steamboat service, plus coach service to nearby communities would pressure the Park to complete these wagon roads. The superintendent felt a trail was needed from the Upper Firehole Basin to the trails around Heart, Lewis, and Shoshone Lakes and around the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake. One would follow Pelican Creek to the East Fork of the Yellowstone at the mouth of Soda Butte. [40] Norris called for a new crossing near the forks of the Yellowstone River, which would be preferable to the dangerous, burned and decayed Baronett Bridge and to the newly commenced miner's bridge above the Baronett's Bridge. [41] At the close of 1878, there were 103 miles of road, or in some cases, trails in Yellowstone National Park.

The isolation of the Park required that Norris purchase necessary construction and maintenance equipment in Michigan before the beginning of his third year of administration. He scheduled the purchases for shipment to Bismark, Dakota Territory, on the first steamboat heading up the Yellowstone River. Luckily, his shipment missed the connection for loading on the ill fated steamboat, YELLOWSTONE, which was lost on the Buffalo Rapids. The equipment and Norris later arrived in Fort Benton and then freighted to Bozeman by way of Helena. Norris made the 3,000-mile trip from his home in Norris, Michigan, to Mammoth Hot Springs by many forms of travel: railroad, steamboat, freighter wagon and coach. Heavy rains during June caused the shipment of supplies to be delayed as the roads were nearly impassable. [42]

Norris felt the existing three routes to the headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs were not acceptable and would be very costly to be rendered serviceable and safe. [43] Thus he cut a new:

roadway across countless spurs and gulches along the mountain side [sic] midway between them. In this I finally succeeded, and without sharp curvatures, carried a line of easy grades for some three miles, and with only a moderate amount of bridging, constructed a road much shorter and in all respects superior to what could have ever been made upon either of the other routes at manifold its cost. [44]

The new route expedited the delivery of construction materials and supplies for the building of the park's first administrative headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. By August, Norris left the headquarters on the road built in 1878 to the geyser basin, with a large crew, animals, and three wagons of supplies. Along the way, the crews cleared large quantities of fallen timber on the roads, repaired and constructed culverts, and bridges. Norris supervised improvements and the widening of the grades at Obsidian Cliff, Norris Plateau, Gibbon Canyon, and down Madison Canyon to the western boundary of the park.

Locating a direct route from the Upper Firehole Geyser Basin to Yellowstone Lake became Norris' next priority and the principal project for the 1879 season. This area baffled many past expeditions, and Norris claimed "from the commencement of explorations within the park . . . it led to greater efforts and more failures than any other trail . . . ." [45] Norris found evidence of other explorers during his first unsuccessful trek crisscrossing the Continental Divide. [46] On his next attempt, he spent several days of "excessive exposure and hardship, and nights of sleepless cold and anxiety" in tracing a route down the north bank of the Firehole River south to the Continental Divide and over two miles east to Shoshone Lake, then in a zigzag direction to the West Thumb area on Yellowstone Lake. Norris selected six mountaineers to accompany him on a pack trail to open the approximate 22-mile route from the Upper Geyser Basin to Yellowstone Lake. From the West Thumb area, he followed the shoreline, opening a trail for approximately 26 miles to the lake outlet. From the outlet, Norris and crew improved the existing trail to Mammoth Hot Springs via the Mud Volcano, Sulphur Mountain, Great Falls and Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mount Washburn, Tower Falls, the Forks of the Yellowstone, and the east canyon of the Gardner River. [47]

While the road accomplishments seem small, Norris felt that more of the Park had been opened to the 1,030 people who visited Yellowstone in 1879. By taking the new route from the Upper Geyser Basin to Yellowstone Lake, tourists could now visit more hot springs and cascades, and by using bridle trails, were able to visit Shoshone, Lewis, and Heart Lakes. [48] Snow cover prevented Norris from completing a trail along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which he continued to feel was the "true one" for a wagon road or bridle trail to the eastern spurs of Mount Washburn, instead of over it. He did, however, spend part of September improving the 35-mile trail from the forks of the Yellowstone River to Soda Butte and constructing a new 30-mile trail from Soda Butte, via the Fossil Forest, over Amethyst Mountain to Pelican Creek on Yellowstone Lake.

Norris mentioned no particular or unusual problems in the building of a bridge over the Yellowstone River above the falls. However, spanning the Gibbon, Firehole and Madison rivers, or their creeks and streams proved more interesting.

Norris wrote in his report, "Few of the anomalous features of the LAND OF WONDERS are of greater scientific interest or of more practical value than the placid, uniform water-flow in its hot spring and geyser-fed rivulets and streams." [49] Because these watercourses are generally "broad, shallow, grassy channels, uniformly smooth banks, with a dense growth of short grass and flowers carpeted to the water's brim, . . . with long stretches of flowing grass and occasional hot spring pools in the channels, . . . with overhanging turfy banks," Norris eliminated the need for some bridges by cutting a slope through the turf, forming a very good and permanent ford. Instead of a bridge he placed "long, limber poles and foot-logs, only a few inches above the low stage of water." [50]

Norris improved the quality of the road signs and guide boards. Two years prior, cloth had been affixed to trees, but by 1879, odd pieces of wood remaining from construction projects were painted white and lettered in black. The signs directed visitors to significant rivers, streams, geysers, etc., in addition to displaying distances to and between various points. The wooden signs were attached to trees, posts, and stones. [51]

Norris' concern for providing the visitor with scenic and interesting views along the roads, was also fulfilled with his finding a route around the base of Bunsen Peak. The drive, which connected with the road to the geyser basin from Mammoth Hot Springs, provided the visitor with views overlooking the Gardner Canyon. He felt that the seven miles were worthy of becoming a carriage way. The Bunsen Peak Road thus became the first planned secondary road. [52] At the end of 1879, there were 234 miles of roads and trails in the park. [53]

The beginning of the 1880 season witnessed extremely unfavorable weather conditions, in which the state of the roads reflected the effects of swollen streams and unusual snow depths in the mountains. Norris asked the chief signal officer in Washington, D.C., to warn the public of these conditions and suggested visitors delay their trips to Yellowstone until late July. In addition to the possible inconvenience of the visitors' travel, Norris felt the conditions would generate "much unjust criticism and censure for the park." [54] Norris knew that many of the visitors to the park in 1879, were disappointed in the condition of the park's roads and trails. Norris devoted most of the 1880 season to improving existing roads, trails, or important routes, with some time set aside for new exploration. He explained to the secretary of interior that ". . . it, [Yellowstone] is also one of the largest, most elevated, and mountainous, as well as far the most humid, densely timbered and difficult in which to construct or maintain roads or trails, of all of our great mountain parks." Norris felt the existing roads were passable, but certainly not ready for "heavy broad-track military wagons or mule train." [55] In further pursuit of his defense, Norris justified his priorities:

"I have deemed it more important to construct buildings for defense of the government property from the frequently recurring and ever-threatened Indian raids and to explore the proper routes for permanent use and open all possible . . . than to hazard the loss of government animals, outfit, and probably valuable lives by Indians, for the construction of a few miles of fine coach-road, leaving the remainder of the Park as I found it—mainly an unexplored pathless region of crags, and forests." [56]

Shortly after arriving in Yellowstone on July 2, he met O. J. Salisbury, a partner in Gilmer & Salisbury Company, who requested his assistance in selecting a new coach and mail route connecting the Utah Northern Railway with the headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. The existing route along the Madison River, which required much bridging, was impassable for parts of the year and was considered dangerous by many.

After two days of exploration, an acceptable route that cut south from the Madison River at Riverside, was found. [57] Salisbury left men to construct a mail station at the Riverside cutoff, while he proceeded East to secure his mail contract. Norris, who once considered the mountainous area south of the Madison River inaccessible, was surprised to find "a dry, undulating, but beautifully timbered plateau, allowing a judiciously located line of wagon road with nowhere an elevation much in excess of 1,500 feet above the Forks of the Fire Hole." [58] This route, some six miles shorter than the Madison Canyon route, would be cheaper to construct and maintain and also would open up new observation points for scenic and geologic interests. [59] Traveling through the beautiful pine forests on an August trip to the West Entrance via the new route, Norris commented that this dry route was preferable to the often snow-covered and flooded canyon route. He felt that this would be the preferred route. However the other, if necessary, could be used for part of the summer. [60]

The remainder of the season was spent exploring a new and shorter route from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Yellowstone Lake area, and the fascinating Hoodoos in the eastern section of the Park, as well as working on the Gardner River road. Bridges were constructed on branches of the Gardner and Gibbon rivers, across Tower Creek, Cascade, and other creeks near the Great Falls of the Yellowstone. [61] Near Yellowstone Lake, Norris examined the Natural Bridge and determined that the 10-foot stone structure could be used as a carriageway by the "thousands of eager pilgrims to this wonderland." [62] Use of the Natural Bridge would divert the route away from the undesirable sandspits, gullies, and other wet areas near Bridge Bay.

Necessary construction and improvements to the West Entrance Road and the Fire Hole road delayed Norris' desire to construct a needed road from the Upper Geyser Basin area, via Shoshone Lake and on to the foot of the Yellowstone, via Mary's Lake and on to the East Fork of the Fire Hole River. However, Norris made improvements to the Fire Hole River Road, opening a new road to meet the old road along the Gibbon River, bridging the Norris Fork and other branches. Costly, long causeways, turnpikes, and grades along the stretch had to be built, as well as the stretches along Obsidian Creek and Gibbon River. An extension of the road to the Forks of the Gardner River was completed, including a road up "through the eastern branch nearly halfway through its terrible canon [sic], necessitating a grade of over 1,000 feet within two miles." [63]

Toll bridges within the Park continued to be a pressing problem. In late 1879, James Demings and George Huston requested permission to build a bridge on the Clark's Fork Mines route. In a letter to Congressman Martin Maginiss, the two Montanans stated that this would enable tourists to visit the mining area and would offer the opportunity for them to see "fine hunting country," which could not be seen in Yellowstone. [64] Representative Maginiss reported to the secretary of the interior that the Baronett Bridge was unsafe and in a state of decay and that these two Montanans were "good men, personally known to me." [65] Shortly after the first of the year, correspondence continued regarding the request for a bridge, but no action took place during 1880. Norris also received a proposal from John Ponsford of Bozeman offering the Baronett Bridge for sale. He requested an inspection of the bridge and a report on its value. Again no action was taken during 1880. [66] In Norris' report to the secretary of the interior, he reiterated his position that "all roads previously made within the park or public lands of the Nation shall remain free from toll." [67]

Norris felt that his 1879 sign program had been a success with the travelers, but he recognized that vandalism by "a small despicable class of prowlers" had prevented travelers from following the roads and trails and had deprived them of the information regarding specific scientific interests. In addition to sign vandalism, these people were "kindling devastating fires, slaughtering game, despoiling geysers and other interesting formations," and robbing tourists. These actions prompted Norris to press for a "speedy enactment of laws to properly protect the Park, its contents, officers, and visitors, and the enforcement of the same by a body of determined police." [68] Nature also took its toll, as forest fires, the effects of chemical action, hot water and steam destroyed the wooden signs. Knowing that stone would probably crumble and oxidization and corrosion would probably affect ordinary iron, Norris was faced with the problem of providing a permanent type of sign or guide-post. [69]

In contrast to 1880, the 1881 season opened with favorable weather conditions. In fact, good weather prevailed during the early spring, but Norris was unable to take advantage of it since his funding was not available until July 1. Nevertheless, in late June, he began to select crews and assemble necessary tools and equipment to begin work on the Fire Hole route and the Yellowstone route on the morning of July 1. Because Norris was particularly interested in scientific phenomena, and the prehistoric and historic Indian occupations of the Park, he promulgated the following rules for his road crews:

While labor in the construction of roads and bridle-paths will be our main object, still, with trifling care and effort, much valuable knowledge may be obtained of the regions visited, especially by the hunters and scouts, all of which, including the discovery of mountain passes, geysers, and other hot springs, falls, and fossil forests, are to promptly be reported to the leader of each party. As all civilized nations are now actively pushing explorations and researches for evidences of pre-historic peoples, careful scrutiny is required of all material handled in excavations; and all arrow, spear, or lance heads, stone axes and knives, or other weapons, utensils or ornaments; in short, all such objects of interest are to be regularly retained and turned over daily to the officer in charge of each party for transmittal to the National Museum in Washington. [70]

Norris was in sympathy with Wyoming Territory citizens and officials in their request for the construction of a route into the Park, since most of the park lay within Wyoming Territory. More exploration parties searched for possible wagon routes into the Park from points to the east and southeast in Wyoming. [71] Plans for work within the Park kept Norris busy for most of the season. Norris pursued the earlier plan for construction of a route connecting Mammoth Hot Springs with the west entrance, via the Forks, Great Falls, Yellowstone Lake, and the Forks of the Fire Hole. A heavy push was made to work on the canyon of the East Gardner. Even though the appropriation scheduling forced him to begin this project after July 1, he was fortunate in having experienced laborers and a dependable assistant. Faced with the difficulties of both climatic and environmental conditions, a veteran crew was invaluable. In addition to completing the circuit route from Mammoth Hot Springs to the West Entrance, this section of road was needed to transport a portable steam sawmill to supply lumber for constructing bridges, a steamboat for Yellowstone Lake, and two hotels, one at the foot of Yellowstone Lake and the other at the falls of Yellowstone River. [72]

The road crews altered the 1880 approach route to the Natural Bridge affording the visitors observation points and the opportunity to see the natural feature before crossing it. Concerned about a general conflagration, Norris resisted the burning of fallen timber to shorten the route to the thumb of the lake. [73]

At year's end, an aggregate of 54 miles of road had been constructed: four miles from Sage Creek (now known as Trout Creek) by Sulphur Mountain to the mouth of Alum Creek; 30 miles from the forks of the Fire Hole River to the foot of Yellowstone Lake, via the East Fork, Mary's Lake, and Mud Geyser; and 20 miles along the Gardner River, from near its bridges to Tower Falls, via East Fork Canyon, Dry Canyon and the forks of the Yellowstone. Sixty-five miles of bridle paths were opened: 11 miles to Paint Pot, 22 miles to Passamaria, 3 miles to Painted Cliffs, and 29 miles to Hoodoos or Goblin Land. Nine miles of trails were constructed: seven miles to Terrace Mountain, one mile to East Gardiner Falls, and one mile to Monument Geyser Basin. [74] More than 12 bridges and 4 footbridges were built during 1881. [75]

Norris in his 1881 report to the secretary of the interior, recommended additional bridge and road construction and also repeated the need to settle the private holdings situation. In October of 1881, C.J. Baronett sought permission to either retain his toll bridge and collect fees, or sell the bridge to the government. [76] The position of a reliable bridge over the Yellowstone River near the Baronett Bridge was crucial to any further development of routes to the Hoodoos or Goblin Land, the pass to Pelican Creek and Yellowstone Lake, and to the Clark's Fork mines. Norris, anxious to complete the circuit from Mammoth Hot Springs to the West Entrance, knew that the remaining approximately 20 miles between Tower Falls and the terminus of the other end of the road near the mouth of Alum Creek, would be a costly project. Despite much of the stretch being a natural roadway, the abysmal Tower Creek Canyon, the ascent of Mount Washburn via Rowland's Pass, the extensive need of rockwork, culverts, and timber cutting, grading, and bridging along the route led Norris to calculate the need for an additional $10,000 to the regular annual appropriation to cover the cost of the road. The amount would not allow for any other construction projects elsewhere in the park. [77]

Concluding remarks in his annual report for 1881, which was to be his final report, indicated that Norris could visualize a time when appropriations for the construction of roads, bridle paths, and trails, would not be perpetual. [78] While his prophecy proved to be incorrect, Norris is credited with providing more than two-thirds of the existing circuit, or Grand Loop system. He was responsible for the construction of 104 miles of the 140-mile system. [79]

Patrick Conger of Iowa replaced Philetus Norris as superintendent, serving from March 1, 1882, until September 9, 1884. His tenure, characterized as weak and inefficient, ". . . brought the Park to the lowest ebb of its fortunes, and drew forth the severe condemnation of visitors and public officials alike." [80]

The Conger period is important in Park history, for it precipitated needed reforms. Conger accomplished little in new road construction. His efforts were mainly in the improvement of existing roads, including the old Madison River route, which Norris bypassed after he constructed the road over the Madison Plateau. [81]

Conger did construct a three-mile section of road along the bank of the Yellowstone River near the falls and canyon. Finding the construction costly, just as Norris had predicted, Conger provided the tourists with safer and more comfortable access to the wonders. Another of Conger's accomplishments was the summer headquarters. Built near the Fire Hole Basin, it provided convenient and commodious housing for road crews in the vicinity. [82]

During 1882, a substantial Bridge over the Gardner, some 12 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs, was built in two weeks. The bridge had abutments built well out into the river on both sides. The center pier and the abutments were constructed of log in a V-shaped configuration, pinned at the corners, and filled with rock above the high water mark. The 96-foot-long bridge was covered with hewn logs 5-inches thick. [83] Conger supervised the construction of additional footbridges and rebuilt a bridge over the Gardner River that had been destroyed by a large fire near the Mammoth Hot Springs area. [84]

In 1883, a large hotel opened at Mammoth Hot Springs and the Northern Pacific Railroad built a branch line from Livingston, Montana, through the valley of the Yellowstone to a point within eight miles from the headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. Stage service was offered from the train station to the park. The improved accessibility of the park was concurrent with management and supervision of road and bridge construction being turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the secretary of war.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 01-Dec-2005