Historic Resource Study
The History of the Construction of the Road System in Yellowstone National Park, 1872-1966
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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 standards of roads within the parks do not necessarily need to comply with the highway standards outside of the parks and moreover, the parks, of necessity, should set standards of their own.

—Frank Mattson, National Park Service, Landscape Architect

Due to inclement weather, the 1941 road construction program in Yellowstone reached its lowest volume of work since the Public Roads engineers began in 1926. In addition to the weather problem, the road program also began to be affected by the pre-war atmosphere and preparation at the national level. With more efforts focused on defense projects, it was reasonable to expect the road projects to be curtailed. On a positive note, however, the past urgency for immediate road improvements had passed, and now the engineers had time to develop more detailed studies of what was needed on the overall park road system, and had time to draw up plans. An immediate example of a pre-war problem, and one that would become more serious over the next few years, was the difficulty in hiring skilled labor in the area. During 1941, jobs for the most part, were filled by inexperienced young men.

The 1941 travel season recorded the highest number of vehicles ever to enter the Park and the total visitor count again exceeded half a million. Using both a mechanical recorder, a Butte-Electric, and a manual count, road engineers were able to establish information necessary to predict inadequacies in the road system, in particular, where bottlenecks might occur. It was found that the southern half of the system received the most traffic and that the existing plans for this section would adequately provide the service needed. The section from West Thumb to Lake revealed that the 12 mile stretch from Arnica Creek to Bridge Bay would need improvement, as well as the West, East, and South entrance roads, since they carried about eighty percent of the traffic. Records showed that the Grand Loop was accommodating about 4,000 vehicles per day on some of the sections. Feeling that this was the maximum number for the existing width of the two-lane roads, the engineers recommended that consideration be given to widening and/or stabilizing the shoulders in order to provide space for emergency situations and parking.

The 1940 East Entrance Road project, the construction of parking areas near Squaw Lake, the construction of approximately 500 feet of stone paved gutters, and the improvement to a large cut bank near the Fishing Bridge parking area were completed during 1941. Another 1940 project completed in 1941 was the grading of four miles in the vicinity of Canyon Junction, and the construction of a triple 3-by-9-foot treated timber box culvert. Work began on the West Thumb to Old Faithful section, with mainly surfacing, road obliteration, and flattening and stabilization of slopes. Plans called for the construction of the Isa Lake Bridge, but there was difficulty in securing the treated timber. Surfacing progressed on the East Entrance approach road, but the 1940 project was again not completed in 1941.

Minimal survey work was carried out, but an interesting test begun in 1940 on the effects of hydrogen sulphide gas at the excavation pits for the bridge foundation on the Northeast Entrance Road, was concluded during the summer. In 1940, a concrete cylinder was buried in the thermal area, in hopes of finding the effects of the gas on concrete. In 1941, it was unearthed and put under a compression test. The cylinder showed no effects from the gas, and finally broke under a load of 5,000 pounds per square inch.

In the recommendations for 1942, Capes again stressed the necessity for substantial guardrails. In reviewing the history of the rails, he found that they were generally made of local timber which had been cleared from the rights-of-way. The use of Lodgepole pine was considered an economic and temporary measure since the pine is of poor quality and is shortlived. Capes felt that the lodgepole pine rails had served their purpose, but he strongly urged conversion to a more substantial type. He further recommended a newly manufactured curved metal steel rail to replace the deteriorated sections. He felt that if the metal were painted brown, it would resemble the rustic pine log rails. He suggested that the metal rails be attached to salt-treated timber from the west coast region.

The park crews proceeded with center line striping and it was recommended that the entire system be striped. Capes recommended that double center stripes be applied, or some other type of warning in areas where visibility was limited. He particularly suggested that the Gibbon Canyon, the Old Faithful to West Thumb, and the Dunraven Pass sections receive this attention, as well as some of the entrance roads.

Capes could foresee the decrease in tourism to Yellowstone due to the world situation, but he felt that this lull in the program would offer a good time for planning for the future. He could also foresee that the increased visitation in 1941 and the establishment of the United States Travel Bureau as a division of the National Park Service, would probably mean that when the country returned to a normal condition, visitation would again take giant leaps. [362]

In December of 1941, the United States Government declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy. Within weeks, measures were taken in Yellowstone to aid the war effort, including tire rationing within the Park. Department heads requested that use of government vehicles be carefully monitored, and that cooperation of all transportation be urged. [363] The emergency situation resulted in many of the Public Roads Administration engineers being sent to work on the Alaska Road Project. However, a few were kept back to continue work in Yellowstone.

The Isa Lake Bridge on the West Thumb to Old Faithful Road was completed, but it would not go into service until the surfacing on this stretch was finished. The East Entrance Road surfacing project was completed, but the final step, the plant mix mat on the Old Faithful surfacing project was delayed because the Public Roads office in Denver gave the contractor permission to defer completion until the war was over. The Canyon project was closed for the duration of the war. [364]

At the national level, limited road construction proceeded with the grading of the Crystal Cave Road in Sequoia National Park, the excavation, construction of a 535-foot-long tunnel through solid rock, and grading of the No Thoroughfare Canyon Road in Colorado National Monument; the Yazoo City Road at Vicksburg National Military Park; and the Virginia Highway 24 Bypass Road at Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park. Work also continued on the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace Parkways. [365]

In fiscal year 1942, visitation across the system showed a decrease of 30 percent and Yellowstone dropped just below the half million mark. Due to the many different rationings, the National Park Service and the concessionaires in the parks, curtailed their promotions for park visitation. Almost all construction in the parks was halted as it was in most other Federal agencies. A small segment of the planning office remained in the regional offices and in the Director's office. Their priority was to respond to any emergencies, but they also spent considerable time on the "plans-on-the-shelf" program, which the National Park Service had been requested to prepare. The idea for the program was to not only provide "mature and sound plans for future programs of development," but to "take up the slack in employment that may well be anticipated at the end of the war." [366]

The National Park Service contributed in many ways to the war effort in 1943. In Yellowstone, the main roads were kept open for military trucking on an emergency basis. Any damage sustained by these operations would be repaired after the emergency was over. No road contract work was underway and all of the CCC camps had been discontinued in the Park. Even though the CCC did not play a major role in the road construction program, it was involved with landscape improvements. The Mammoth and Cascade Creek CCC camps were transferred to the War Relocation Authority and the buildings were relocated to the Heart Mountain Relocation Project near Cody. [367]

Visitation to Yellowstone fell to its lowest number in many years. A loss of 67 percent over the 1942 travel season was recorded. Most of the visitors were nearby residents or those involved in cross-country, war-related travel. None of the hotels, lodges or cafeterias were open in the Park. [368]

The only large road project associated with the National Park Service underway in 1943 was a study for the protection of the landscape and prevention of unplanned development on government lands through which the 310 miles of the Alaska Highway were being constructed. [369]

The number of visitors to the Park dropped again in 1944, but increased somewhat in 1945. During both of those years, maintenance crews in the Park were made up of old men and high school boys. Again, no new work was initiated during these years, but due to Yellowstone Lake reaching its record-setting height in July of 1944, and the resulting wind and wave action, emergency work had to be done on the roads at Steamboat Point, Mary Bay, and West Thumb. Another problem was the frost boils and heaves on the Gallatin Road, which required reshaping and reprocessing. The concrete rails on the Chittenden Bridge necessitated some filling of cement grout. However, the rails were in such deteriorated condition that complete replacement was projected for two or three years hence. Other maintenance activities involved the deck replacement on the Gardner River Bridge two miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs and the partial construction of a log bridge at Soda Butte Creek. [370]

In addition to the Chittenden Bridge concrete rail problem, the log railings, which were set in the concrete curbs of the concrete bridges on the Tower Falls to Cooke City Road were badly deteriorated and in need of replacement. After his 1944 visit, Acting Chief Engineer A.W. Burney suggested to Chief Landscape Architect Thomas Vint, that the rails be replaced by the National Park Service standard type steel railing then being used on most of the newly built concrete bridges in Yellowstone. Vint felt that the problem bridges had not been designed to support the new steel railings and replacement with log railings was easier and more economical. Thus he recommended replacement in likekind. [371]

As was predicted, the visitation to the Park rose immediately after the war was over, with the West Entrance being the most popular gateway. The remaining order of popular entries was East, South, North, then Northeast. Maintenance of the Red Lodge to Cooke City Road, which fed the Northeast Entrance, was a problem all throughout the war years. One year, the Public Roads Administration received money for its upkeep, but not for snow removal; one year after the states of Wyoming and Montana refused any assistance, the citizens of Red Lodge, Montana, raised money to rent a snow plow to at least open the road for travel. In 1946, the states of Wyoming and Montana again refused any assistance for snow removal and maintenance of the road. After much controversy and pressure from Red Lodge, Billings, other nearby towns, and the Montana congressional delegation, the National Park Service resumed responsibility for snow removal and maintenance. The Park moved in three camps along the road. [372]

Prior to the war years, safety was an important issue and studies were requested for the system. After the war, the Agency hired a safety engineer whose total job was to "effect prompt improvement of any condition of hazard which his studies or those of others may reveal." [373] But, the most pressing problem was staffing. Many of the functions in the parks in the prewar period had been accomplished by different emergency agencies, such as the CCC. With the demise of these agencies, along with the beginning of the 40-hour, rather than 48-hour work week for Federal employees, (a decrease of one-sixth in manhours), the work force suffered. [374]

"Never have the inadequacies of development of the National Park System been so highlighted as during the travel season of 1946 and 1947, which have brought such tremendous increases in numbers of visitors," wrote Newton Drury, the then Director of the National Park Service. In Yellowstone, the numbers increased from 348,880 in fiscal year 1946 to 827,032 in fiscal year 1947. During the war years, the roads actually did not suffer much deterioration, but the surge of visitors in such a short period of time caused much destruction to the road system, particularly since most of these visitors came in their own vehicles. The Public Roads Administration had in readiness, plans and surveys for as estimated $4,151,000 worth of park road work, in addition to $21,007,600 for future parkway road projects. However, in fiscal year 1947, only one contract for $48,619 for a bituminous surfacing of five miles of road was awarded in the entire system. During the summer of 1947 (fiscal year 1948), a contract was awarded for completion of the seven miles of Old Faithful to West Thumb bituminous surfacing. [375]

By the end of June, 1948, the Park's visitation was nearing one million and it registered well over a quarter of a million vehicles. The Isa Lake to Old Faithful stretch finally received the bituminous surfacing that had been programmed for completion prior to the war. The other prewar project completed during 1948 was the grading, base surfacing, and construction of a steel and concrete bridge over the Snake River on the Moran to South Entrance Road. No other new projects were initiated during 1948. Regular maintenance projects such as filling pot holes, reprocessing and sealing, and striping continued on most of the system. A hot spot that developed on the Norris to Canyon Road was repaired with the placement of a heavy concrete slab. Much of the log guardrail was replaced, particularly in the Beryl Springs, Madison Junction, Fountain Paint Pots, Mammoth to Tower Falls, and Mammoth to Norris sections. A new deck was placed on the first bridge out of Gardiner toward Mammoth Hot Springs, and log cribbing and guardrails were replaced on the eastern approach to the Yellowstone River Bridge near Tower Falls. [376]

Yellowstone visitation exceeded the million mark at the end of the 1948 travel season with the popularity of the entrance stations remaining in the prewar order, West, East, South, North, and Northeast. The acceleration in the numbers of visitors prompted the Park to enforce an improved safety program, including improved accident investigation reports, to be used in conjunction with the Wyoming Planning Board traffic volume study, more center line striping, widening the shoulders, building additional smaller parking areas, and increasing the number of patrol cars.

The overall road condition of the system was considered fair in July 1949, with the exception of the South approach road and the Canyon to Norris Road. Considerable patching had to be done all over the system, and over 600 feet of log guardrail had to be replaced on the East Entrance Road and 320 feet needed to be replaced on the Bechler Road near Cave Falls. An entire deck was replaced on one of the bridges of the Firehole Loop Road. The road crews now only occupied three road camps in the Park and one on the Red Lodge to Cooke City Road.

Problems again arose on the Gallatin Road. A 400-foot section of the road broke into "a regular quagmire, black sticky silt being pushed up through the light bituminous mat and cars and trucks were getting stuck." This occurred about one mile south of the Bacon Rind road camp. Steam vents broke out on the road in three locations in the park—in front of the Norris Museum, near Nymph Lake, and near the Mud Volcano. Two new construction projects were started at the end of 1948 and continued into the 1949 season. A 38-mile chip sealing project on the Mammoth Hot Springs to Firehole Canyon road and a grading and base surfacing project in the Canyon area were begun. [377]

The National Park Service was able to secure war surplus equipment for roads and trails construction with funds from the National Military Establishment and the War Assets Administration. The stated value of the equipment was $322,000. The same donation of equipment occurred after the end of World War I. However, the 1940s equipment was not in as good a condition and replacement parts were hard to find. Nevertheless, construction began again across the system with 10 new road projects started, including the two in Yellowstone, Colonial National Historic Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Shenandoah, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Surveys indicated that cost per mile for maintenance on the park roads for the near future would be approximately $571 per mile, some seventy-five percent of the national average. The reality of the financial situation was that the national budget could only expend approximately $320 per mile, leaving the park roads in less than satisfactory condition. Thus, the National Park Service engineering division devised a five-year program to help alleviate the maintenance problem. With over 5,215 miles of park roads in the system, the program called for $3,500,000 in 1950 with increases annually to $3,900,000 in 1954. These funds helped eliminate post World War II special maintenance projects. The goal was to reach a point at which a preventive maintenance program could be established on an annual basis. An equipment amortization program was established to assist in having adequate equipment. [378]

In March of 1950, Superintendent Rogers submitted a list of needed Yellowstone road system improvements amounting to $41,870, knowing full well that all would not be accomplished:

Madison to Old Faithful
   restore raveled edges
   restore eroded shoulders— .5 miles
Old Faithful to West Thumb
   restore raveled edges— 3 miles
   replace 1,000 feet guardrail with guide posts
West Thumb to Lake Junction sand seal— 10.4 miles
   reprocess—2.5 miles
   replace guardrail— 1,500 feet with guide posts
Lake Junction to Canyon Junction
   replace guardrail, 2,000 feet with guide posts
   treat with linseed oil, 5,000 feet guardrail
Tower Falls to Mammoth Hot Springs
   base course repairs
East Entrance to Lake Junction
   repair stone barriers, parking at Mary's Bay
Moran to South Entrance
   center stripe
Northeast Approach road
   chip seal 1.5 miles
   replace rail and curb logs, Rock Creek and Wyoming Creek bridges
Canyon to Norris
   repair two Gibbon River bridges
Canyon area
   replace rock retaining walls, 3 places on Mount Washburn Road
Mammoth Hot Springs to Gardiner
   center stripe—4.8 miles [379]

Yellowstone's maintenance crews started the 1950 season doing routine patching over most of the system and the South and Northeast Approach roads. Guardrails were replaced on the Lewis River, Sheep Creek, Fox Creek, and Index Creek bridges. The Teepee Creek Bridge on the Gallatin Road was reconstructed. Some shoulder improvement was done on the Mammoth Hot Springs to Madison Junction road. Maintenance crews also applied pentachlorophenol to guide posts, guardrails, and bridge timbers as a preservative. Most of the new work involved grading and base surfacing on the northern half of the South Approach road. Under a Minor Road Construction project, the South Approach Road was widened. A road camp was set up near Lizard Creek. [380]

In 1951, Frank Mattson, Yellowstone's landscape architect, reported on the road standards and maintenance in the park. Mattson felt that the initial purpose of improving road standards, providing wider and safer roads and providing roadside parking to permit the visitors to observe the wonders of the park, had not been accomplished. The recent improvement of treating the shoulder with bituminous surfacing had only increased the width of the traffic lanes, thus creating a three-lane-plus traffic surface, inviting faster speeds and hazardous passing conditions. Mattson reiterated the earlier National Park Service philosophy, "The standards of roads within the parks do not necessarily need to comply with highway standards outside of the parks, and moreover, the parks, of necessity, should set standards of their own." [381]

In 1952, an inspection of the primary roads in Yellowstone showed that the system was in generally good condition, with the exception of the Gallatin Road. As stated earlier, the unstable subgrade, the less than desirable base, and the heavy volume of truck traffic continued to plague the engineers on this section of the road. Approximately 75 percent of the 21.3 miles of road had been patched or showed distress. It was felt that at least 12.5 miles of the road would need complete reconstruction. The good condition assessment to the remaining system was attributed to the improved maintenance practices of ditch cleaning and other drainage methods.

One of the major maintenance jobs had been and would be in the next few years, the replacement of thousands of feet of log guardrailing. The 1952 inspections called for several thousand feet of new log railing to be replaced as funds permitted. The other major maintenance job was shoulder widening. [382]

For the next few years, no new major construction projects were underway, and routine maintenance tried to address the ever increasing problems. [383] However, the question of the maintenance of the park approach roads attracted the attention of the Congress. In Report on Negotiations for States to Take Over the Maintenance of Roads Outside the Boundaries of the National Parks and Monuments as Required by the Conference Report on the Interior Department Appropriation Bill, 1955, three of Yellowstone's roads were an issue—the Northeast Approach Road, the 59.86 miles from Red Lodge to Cooke City Montana, the South Approach Road, 7 miles, and the Gallatin Road, U.S. No. 191, 22 miles within the boundary of the park. The report suggested:

South Approach Road—This road is so short and so far removed from State maintenance forces that the State of Wyoming would be unwilling to assume the responsibility. It appears that the only practical solution would be to extend the boundaries of the park to include this road in the National Park System. Gallatin Road—This road is in an isolated section of the park and serves only minor park interests as compared to the usage it receives throughout the year by commercial traffic. . . . The Governor was requested by Assistant Secretary Lewis on March 5, 1954, to consider transfer of this road to the State, and at the Governor's suggestion, a meeting of Service and State Highway personal held on June 2, 1954 for a general discussion of the matter. Subsequently, the State took action to accomplish a portion of the reconstruction and is currently working on a two-mile section within the park in conjunction with contiguous construction just outside of the park. The Service will follow up on the various aspects of this general operation relative to additional reconstruction and determination of the width of right-of-way acceptable in transferring responsibility to the State. Northeast Approach Road—This road begins in Montana, then passes into Wyoming, and back into Montana before reaching the park boundary. The National Park Service has not been successful in getting the States to take over either section. Field studies in recognition of the stalemated situation suggest that the Service should continue to maintain this road and eventually propose appropriate action to give the Service jurisdiction over the roadway proper, plus jurisdiction over a strip of land abutting the road of sufficient width to permit the control of undesirable development or use. If the above objective cannot be attained, the Service can, as has been done in the past: (1) continue its efforts to have the State of Montana take over the easterly section (approximately 15 miles) to the Montana-Wyoming line; (2) continue with Service maintenance of the Wyoming section (approximately 31 miles) until such time as a connecting road from the south would be included in the Wyoming State System, making State maintenance of the Wyoming section of the approach road more practicable and feasible; and (3) recognize that the westerly section (approximately 10 miles) in Montana is so isolated from State operations that maintenance by the State is impractical and should remain a Service responsibility. [384]

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Last Updated: 01-Dec-2005