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



In Superintendent Philetus Norris' first report to the secretary of the interior in 1877, he deemed 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 to the west side a "pressing necessity". Norris felt that this route could connect almost all of the major points of interest and the existing approach road into the Park. [157] The following year, Norris' top priority was the construction of a road from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Lower Geyser Basin however, a small crew did begin work on a new road on the Gardner River toward the Yellowstone Falls and Yellowstone Lake. [158] In 1879, the road crews improved the route from Mammoth Hot Springs to Yellowstone Lake via the Mud Volcano, Sulphur Mountain, the Falls, Mount Washburn, Tower Falls, the Forks of the Yellowstone, and the east canyon of the Gardner River. [159] Evidently not satisfied with the route from Mammoth Hot Springs via the Falls to Yellowstone Lake, Norris spent the last few days of the 1880 season exploring for a new and shorter route from the Cascades of the East Gardner, through a pass in the Stephens Range east of Thompson's Peak, and through another pass of the Washburn Range at the head of the a fork of Cascade Creek, west of Dunraven Pass. Bridges were constructed on several streams including branches of the Gardner River. [160] In 1881, Norris' assistant, C. M. Stephens, supervised the construction of a bridge over the East Fork of the Gardner River, at the head of the middle falls, one bridge at the head of the upper falls of the East Fork of the Gardner River, one bridge over the main Blacktail Deer Creek, and one bridge over Elk Creek near Dry Canyon. [161]

In 1887, the Army, who assumed the responsibility for road construction in 1883, described this section of the road and on to Cooke City over which all supplies for the mining camp are freighted as "rough and hilly country and throughout the greater portion of its extent is unimproved. Some slight grades have been made where it was absolutely necessary and a few crude bridges constructed. The road has been chiefly built and kept in repair by private enterprise and is by far the worst road in the Park, being will nigh impassable a large portion of the year. . . . In my last annual report I recommended the construction of a good road . . . to be continued down the Yellowstone to a junction with the present road to Cooke City, the latter road to be improved from the point of junction to Mammoth Hot Springs." [162]

In 1896, a survey was completed for a new improved route eastward from Mammoth Hot Springs. [163] The following year, the Army planned to build a new road section from Undine Falls on the East Gardner, on the south side of the canyon to Mammoth Hot Springs. The older mail route to Cooke City followed along the north side of the canyon which is "both difficult and dangerous for vehicles." The Army found that this section required "About one mile of the heaviest, most difficult and most expensive work, . . . requiring in one place a stone retaining wall and substantial danger guard . . . the remainder with the exception of the approaches to the proposed bridge across the Middle Gardner embraces no difficulties of importance." [164]

Another survey was made on a section of the Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Falls road during April and May of 1902. The crew covered a six miles segment from Crescent Hill to a crossing of the Yellowstone and beyond. Captain Chittenden of the Army Corps of Engineers described the work in his report of 1902:

The old road down into the valley while comparatively direct takes a drop of 1300 feet in about 3 miles and with grades corresponding and it was to eliminate these gradients that the new road was located and constructed. From Crescent Hill the location for the new road was carried well up on the side of the mountain to avoid drifting snow in the winter time. A 6% grade was used for 1,600 feet in gaining the summit. In getting down to the river from the summit at Crescent Hill and the Yellowstone River at the crossing was found to be 1,571 feet, while the distance was 5 miles. Immediately upon crossing the river a 10% grade for about 1300 feet was established in order to reach the high land above the river quickly and to avoid heavy rock work. The construction party consisting of 40 men and 10 teams with camp equipment left the Springs on the 10th of March and Crescent Hill was reached and camp established on the 13th. The instructions to the road crew were to construct a correct but narrow road down the mountain surveyed, the idea being that the road once established on proper lines could be brought up to the standard of the park roads at a later season. Considerable rock was encountered during the construction and to avoid work of this character as much as possible considerable cribbing was put in, 260 linear feet all told. The amount of solid rock handled was 2,176 yards costing $1395. The amount of loose rock handled was 3,643 cubic yards costing $1,092.90. The amount of earth handled was 17,709 cubic yards at a cost of $3,187.62. The right of way cleared of timber to an average width of 33 feet. All stumps were grubbed and the refuse either burned or hauled to one side. There was 14,800 linear feet of bridging built, including 80 linear feet of culverts, part of the lumber used was sawed on the ground. The balance was hewed logs and poles. The bridges are 16 feet wide. The cost of the 431 linear feet of bridging was $599.86 at the rate of $1.39 per linear foot. The cost amount given above does not include the subsistence of the men nor the prorated office expenses the party. [165]

By 1903, grading had almost been completed on the road from Mammoth Hot Springs and three piers of the new high bridge for the Gardner River crossing had been placed. The steel for this bridge and eight others had been delivered from the American Bridge Company. [166] The next year a half mile section of the old road was rebuilt and rerouted to eliminate a dangerous segment near Ox Bow Creek and the Crescent Hill Canyon road was "widened to full width." [167]

The new 5-span steel-arch bridge over the Middle Gardner River, also described as the "new high bridge," was the largest bridge in the Park. Each span was 76 feet and the 2 approaches were each 15 feet, making a total length of 410 feet. The floor was 70 feet above the river surface. The construction of this bridge at this location eliminated nearly 2,000 feet of road and 60 feet rise and fall at this crossing of the river as compared with the old road. [168] During 1905, Captain Chittenden studied the possibility of rerouting at least 1,000 feet of the road near the head of the falls of the East Gardner River and at its crossing. Chittenden questioned the siting of the dangerous section which had been built eight years before. He felt that it probably should have been built on the lower location. Several very large slides during the winter of 1905-1906 destroyed large sections of retaining walls and the resulting condition of the road just reiterated Chittenden's position. The transportation companies also expressed their concern over the safety and condition of the road. The concessionaires felt that even if the retaining walls were rebuilt, the width of the road made it too dangerous for four-line teams to pass safely. Chittenden knew that in order to make the road safe, the road would have to be widened. This would be a costly procedure as a considerable distance of widening would be through solid rock with a depth of 20 feet or more. Thus, Chittenden recommended a new lower route which would be more satisfactory. His successor, Lieutenant Peek, agreed with this recommendation, however lack of funds prevented any action in 1906. [169] Numerous bad slides occurred on the road about 3-1/2 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs during 1907. The bad conditions in this section of the road reenforced Lieutenant Peek and Major Chittenden's decision to reroute the road to better ground and also to avert a long grade. [170]

A period of inactivity followed for the next few years. Chittenden and Peek's recommendation was tabled, but the "high" bridge was repainted in 1913 as part of a parkwide bridge improvement program. [171] The next major road program affecting this section came after the Bureau of Public Roads assumed road construction responsibility in 1926. [172]

Among the first reconnaissance surveys planned by the National Park Service for the Bureau of Public Roads, was the Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Junction segment. [173] Location surveys for the road were made in 1930 and in 1932. In 1933, Emergency Conservation Work funds employed local men to work on the Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Junction project. The men worked well into the winter on this segment nearly completing the grading between Tower Junction and Lava Creek. [174] The grading and surfacing were handled under several contracts with the bituminous surfacing completed in 1936. Attention and study had been given to the "high bridge site" as early as 1929. A well known Landscape Architect Gilmore Clark, of the New York Westchester County Park Development included his assessment of the bridge site in his "Mammoth Plan". Clark agreed with the proponents of a "high bridge" plan as it was suitable from a landscape viewpoint. The Bureau of Public Roads ran differing alternate lines and figured several cost estimates for the bridge location. Finally in 1935, all interested parties mutually agreed that the "high bridge" should be constructed. [175]

During the construction of the "high bridge," the Gardner River Bridge, the road crews obliterated many of the old road scars from the various routes, some dating to the 1880s. [176]

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Last Updated: 01-Dec-2005