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



During 1885 and 1886, James Blanding, Oscar Swanson and the road overseer, Ed Lamartine began construction of the first road from Norris Geyser Basin to Canyon. [177] In 1887, $12,000 was spent on finishing the 12 mile road, which had only been graded for the first 8 miles east of Norris. [178]

By the end of the century, Army Corps officer Hiram Chittenden considered the reconstruction of this section of road "of pressing importance." He described the road as having:

three of the worst and most dangerous hills on the entire system. . . . The Virginia Cascade hill is a positive menace to the lives of travelers. Several accidents have occurred here, . . . Stage drivers are often compelled to make passengers alight and walk down the hill. The Devil's Elbow—a very short turn of nearly 80 degrees is another dangerous place. Blanding Hill is a long, difficult, and dangerous ascent which is impossible to maintain in good condition. The long hill descending into the valley of the Yellowstone is composed of wretched material, which so cuts up in wet weather as to be impossible of ascent by loaded wagons. The dense forests on top of the plateau retain the snow so late that it has to be shoveled out every spring at great expense. It is proposed to cut out some of the hills, reduce the grades on others, surface the bad stretches and clear the timber away on the north side of the road so as to let the sun in. . . . It is estimated to cost as much as an entire relocation or about $2,000 per mile for 10 miles. [179]

In 1903, Chittenden relocated the most dangerous section, eliminating the bad hills and the dangerous curve, the Devil's Elbow by carving a road into the face of the cliff. In addition to achieving a safer route, "this road had materially added to the scenic effect of this canyon." [180]

In Hiram Chittenden's assessment of the roads in the Park just prior to his transfer to Mount Rainier National Park, in 1905, he called the Norris Junction to Canyon "the least satisfactory road in the park." Despite correcting the most dangerous curves, eliminating the bad hills, clearing timber for 30 feet on the south side of the road, he recommended:

To further improve this road and produce the best practicable solution of a very difficult problem, the remaining hills and hollows should be graded out, the roadbed should be built up more deeply with the native material, so that there will be a heavier cushion over the underlying rock, and the entire road should be sprinkled if possible so as to hold the surface from disintegration in extremely dry weather. With these measures taken it is believed that the road can be kept in fair condition. The cost of transporting crushed rock or gravel from any available quarries is too great to be considered for the greater portion of the road. [181]

Road Near Virginia Cascades on Gibbon River
Road Near Virginia Cascades on Gibbon River, 1900
Courtesy Yellowstone National Park Archives

The 1909 spring snow, which laid very deep on the road, caused significant damage to the road despite the struggle by the road crews to drain it. Two crews ditched and graded the hills and made necessary gravel fills so that at the end of the 1909 fiscal year, the Army engineering officer considered the road to be in "very good condition." [182]

The entire road was graded in 1911 and numerous culverts and one bridge were repaired. Two years later, the retaining wall at Virginia Cascades had been destroyed as a result of severe weather conditions. The crews repaired two bad washout sections and they constructed a dry rubble guard wall. Part of the road section was resurfaced with local materials. [183]

In 1914, a new route was suggested for the stretch of road from Canyon west to the Virginia Cascades. The road would leave the Canyon area, proceed to Cascade Creek to Grebe Lake, following the Gibbon River into Virginia Canyon. All of the transportation companies operating in the Park endorsed the new route, despite the fact that it would be 6-1/2 miles longer than the old route. Other factors favored the route—nearness to water for sprinkling and traveling along a river is generally more scenic. [184] However, permitting automobiles to enter the Park the following summer prompted the Park to reverse their plans for the new route.

It is recommended that this work be not done for the reason that automobiles have been authorized to use the park, beginning August 1, 1915, and that undoubtedly automobiles will increase to the point where animal transportation will be the exception and not the rule. Since considerable increases in distance and grades is of little consequence to automobiles and as the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Canyon by way of Dunraven Pass or Mt. Washburn and Tower Falls is one of the scenic routes in the park, all automobiles will take it, so that within five years the Norris to Grand Canyon will be used only for freighting, which will probably be mostly automobile trucks and occasionally by persons in autos and carriages who desire for one reason or another to make a short cut. Therefore while the construction of this new road would be a vast improvement in grades, ease of maintenance and scenic value, over the present road it would be still only a connecting road between the east and west roads of the main belt line, and used only incidently the moment autos became general. [185]

In 1926, another survey of the road conditions stated that extensive reconstruction was needed on this section. Many places needed widening, many grades needed improvements, and "numerous sags and humps" needed elimination. The report called for the installation of metal culverts, construction of "substantial retaining wall and parapet at Virginia Cascade" and surfacing the road with crushed rock and oil treatment. [186]

This section received more attention in 1934, in the planning of a new junction at Norris. The Park and Bureau officials felt that the road should be moved approximately 15 feet to take "develop the views of the Cascades and the Canyon to the best possible advantage." No precise location was decided and no substantial work was initiated. [187]

Five years later, no major work had been done and the condition of the road became a discussion point at the congressional appropriation hearings. Arthur Demary, associate director of the National Park Service, stated:

this road section has been purposely kept in a low-class secondary condition and tourist traffic over it discouraged as much as possible. About five years ago we laid down a substantial oil mat in place of the dust oiling treatment which we had been carrying on annually. This improved surface proved a temptation to speeds higher than the grade and alignment could safely carry, hence our justification for allowing a measure of surface deterioration, but it is not felt that this had contributed to the traffic hazard if the restricted speed regulations are observed. [188]

Demaray explained to the congressional committee that it would be a number of years before any major reconstruction or rerouting would be done, but with some additional funding he proposed a betterment program for an interim solution. The temporary measure would include:

cutting down of several blind vertical curves that have been the contributing cause of the majority of accidents on this road, widening the cross section in cuts too narrow for safe passage, stabilization of the wet grade in the last mile into Canyon Junction, and complete oil treatment of most of the section. The surplus material from excavation of the vertical curves would be used to raise the grade on poorly drained sections and some additional material would have to be hauled in for grade raising and select surfacing material. [189]

America's entry into World War II prevented only the most minimal road construction or maintenance in the Park, thus the reconstruction of this section was delayed again. Only a hot spot was repaired by covering it with a concrete slab during the 1940s.

At the end of the decade, the South Entrance Road and this section were deemed to be in the worst condition of the whole system. [190]

In 1952, a Location Survey Report was completed by the Bureau of Public Roads, but it would be September, 1966, before this road section was completed. The 38-feet wide road had a 1-1/2 inches thick bituminous base covering 30 feet. This project also included the Norris by-pass and road obliteration. [191] The road has been resurfaced in recent years.

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Last Updated: 01-Dec-2005