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


Before long the rain began to fall, and as the roads were soft clay they soon became very slippery and we had to put on our chains to avoid a serious accident. Even then it was difficult driving on those steep, narrow, winding roads, and we made very poor time, the car just crawling along on low or second gear for hours at a stretch. In places we had to stop and wait for a passing car or truck to extricate itself from the mud, and considered ourselves fortunate that we were not ditched ourselves.

Modern Gypsies, 1924
—Mary Crehore Bedell

In February of 1924, the House Committee on the Public Lands held hearings on H. R. 3682, a Bill authorizing the construction, reconstruction and improvements of roads and trails in the national parks, under the jurisdiction of the secretary of interior. Mather, Albright, and M.O. Eldridge, Secretary of the Good Roads Board of the American Automobile Association, were among the men who testified. Mather felt that this legislation was the most important bill to be considered since the act that created the National Park Service in 1916. Albright explained to the committee that the 3-year plan would enable the National Park Service, which has a total of 1,060.5 miles of roads, to reconstruct 391.5 miles, surface 353.6 miles, and construct 360.85 miles. He further explained that expensive paving was not part of the program, except for 28 miles through the Yosemite Valley. All of the surfacing would be crushed rock or gravel, with a small section of bituminous macadam.

Albright believed that in most cases, the roads were not ready for paving. Since most had been built for animal-drawn vehicles, they would need widening and the curvatures and grades corrected for automobile use. Albright told the congressmen that the National Park Service would have to come back to them some time in the future for paving monies. In comparison to state roads, he stated that most of the park roads in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming were not paved. Albright testified that the three-year $7,500,000 project would provide good curvatures, proper widths and grades and thus a good base for future paving projects.

Eldridge told the congressmen that the American Automobile Association had consistently supported appropriations for park road construction and improvements and certainly supported the impending bill. He related that the late Executive Chairman A. G. Bathchelder, had been appointed by Secretary of Interior Franklin Lane to serve on a commission with the duty to assess the question of whether automobiles should be admitted to national parks. The commission also had written the initial rules and regulations under which automobiles could be admitted into Yellowstone. [257]

Mather felt that the passage of the authorization bill in April of 1924, reflected the "will of the people in demanding that the roads in the national parks be placed in a good and safe condition for motor travel." [258] The first appropriation fell short of the expected $2,500,000 due to the Treasury having to pay for the Adjusted Soldiers Compensation Act. The first appropriation of $1,000,000 came with the request from the House that this money be used for improvements on the existing roads, bringing them up to a safe and comfortable traveling condition. However, they did promise that appropriations for the second year would come early in the spring, so longer projects could get underway. The deficiency of the first appropriation resulted in few accomplishments for 1924 in Yellowstone. [259]

However, one of the major accomplishments for 1924 in Yellowstone, but not financed by road money, was the construction of a combined checking and ranger station at the West Entrance. The log-trimmed frame building was the idea of the chief ranger who supervised its construction. A temporary station, similar to the West Entrance Station, was also built at the East Entrance until a permanent building could be designed and built. A new 1,300-foot-long road was built near the Old Faithful permanent camp and the old road was abandoned. A new log-trim frame, 16-by-24-foot bunkhouse was built for the road camp on Dunraven Pass. [260]

Probably the most important thrust during 1924 was roadside cleanup. Albright and the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company agreed to a three-year plan of reconstructing all of the poles and lines throughout the Park, and most importantly, using only one set of poles. Prior to 1924, the government ran its telephone or other lines on one side of the road and the hotel company ran its down the other side. During 1924, the lines and poles were removed on the Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris road and new joint lines and poles were placed in a swath cut through timbered areas away from the road. In the open areas, the lines and cedar poles, with six-foot crossbars, were placed farther away from the road and preferably on the side of the road with the more inferior scenery. [261] Albright's wish, "If we now had the means to clean up the roadside of the Yellowstone, this park would be in first-class condition so far as its landscape protection is concerned" was soon fulfilled. [262]

A visit to Yellowstone by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. during the summer of 1924 had several implications for public enjoyment of the park. The first, and the one with the most immediate effect, was his assessment of the condition of the park roadsides. Upon his return to his summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine, he wrote to Albright thanking him for the kindness shown to him on his trip, but also stating, "There was just one thing in the Park which marred my enjoyment of that wonderful region, and I have wondered if I might be helpful to the Park administration in improving that situation. I refer to the vast quantities of down timber and stumps which line the roadsides so frequently throughout the Park." Wishing to remain an anonymous donor, Rockefeller went on to offer suggestions for cleanup and financial backing for a parkwide roadside cleanup project. [263]

For the next few months, correspondence flowed between the East coast and the Park, with Albright making estimates and Rockefeller offering suggestions and also sending the first of many checks to cover the cost of the cleanup operation. Albright explained to Rockefeller that both he and Mather had been concerned about the roadsides since their 1915 trip to the Park. Both had discussed cleanup with the Army officers at that time, but the Army estimates "almost paralyzed us but we took them at their face value." [264] He continued by stating that since the National Park Service took over the administration of the Park, the grim financial situation had never allowed any cleanup other than picking up firewood for use during the winter. Albright had brought up the situation before several congressmen and before several subcommittees, but to no avail. He said the congressmen felt there were too many more pressing needs than cleanup.

In September, Albright and Park Engineer A.W. Burney made a careful inspection of the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Junction, in order to assess the amount of work to any given area on this section and to estimate the cost of cleanup. It had been decided that this section was the worst in the Park and that it should have priority, particularly since this was also the first section for telephone poles and lines relocation. Albright felt that the public image of the Park might improve since part of this section was in the area of the forest fire that burned through a Douglas fir forest extending from Terrace Mountain in the west to Bunsen Peak on the east in the early 1880s. While a portion of this burned section reforested soon after the fire, much of the section through which the road ran, did not experience reforestation. Many of the burned trees had been used for lumber in the building of Fort Yellowstone and at the Mammoth Hotel. Thus for over 30 years, stumps remained near and in the view of the road south of Mammoth Hot Springs. Albright feared that visitors would misinterpret the situation and assume that government policy allowed the operation of sawmills within the Park, to provide lumber for park buildings and perhaps even for shipment outside of Yellowstone. Albright and Engineer Burney recommended stump clearance from 200 to 500 feet away from the road's edge "in order to restore a condition that could be regarded as natural." [265]

Rockefeller sent Albright a check for $1,000 to cover the experimental project and indicated that more money would be forthcoming based upon the success of the experimental project. [266] Thus the cleanup operation began in September, with Albright and Engineer Burney personally supervising a crew of three laborers, one cook, two teamsters, and a truck driver under the direction of a foreman. The crew was equipped with a camping outfit, 3-1/2 ton dump wagons, chains, axes, shovels, etc., and began at a point approximately eight miles south of park headquarters. The amount of cleanup ranged from 50 to 60 feet on each side of the road. The crews hauled away all dead and down timber, brush, debris, etc. Dead standing trees within 10 to 15 feet of the roadway were cut down and removed. The other dead trees farther away from the road were left standing, unless they were about to fall down, or were an impairment to the landscape.

As the work progressed, Albright formulated an estimate of $14,430 for the heavy and light cleanup of the entire Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Junction section. He hoped to have an estimate for the Park by the opening of the 1925 season. [267]

During the fall of 1924, Rockefeller not only sent additional monies, but he personally became involved with cleanup procedures. He suggested that hauling costs could be lowered if the dead trees, stumps, brush, and debris could be piled and burned. He also favored the removal of the dead trees that were farther than 15 feet from the roadside. [268] Albright agreed with Rockefeller's suggestions.

In a November letter to Rockefeller, Albright announced that the 11-mile section from Mammoth Hot Springs to Apollinaris Spring was:

as clean and beautiful as any similar stretch of road in the western part of the United States, except perhaps where millions have been spent on landscape improvements such as along the Columbia River Highway. I can truthfully say that the results we are obtaining in this cleanup work are beyond my expectations. Truly, no more important work has ever been undertaken in this park than the landscape improvement that you have authorized and I find that I personally am getting more pleasure out of supervising this work than almost anything else I have undertaken. [269]

In addition to the overall landscape improvements, Albright felt that the improved appearance impressed the road crews to such an extent that their previous attitude toward the roadside would be changed. Prior to the cleanup, the crews tended to cut trees along the roads and trails for use in repair work of the bridges, culverts, and buildings and dig gravel pits along the roadsides. The cleanup project also prompted Albright to instruct the road crews to include cleanup and maintenance of the roadsides as part of their normal duty. The new duties also included the removal of old gravel pits along the roads. [270]

Also during the summer of 1924, Mather requested Albright's views on the Bureau of Public Roads assuming road construction and improvements in the parks. The day after receiving Mather's telegram, Albright responded in detail his opinion:

1. The standards of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads are extremely high, making road work very costly. Should we adopt the standards of the Bureau of Public Roads, our fund of $7,500,000 would not build half as many miles of new roads, nor improve half as many miles of old roads, as we expect to build and improve. Furthermore, our standards call for retention of curves in order to avoid deep cuts and more or less unsightly fills and often extensive destruction of timber, whereas, the Bureau of Public Roads standards call for elimination of curves wherever possible and straight roads.

2. The Bureau of Public Roads up to the present time has not had supervision in its road building from landscape engineers. If it performed our road work it would have to establish a special division of landscape engineers. We have such a division at the present time. Lack of landscape engineer is responsible for the cutting of the right-of-way into the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees which resulted in the loss of one of the biggest sugar pines in California, as set forth in articles and pictures regarding the recent visit of Director Mather and myself to the Calaveras Grove.

3. The Bureau of Public Roads is a big organization, but does not have sufficient engineers to take over our work. That Bureau would have to add just as many engineers to supervise our work as we ourselves would have to add to our organization, and in addition our appropriation would have to bear a portion of the overhead of the Bureau of Public Roads, which has a higher overhead than ours.

4. In certain parks, such as Yellowstone for instance, most of the road work which will be done under the new appropriation, can be handled under the supervision of the regular engineering organization. In other words, we have to have engineers here all the year round to plan and carry out maintenance work and these men can also supervise what construction we have to do. This observation applies to several parks.

5. Much of our road work will be improvement of existing roads such as widening, improvement of grades and surveying. This work will have to be carried on while the tourist season is in full swing. Such work will have to be done by force account and should be done under our direction because we will have to control the traffic and enforce our rules and regulations with reference to the use of the road during the time that the construction work is in progress. We had an example last year on the West Yellowstone approach road from Ashton, where the BPR let a contract for surfacing this main approach and through the summer tourists were routed over atrocious detours and complaints were myriad. [271]

Albright explained that the Forest Service was also opposed to the Bureau of Public Roads doing their road work. He then detailed the conditions under which the Bureau could be allowed to administer the road construction program.

1. The Secretary of the Interior be empowered to absolutely fix:

a. The standard of the road

b. The amounts to be expended on any given project

c. to have equal voice with the Secretary of Agriculture in the fixing of overhead charges against park appropriations

2. That the National Park Service's Landscape Engineering Division have full authority to pass on all survey and specifications before contracts were let and to supervise the landscape end of the work after contracts had been awarded.

3. In parks where the regular engineering organization necessary to properly maintain the park is fully qualified to perform the road work, then the Secretary of the Interior should have power to permit these organizations to do all road work in their respective parks by and with the general advice of the engineers of the Bureau of Public Roads.

4. That for the first three years' program the appropriation should be not less than $100,000. [272]

Albright concluded by adding that if the above conditions were met, he would have no problem with the Bureau assuming the road construction and improvement programs in the national parks. He spoke very highly of his friends, the Chief of the Bureau Thomas McDonald and his deputy, Dr. L. I. Hewes. [273]

Before the end of 1924, Albright found out that a little less than $1 million was being spent on the approach roads to Yellowstone National Park. Most of the funding had come from the Federal road aid and Forest appropriations and a smaller percentage from the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Most of this work was done within 50 miles of the park boundary and on roads primarily used by tourists to Yellowstone. Albright noted that since the time the Army left the Park in 1918, Yellowstone had received $60,403.32 for road improvement, (the widening of Dunraven Pass road and the surfacing of the south entrance road) compared to anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 by the surrounding states for improvement of old roads and the construction of some new sections. Albright found their figures to be very discouraging. In the past, the road system within the Park had outshone the free approach roads. However, the free approach roads were becoming far superior to the fee-collected intra-park roads which Albright called "really toll roads". He warned the director that "nothing but criticism can be expected by Department and National Park Service officials from people who will have to use our roads." [274]

The approach road situation worried Albright and it prompted him to request a report from Engineer Burney on the feasibility of the National Park Service assuming the responsibility for construction and maintenance of the approach roads to Yellowstone National Park. Albright concluded that the most pressing problem was the 60-mile north approach road from Livingston to Gardiner, Montana. This section, designated by the Montana State Highway Commission as part of the State Highway System, could have received money under the Federal Aid Road Act, however, the county's share would have been 47 percent. With Park County having nearly 700 miles of roads and 28 large bridges to maintain on a $40,000 per year budget, the outlook for the Livingston to Gardiner section was dim. Of the 700 miles of Park County roads, 103 miles were designated as being on the National Park-to-Park Highway system, and 35 miles of it north of Livingston were presently under construction. The construction of the 35 mile section was funded under the Federal Aid Road Act and the State Highway Commission. Park County's share was raised by bonds; thus, the county was in no position to take on further road projects for a long time.

Albright believed the Forest Service should take care of the 3-1/2 miles of the approach road that runs through the Gallatin National Forest, but that the National Park Service should be responsible for the reconstruction and maintenance of the 18-mile section, from Gardiner through the Yankee Jim Canyon. The Yankee Jim Canyon was in dire need of reconstruction to correct the dangerous, steep grades, sharp curves and narrow road widths. The Bureau of Public Roads engineers estimated that the reconstruction of the 18-mile section would be $314,000. A section south of Livingston had recently been reconstructed and given a crushed gravel surface. [275] This program did not go unnoticed nationally. Shortly after Engineer Burney's report, H. R. 8882, a bill authorizing the construction of approach roads to national parks and monuments, was being prepared to be introduced to the House of Representatives by Congressman Scott Leavitt. [276] Six years later, appropriation bills backed by Congressman Leavitt awarded $10 million dollars to the National Park Service, with a portion designated for approach roads into the parks and monuments. [277]

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Last Updated: 01-Dec-2005