EARLY VISITORS TO THE PARK

As the roads are cleared of their last vestiges of winter snows, and hotels and campgrounds are cleaned and readied for this summer’s visitors, it is interesting to think about how people used to travel to Yellowstone to see its wonders.Of course, Yellowstone’s earliest visitors were its earliest residents. American Indians lived in the region for thousands of years, although our knowledge of which tribal groups inhabited the Yellowstone area and how they lived is scant. The first Euroamerican to visit Yellowstone was probably John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who stayed in the West’s mountains after the Expedition returned to civilization in 1806. The exact route of his 1807-08 winter trek will probably never be known, but the evidence points to him wandering across the future park.

Colter was followed by other mountain men searching the Valley of the Upper Yellowstone for beaver and other pelts for trading. One of these mountain men, Warren Angus Ferris, became (as far as is known) Yellowstone’s first tourist, coming here not for business but just for pleasure. Concerning his 1834 visit, Ferris wrote:

“I had heard in the summer of 1833, while at rendezvous, that remarkable boiling springs had been discovered, on the sources of the Madison, by a party of trappers in their spring hunt; of which the accounts they gave, were so very astonishing, that I determined to examine them myself. . .”

As tales of the Yellowstone area grew, more people came to see for themselves if the stories were true. These early visitors to Yellowstone were a hardy breed, resourceful, and self-assured. Travel was by horse or mule through forests that were often so littered with deadfall (referred to as jackstraw) that one could only cover two to three miles in a whole day! After the area was set aside in 1872 as the nation’s first national park, visitation “skyrocketed” to around 1,000 people each year. These visitors had to travel through the park on bridal paths and game trails and sleep on the ground or in tents.

In 1883, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived to begin proper road building, after which overnight accommodations sprang up throughout the park. In those early days the main bulk of the visitors to Yellowstone were prosperous citizens of the United States and the nations of Europe. Because travel to Yellowstone took days or even weeks, only the wealthy had the time and resources to visit “Wonderland.”

At first one had to take the Union Pacific Railroad to Corinne, Utah, and then get on a stagecoach for the 380-mile ride to Virginia City, Montana’s Territorial Capital. There you could hire horses and an outfit and, perhaps, someone to guide you to the park. Later the Northern Pacific Railroad, having extended its lines west from Chicago, brought visitors to Gardiner, Montana, along a branch line. There you would step off the train onto a 36-passenger tally-ho stage drawn by six matching horses for the ride into the park. For the tour around the park, each guest was issued a linen duster to try to help maintain their fine clothes amid the heavy cloud of dust kicked up by the stagecoach. It was also the time when, at certain points during the day, the driver (who would have had a name like Geyser Bob or Society Red) would stop to inform everyone that the forests to the left were for the ladies, to the right for the men!

While most folks rode the stagecoaches, there were still some intrepid souls who chose other means of touring the park. The first bicycle tour of the park took place in 1883, when three members of the Laramie, Wyoming, Bicycle Club came to visit, and in 1898 an Englishman, C. Hanford Henderson, toured the entire 140 miles of the Grand Loop on foot in 4 1/2 days!

The grand era of stagecoach travel ended in 1917 when touring cars replaced the stages. The Northern Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, which had reached West Yellowstone in 1907, both stopped passenger service in the 1950s when travel to Yellowstone became essentially what we know today.