THE AUTOMOBILE COMES TO YELLOWSTONE

In May of 1902, acting Yellowstone superintendent Major John Pitcher received disturbing news. It was rumored that a local resident by the name of Henry G. Merry was going to drive his 1897 Winton automobile to park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs to discuss his displeasure with regulations that prohibited automobiles from entering the national park. Incensed by the thought of such a possible breech in regulations, the major stationed two mounted cavalrymen at the gate to prevent such an act. On June 2nd Mr. Merry and his Winton came through the gate at a breathtaking 25 miles per hour, and the noise that the vehicle generated so scared the horses that they bolted and ran the better part of a mile up the road before the soldiers could regain control and give chase. At headquarters, Mr. Merry was arrested and informed that he would have to pay a fine before he and his vehicle would be banished back to Gardiner. But the tide of progress could not be turned, and the inevitable was not long in coming.In the years prior to the arrival of automobiles in Yellowstone, the park was mainly visited by the wealthy. During the era of the stagecoach, a tour of the park was generally beyond the means of anyone except the upper middle class and the wealthy. The few who did come in private wagons and “camped out” were referred to as “sagebrushers.” These visitors were looked down upon and were not permitted access to the restaurants and hotels. With the popularization of the automobile after the turn of the century, Americans began to take to the roads to see their country–and the national parks were one of the first places they wanted to go.

Automobiles were allowed into Mount Rainier National Park in 1908, General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Park in 1910, Crater Lake National Park in 1911, Glacier National Park in 1912, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1913, and Mesa Verde National Park in 1914. Throughout these years, the transportation companies in Yellowstone were able to keep the “infernal machines” out of the park by pointing out that the one-lane roads would have to be shared by the autos and the 400 horse-drawn vehicles (which translates into nearly 1400 horses!) that they operated–a sure recipe for trouble! But, finally, in April 1915, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane announced that automobiles would be allowed into Yellowstone beginning August 1st. The park’s superintendent, fearing congestion at the gate, let the first vehicles into Yellowstone on July 31st. Permit #1 was issued to Mr. and Mrs. K.R. Seiler of Redwing, Minnesota. Mr. Seiler paid $5 in order to drive his Ford “Model T” into Yellowstone. In those days, no mechanics or auto parts were available inside the park, so the automobilist was required to show that he carried a good stock of spare fluids and parts and that his brakes were good enough to assure that the vehicle could skid to a stop!

Within a few years after admitting the automobile into Yellowstone, large yellow signs with black arrows (or often simply arrows painted on rocks or barns) were seen along America’s northern coast-to-coast highway. These signs pointed the driver to Yellowstone. The Yellowstone Trail, as the road was called, ran from Plymouth, Massachusetts, through Chicago and Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to Yellowstone and on to Seattle, Washington.

It is also fitting to note that Yellowstone’s first automobile permit went to a Ford “Model T.” Henry Ford’s mass-produced vehicle was responsible for getting Americans on the road, and Yellowstone was an early popular destination. With the arrival of that “Model T” on a pretty July evening so long ago, Yellowstone took a giant step forward in genuinely becoming a park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

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