TOURING YELLOWSTONE IN DAYS GONE BY

On September 29, 1869, Charles Cook, David Folsom, and William Peterson ascended a hillside to take one last look at Yellowstone Lake. The three men had been traveling on horseback through the Yellowstone wilderness for some time and were now heading home to Montana Territory. The reports of their journey in the press would help spur further exploration parties, eventually leading to the creation of the nation’s first national park. On that day in late September, the future of the area that lay before the explorers was already plain to Folsom. He wrote: “As we were about departing on our homeward trip we ascended the summit of a neighboring hill and took a final look at Yellowstone Lake. Nestled among the forest crowned hills which bounded our vision, lay this inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty which has been viewed by few white men, and we felt glad to have looked upon it before its primeval solitude should be broken by the crowds of pleasure seekers which at no distant day will throng its shores.”When Yellowstone was created in 1872, the only way anyone could see the area was by foot or by horseback. While a couple of rudimentary roads led to the park, there was no road system within the park one could use to see the wonders of Yellowstone. In fact, Nathaniel Langford, the park’s first Superintendent, refused to issue leases to a number of entrepreneurs who wished to erect hotels in the new national park because there were no roads to serve the hostelries–and no money forthcoming from Congress to build them.

Yellowstone remained a park for the horseman until the superintendency of Philetus Norris, who, in 1878, laid the groundwork for the park’s Grand Loop Road, making travel by carriage possible. By 1892, the Northern Pacific Railroad had completed tracks nearly to the park’s northern border, and wealthy tourists flocked to Yellowstone. They toured “Wonderland” aboard stagecoaches specially built for use in the park by Abbot & Downing of Concord, New Hampshire. The “Yellowstone Wagons,” as this variety of “Concord Coaches” came to be called, differed from normal Concord Coaches in that all of the seats faced forward to allow sightseeing.

Stage travelers would spend four to five days touring the park spending a night in the fancy hotels at each of the famous locations. From the railroad terminus at Cinnabar, visitors would board stagecoaches for Mammoth. From Mammoth they would head south to Old Faithful and then east toward Yellowstone Lake. Descending the final hill to West Thumb, they would find (rather than the primeval solitude experienced by the Folsom party), a large dining tent and an 80-foot steamship resting quietly against a pier. After lunch, many of the tourists would board the S.S. Zillah for an afternoon cruise to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Iron hulled, multi-decked, and comfortable, this veteran of the Great Lakes had been brought to Yellowstone in 1891 to provide visitors the opportunity of an afternoon’s respite from the frightful dust that was the norm of stagecoach travel.

During this era, it was generally only the wealthy who could afford to see Yellowstone’s sights from the seat of a stagecoach and stay in the fashionable hotels. The few people of modest means who came to Yellowstone did so the old fashioned way: they rode their own horses or brought a small wagon to carry their supplies. Eventually, the freedom to see Yellowstone at one’s own speed proved so inviting to visitors that a rancher named Howard Eaton founded a business to lead patrons on three-week horseback trips around the park, camping at convenient places along the way. Upon his death in 1922, the trail he pioneered, which parallels the Grand Loop Road around Yellowstone, was named the “Howard Eaton Trail.”

Private automobiles were allowed in the park in 1915, and by the end of 1916 it was evident that the era of carriage and stagecoach travel had come to an end. That fall, the park’s transportation company placed an order with the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, for the first of hundreds of touring cars that were to travel the park roads for decades to come. With four doors along each side, a roll-back canvas roof, and a “gearjammer” (driver) at the wheel, the White touring cars became for many the “way to see Yellowstone.” After World War II private automobiles began to dominate the roads and eventually became the primary means by which most everyone sees Yellowstone today. The “Great Yellow Fleet” finally went on the auction block in the early 1960s.

While the Howard Eaton Trail lies forgotten, overgrown, and abandoned along most of its length, visitors can still enjoy Yellowstone from the back of a horse at corral facilities at Canyon, Mammoth, and Roosevelt, or by taking a trip with a licensed backcountry outfitter. At Roosevelt Lodge, visitors can ride in a replica of a Yellowstone stagecoach. And while few see the park exclusively by walking (as did visitor C. Hanford Henderson in 1898), Yellowstone has more than 1,500 miles of hiking trails that are extensively used and enjoyed by backpackers and dayhikers each summer and by cross country skiers in winter. Each one of Yellowstone’s visitors who walks a trail, rides a horse, or sleeps in a tent or at a hotel continues the earliest traditions of touring the park and discovering its wonders.