From Points West magazine
Originally published in Spring 2008
By Lee Whittlesey
In part two of his discussion of Yellowstone Lake history, Yellowstone National Park Historian Lee Whittlesey writes of the early roads in the park and how visitors traveled from place to place along those byways.
Following the early mapping efforts showing Yellowstone Lake and pre-1872 visits by travelers to Yellowstone Lake, it was a logical step for the first park managers, concessioners, and tourists to include the lake in the list of major attractions to see in Yellowstone National Park, even though travel to the lake did not measure up to this promotion until 1891.
The earliest Yellowstone Lake tourists arrived on horseback (often pulling pack-strings of horses or mules), and by the time wagon roads reached the Lake area, boating had begun, and the first building had been constructed. In one of his reports to Congress, Superintendent Nathaniel Langford noted as early as 1872 that the park needed a road system of some sort. “These roads, when completed,” he wrote, “would insure the early erection of large and commodious public houses at Mammoth Springs, Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone Lake and the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins.”
It wasn’t until 1880, though, that a road finally did reach the lake, and then it came from the north. It was merely a crude wagon track built by Superintendent P.W. Norris, who utilized a route across the center of the park from Lower Geyser Basin via Mary Lake and Hayden Valley to reach the present Lake area. Thus wagon visitors did not arrive at what became Lake Village until the 1880s, and before lodging was made available in 1887, everyone camped out there using his own equipment.
A triple road junction, then located south of Trout Creek and about a mile west of the present main road, allowed wagon or horseback visitors to turn north through Crater Hills to reach Canyon or to turn south past Mud Volcano and along the river to reach Yellowstone Lake. Travelers used this route through the 1880s, but in late 1891, road engineer Hiram Chittenden completed the first road that ran from Old Faithful to West Thumb to Lake. It ran much as the main road does today—along the lakeshore—deviating from today’s route only at Spring Creek, where it ascended that stream, and at Arnica Creek, where it cut directly northeast to Natural Bridge, located about five miles southwest of present Lake Village.
In many places on the earth, Natural Bridge might have been the entire reason for a park, whereas in Yellowstone, it was, and is, a secondary feature. It was discovered and written about in 1871 by Dr. F.V. Hayden, and in 1891 the main road was routed past it. That gave many early visitors a chance to see it and even to travel across the top of it.
Writing about the bridge, Hayden noted that in 1871, “there is barely room across it for a trail about two feet wide, which is used only by herds of elk that are passing daily.” But Superintendent Norris led the effort to utilize the bridge as a more formal travel route, stating that it had “about ten feet of stone support for a carriage way” on top. He went so far as to put up guard rails at the top of the bridge to make it safer for horsemen to travel across its top. Completion of this road in 1891 rendered the (older) road across Hayden Valley obsolete, and that route gradually fell into disuse.
When Hiram Chittenden’s Old Faithful-to-Lake road was completed in late 1891—the same year Lake Hotel opened—it stimulated visitation to the Lake area by giving tourists a better road. There still were not many tourists, though. Only one wing of the hotel was completed when the building opened, and the park superintendent noted the section was “all that will be needed until the tide of travel sets more in that direction.” Nevertheless, he regarded it as “the most desirable place in the Park for a prolonged stay.”
Charles W. Bowron, a Daily Northwestern journalist from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, visited the park in 1891 and had the good fortune to see the new Lake Hotel and the beginnings of the new road from Old Faithful to Lake. As he explained:
“A large new hotel has lately been erected at Yellowstone lake, but comparatively few tourists go there as yet, unless they intend to spend some time in the park, as the lake is now off the main line of travel and sight-seeing through the park. A new road is now being built across from Upper Geyser Basin to Yellowstone lake…and when this road is completed the circuit of the park will be that way instead of over Mary’s mountain from the Geyser Basins to Grand Canyon…”
A rare book titled A Journey to Alaska, found in the Ron Lerner collection at Bozeman, Montana, relates the account of a park visitor who traveled to Lake from Canyon in 1891. He had quite a lot to say about the terrible road as well as a few negative things about the supplies at the new hotel itself. His account is a commentary on the difficult conditions that early visitors to the park encountered in general, as well as on the way to Lake. This visitor, who sprained his ankle at Canyon, was also unfortunate enough to run into a serious rainstorm on the way:
“The road to Yellowstone Lake [from the north] was dreadful, and was becoming more impassable every hour. We were the first [stage]coaches over the road this year, and if the storm continued, there was no knowing how soon we could return [to Mammoth]. But though the coaches were often on two wheels, almost [turned] over, or were buried to the hubs in mud and water, we kept up as good courage as we could, put the heavy weights on the up side, and at last, on four wheels, drove triumphantly up to the hotel and dismounted in the pouring rain. And what had we gone out into this wilderness for to see? A new hotel just opened for us, and a lovely lake, twenty miles long and eight thousand feet above the level of the sea. The Yellowstone Lake is a beautiful sheet of water, set around with snow-capped peaks, and is the highest lake of its size in North America. But was this worth that dreadful ride? We will wait till after the Sunday services before we answer this question. [They were to find that there were no Sunday church services at Lake.] The sprained ankle was made comfortable in a room on the first floor, and the hotel keeper kindly offered a liniment, which ‘Was first rate for horses—cured them in no time.’ Our invalid’s room became a half way station to the dining room, and each caller brought a bottle of hamamelis [witch hazel], or recommended a different treatment.”
Following the 1903 – 1904 renovation of Lake Hotel, three events greatly affected the number of visitors who stopped at Lake Hotel and who entered the park as a whole: the admission of automobiles into the park in 1915, the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, and America’s entry into World War I in 1917. Visitors now came to Yellowstone in motor vehicles rather than stagecoaches; they dealt with the new rangers of the National Park Service rather than the army; and during the war years, fewer of them came to the park because of war rationing and war service.
Autos offered the most striking change to Yellowstone. In her unpublished May 2004 master’s thesis from Montana State University, “Pleasure Ground for the Future: The Evolving Cultural Landscape of Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park 1870 – 1966,” Yolanda Lucille Youngs notes that, as one might expect, these automobiles and the individual visitors who used them “dramatically changed management policy, development patterns, and visitor services around the park and near the lake” from World War I to the present time.
In the summer 2008 issue of Points West, Whittlesey continues the story of the Yellowstone Lake area with the boating operations that occurred there.
A prolific writer and sought-after spokesman, Lee Whittlesey is the Yellowstone National Park Historian. His 35 years of study about the region have made him the unequivocal expert on the park. Whittlesey has a master’s degree in history from Montana State University and a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. Since 1996, he’s been an adjunct professor of history at Montana State University. In 2001, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Science and Humane Letters from Idaho State University because of his extensive writings and long contributions to the park.
(A complete list of works cited is available from the editor.)