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Transportation in Yellowstone has gone through many changes over the past 150 years

The transportation options to get to and around Yellowstone National Park have changed significantly over the last century and a half. What is now a very automobile-centric park that many people spend a few hours or days in, was once served by railroads, stage, and motorcoaches, as well as primitive trails that necessitated longer stays and travel times.

The many sounds associated with cars, trucks, campers, and tour buses resonate through parts of the park, such as the squealing of brakes, honking horns, and the humming of engines. But things were a bit different 150 years ago when much of the park sounded like the most remote areas of it today, far away from the main travel corridors. The park’s roads were developed from game trails, as well as from paths used by Native Americans.

For the first decade of its existence, visitors got to the park by horse and carriage, but in 1883 the first railroad connection was made to a site north of Gardiner, which was later extended, creating the north entrance.

“There’s some memoirs that of people bemoaning the fact that, ‘Oh, we’re going to be overrun with visitors now because the train’s here,’ and thinking about having a couple hundred people as opposed to what we look at now, which is millions,” said Alicia Murphy, a Yellowstone National Park historian.

The increased visitation proved a boon for Yellowstone and the railroad. Northern Pacific Railroad financier Jay Cooke lobbied hard for Congress to establish Yellowstone as a national park, and other railroads followed suit seeing the opportunities.

“We have had Northern Pacific in the north, Union Pacific here in West [Yellowstone], the Chicago Burlington [and Quincy] line [that] went to Cody, Wyoming, and they were early, that was 1898, and then the Chicago [and] Northwestern went to Lander, Wyoming, and the Milwaukee Road went to the Gallatin Gateway here in Montana,” said Brandi Burns, executive director of the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone, Mont.

Burns added that rail travel began to decline in the 1910s and continued its overall decline in the coming decades with the last passenger service to the park being abandoned in the 1960s. The popularity of automobiles and air travel were major factors in the decline in rail service. Cars were first allowed in the park in 1915, Murphy said.

John Clayton, an author who has written about Yellowstone,e said conflicts between horse-drawn vehicles and cars were problematic.

“For a while, they tried sending off the autos first thing in the morning and then the horses later because they couldn’t share the road easily, the horses would really get spooked by the automobiles,” he explained. “And eventually, none of these plans worked and they just had to wholesale shift from horses to autos.”

With advancements in technology, airline travel became an easy way for tourists to get to the region, though the automobile is most associated with Yellowstone today. Clayton added that Yellowstone reflects the wider trends of American life.

“From my experience, Yellowstone is always a place that reflects the wider society,” he said. “It became an auto tour destination once automobiles became popular elsewhere.”

The rise in automobile tourism led to an increase in road signage, phasing out the tour guides that once instructed larger groups of tourists on buses or coaches. With more people visiting this special place, dealing with increased numbers of visitors will continue to play into long-term plans.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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