Yellowstone and the Northern Pacific Railroad

Home to a disaster waiting to happen, there is no place like Yellowstone National Park. At least not in the continental United States. This uniqueness has made it a popular destination for tourists both domestic and foreign. The history of the land as a national park and tourist destination begins with this notion as well. With industrialization westward expansion occurring during the late nineteenth century, the park provided the perfect motivation to get people to travel west, and was therefore manipulated as a tool for the benefit of the railroad industry, Northern Pacific Railroad(NPRR). The railroad industry seized the opportunity to commodify the park and its land as a source of future profit.  Northern Pacific Railroad influenced the tourism of and establishment of Yellowstone as a National Park, by supporting not only its discovery, but establishment as the first National Park and tourist’s access.

Before its establishment as a national park, Yellowstone did not receive tourists from the general public, and was instead visited to be explored and surveyed. Due to the lack of reachability it possessed, only those who were going there for the purpose of study took the time to venture to the land. Lewis and Clark, most famous for exploring the land purchased by the United States of America from the French through the Louisiana Purchase, were among one of the first explorers to travel this area. Other explorers including missionaries, prospectors, and trappers came throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, it wasn’t until the eighteen-sixties that exploration was taken more seriously, and more thorough explorations were done. These explorations provided valuable information and research into the area. Those expeditions done in earlier times were not considered valid or trusted, and mainly served to pique the interest of the later explorers.

Of the explorations done during the eighteen-sixties, most notable to the establishment of Yellowstone was the expedition of a group of explorers known as the Washburn Party. Lead by General Washburn, and being made up of some officials and influential citizens of Montana, the party was organized in the summer of 1870, and is credited to providing the general public with the first information on the Yellowstone area.[1] The expedition, due to its mission to collect knowledge on the region for the area to be designated as a national park, of which the Northern Pacific Railroad was lobbying for in 1870, was sponsored by the NPRR.[2] After the expedition, each member published their experience of the exploration. Of these publications, one of the most significant was that of Lieutenant Doane’s report of his experience going to Yellowstone, which was published as a Government document.[3]

The success of the influence of Lieutenant Doane’s document was due to the fact that it caught the attention of, and supported, Congressman Kelley and his agenda. Congressman Kelley was an ardent supporter of transcontinental railroads, and particularly favored the Northern Pacific route. He played an influential role in helping to advance and initiate the movement which prompted the formation of Yellowstone as a national park. [4]

The Northern Pacific Railroad influenced the creation of Yellowstone as a national park, recognizing it as advantageous. Lobbying began for the land be appointed as a park in 1870. Executives of the business realized that turning the untouched land of Yellowstone into a market commodity could attract many tourists, which would bring multiple forms of profit. Additionally, with the federal government controlling the land, they could monopolize the area by controlling the development and access to the area.  Thus, NPRR greatly lobbied for the Yellowstone Park Act to be passed and enacted.[5]

Another group of people the late nineteenth century explorers influenced, were scientists, which in turn influenced the passing of the Yellowstone Park Act. Findings from these explorations, especially those of the Hayden and Barlow parties, caused interest to develop among the scientists.[6]  Before these explorations, it was still uncertain what was at Yellowstone, and the explorations, namely Professor Hayden Richardson’s book, provided valuable, more detailed insight into the area. It was discovered that Yellowstone was host to a fantastic geologic formation featuring a volcanic phenomenon not found anywhere else in the continental United States of America.[7] This interest led to lobbying and other actions to convince the government that Yellowstone was a piece of land that needs to be preserved not only for its rare features, but for the use of relaxation and education.

The influence of both the explorers and scientists’ desire to preserve the land, and the lobbying and advocacy done for preserving Yellowstone eventually led to its designation. The land was finally established as a national park on March 1, 1872, through the Yellowstone Park Act. Ulysses S. Grant, after signing the Act of Congress in law, claimed Yellowstone, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”[8] There had been other attempts to get Yellowstone established as a national park, but this instance was the first time that it was successful, greatly due to the influence of Congressman Kelley. Yellowstone hosted a legality that was unprecedented for a park, it was the first instance that the federal government reserved land under its management for its wild nature for recreational purposes. Yellowstone set a precedent and other countries began adopting this model of setting aside pieces of federal government controlled land for recreational purposes.[9]

Accessibility greatly influenced the tourism of Yellowstone National Park. Many Americans, although excited about the new park, were dissuaded to visit due to its remoteness, as very little railroads and roads reached the site, and there were very few accommodations upon arrival for tourists. Thus, very few people visited among its first couple of years as a Park. However, railroads pushed through the west, increasing accessibility, mass tourism was popularized, and more infrastructure development was supported.[10] Tourism at Yellowstone increased centerfold.

Guidebooks also served to bring tourists into the park, enticing them with grand descriptions of the landscape. Many people were ecstatic at the thought of touring land specifically set aside by the federal government for preservation and for the people to benefit from and enjoy, of which such an idea was unprecedented.  Grand scenes of the land that they might see in person, the likes of which they have only seen in pictures, enthralled people.[11] In the guidebook, On the Yellowstone Trail, by James R. Joy, those descriptions of the landscape are given, stating “the changing grandeur of the scene keeps us silent and wide-eyed.” A feature of the Park called the terraces enticed tourists as it was stated to be more gorgeous in person, and described with heavenly diction. Mammoth hot springs was a main attraction, and the post office, and headquarters of military and transportation were also located there. It was also the attraction at which most tourists entered and left the park. It was described as and with diction relating to jewels.  Moving on from the description of mammoth hot springs, the guidebook claimed the beauty of the rest of the park was stated to be equally as indescribable.[12] The Northern Pacific Railroad was also mentioned in the guidebook as the transport the tourist takes to the Park, with a complementary description. An ad for the Railway could also be seen in the back of the book.

The concept of purity greatly attracted tourist. The target audience was the population of the east coast, where the majority of the population was, living and working in industrialized urban settings. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with industrialization and the negative effect it was having on the landscape, a “parks movement” began in eastern cities. Thus, the preservation of nature became increasingly popular as people became more interested in the natural world and its beauty.[13] People were elated with the idea of not only the promise of clean and fresh air, and escape from the city, but that would be able to see wilderness untouched by man (not consumed by human activity), and natural wonders.[14]  Yellowstone fit the criteria perfectly.

Yellowstone also catered to the appeal of patriotism. In fact, Mark Daniels believed that one of the central functions a national park serves was to stimulate national patriotism.[15] The idea of the west and the frontier-style of living continued to remain an idealized representation of national pride. The Guidebook On the Yellowstone Trail, by James R. Joy, which described the journey to Yellowstone, including sights and accommodations that may be seen and used, and several sights relating to the western frontier were mentioned.  It mentioned a cowboy who corralled his broncos with a crack of his whip. It also mentioned a colored cavalryman who, with everything that he did, represented Uncle Sam, a patriotic figure to the United States, as he escorted stages to a hotel.[16]  In addition to Yellowstone representing patriotism due to it being a good example of the west, due to its magnificence of itself as a scenic landscape. A newspaper clipping “Yellowstone Park Travel” by Olin D. Wheeler, claimed that Americans are obligated to go and visit the sites of America before going abroad, and gain knowledge of their own country. He talked of a scenario in which how it would be shameful for them to go abroad and meet a foreigner who had seen the American landscapes before them, a native American. He talked of how Yellowstone is a gift to the United States, the sights of which cannot be replicated, and it is the duty of the citizens to take care of it, the most effective way being to go see it.[17] This article exemplifies Dean MacCannell’s belief that tourist sites are cultural attractions.[18] Yellowstone provided a way for people to experience their culture.

The Northern Pacific Railroad greatly impacted the infrastructure of the Park and the area surrounding it. The park attracted not just tourists, but investors looking to build infrastructure for those tourists, which in turn brought more people. The park provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs to begin businesses, as the region was very remote. There were many areas in which accommodations were still needed to meet the need of the tourists, in not only shelter, but food and guides as well.[19] NPRR monopolized the industry’s development by supporting people and companies who were loyal to the railroad, namely the Yellowstone Park Association, which had authority over the transportation in the park, and built roads and ran hotels. The Northern Pacific Railroad invested millions of dollars into increasing the tourist infrastructure of Yellowstone by building roads, hotels, and many other visiting facilities and accommodations.  They promoted visitation of this area by calling the route there, the “Yellowstone Park Line.”[20] Growing tourists brought more money into the area, allowing infrastructure to continue to develop.

The Northern Pacific Railroad had a continued influence on the state of Yellowstone National Park. Realizing that the land could be commodified for its sights, they supported the early explorers to gather information on the area, which lead to many people, the railroad included push for the preservation of the land. Despite many attempts at establishing it, it was with the support of Congressman Kelley, who also supported the railroad, that the act was finally created. After its establishment, it gave the railroad a reason to expand west, and tourists a reason to travel west. To support and encourage the tourists to visit, the railroad funded infrastructure development and guidebooks featuring the land and the reasons to visit.  From its establishment, to getting tourists to visit the area, the Northern Pacific Railroad supported Yellowstone National Park, and its success as a tourist destination, every step of the way.



Haines, Aubrey L. Yellowstone National Park: its exploration and establishment. Washington:  U.S. National Park Service, 1974

Joy, James R. “On the Yellowstone Trail: I.” In Christian Advocate (1866-1905), Methodist Pub. House, etc. Chicago Vol. 78, Iss. 15, (Apr 9, 1903): 578

MacCannel, Dean. The Tourist. University of California Press.

Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E. “E.C. Waters and Development of a Turn-of-the-Century Tourist Economy in Yellowstone National Park.” Historical Archaeology, Vol. 38, No.4 (2004), pp 96-113. Society for Historical Archaeology.

Shaffer, Marguerite S. Seeing the Nature of America. In Being Elsewhere. Edited by Furlough, Ellen and Baranowski, Shelley.

Wheeler, Olin D. “Yellowstone Park Travel.” New York. Current literature (1888-1912); Jun 1895; VOL XVII Iss. No. 6; pg.14

Wilson, Casey S. “West Yellowstone: Tourism, Residents, and Seasonal Workers in a Gateway                 Community” ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis; 2002; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global

Wylie, W.W. Yellowstone National Park. Kansas City, Mo; Ramsey, Millet & Hudson, 1882


[1] Wylie, W.W. Yellowstone National Park. Kansas City, Mo; Ramsey, Millet & Hudson, 1882

[2] Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E. “E.C. Waters and Development of a Turn-of-the-Century Tourist Economy in Yellowstone National Park. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 38, No.4 (2004), pg. 98

[3] Haines, Aubrey L. Yellowstone National Park: its exploration and establishment. Washington: U.S. National Park Service, 1974; p.98

[4] Haines, Aubrey L.

[5] Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E. pg.98

[6] Haines, Aubrey L. p.99

[7] Wylie, W.W.

[8] Haines, Aubrey L. p.107

[9] Haines, Aubrey L. pg.109

[10] Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E. pg.97

[11] Wilson, Casey S. “West Yellowstone: Tourism, Residents, and Seasonal Workers in a Gateway Community.” pg.1

[12] Joy, James R. “On the Yellowstone Trail: I.” pg. 578

[13] Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E. pg.96

[14] Wilson, Casey S.

[15] Shaffer, Marguerite S. Seeing the Nature of America. In Being Elsewhere.

[16] Joy, James R. “On the Yellowstone Trail” pg.578

[17] Wheeler, Olin D. “Yellowstone Park Travel.” pg.14

[18] MacCannel, Dean. The Tourist. University of California Press.

[19] Wilson, Casey S.

[20] Russel, Matthew A. Bradford, James E. and Murphy, Larry E.