Review of the themes and messages appropriate to be interpreted by the yhc. It is intended to be a part of the Yellowstone Historic Center’s Master Interpretive Plan

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Interpretive Themes & Messages

The following document was prepared to provide a comprehensive review of the themes and messages appropriate to be interpreted by the YHC. It is intended to be a part of the Yellowstone Historic Center’s Master Interpretive Plan. (See YHC Master Interpretive Plan Outline, Draft 1, Section Four, 1.)

When reviewing this document, please keep in mind that there may be several venues appropriate for actually presenting these themes. The primary venue will be the Museum, but consider the possibility of other locations, such as the West Yellowstone Public Library, the West Yellowstone Town Hall, retail outlets such as the Madison Crossing (the former West Yellowstone School), the Gallatin History Museum, etc.

YHC’s Mission Statement

The Yellowstone Historic Center seeks to understand, preserve, and interpret the unique cultural heritage of West Yellowstone and the Hebgen Lake Basin, and the connection of that heritage to the development of transportation and visitation to Yellowstone National Park.
Main Message/Theme
The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 caused a stream of visitors from around this country as well as from around the world, journeying by various means, to come to Yellowstone for the transforming experience of “Wonderland.”
Sub-theme: Prior to the 1870s, travel and activity to the northwest, including the region that would be designated as Yellowstone National Park, was tied to explorations, exploitation, and emigration. This travel and these activities would form the context into which the park emerged.
Storyline: Indigenous people found resources within Yellowstone essential to their livelihood. They created a system of trails to and through the park. These trails formed the basis for the first trails and roads used by early Euro-American explorers and visitors.
Storyline: French Canadians associated with the North West Company learned of the Yellowstone River from the Mandans in the late 1700s.
Storyline: While the Lewis and Clark Exploration did not enter the park, soon after their journey, fur trappers and mountain men began to explore the Yellowstone area. The Oregon Trail (1840s) went well to the south and west of the future park.
Storyline: The discovery of gold in southwest Montana in the early 1860s initiated an influx of people as well as a need for means to access the area.
Storyline: Travel to southwest Montana was by way of the Missouri River to Fort Benton, then overland by way of the Benton Road (and the Mullan Road) or from the south by way of the Montana Road. The short-lived Bozeman Trail provided an alternate, more direct route to Bozeman from the Oregon (Overland?) Trail.
Storyline: Several government-sponsored expeditions surveyed the area of the future park to document its features. These included the Folsom-Cook-Peterson exploration September-October 1869), the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition (August-September 1870), the Barlow-Heap expedition of the Army Corps of Engineers (July-August 1871), and the Hayden expedition (July-August 1871).
Storyline: Homesteads were established within what would become the park.
Storyline: The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 provided a faster way to reach the west.
Storyline: Gilman Sawtell guided the first commercial tourist party in what would become the park in August 1871. They travelled from Virginia City to Henrys Lake and on to the park by way of what was known as the Virginia City Wagon Road. This trip was documented in the book A Ride to the Infernal Regions: Yellowstone’s First Tourists, written by Calvin Clawson, one of the members of the first tourist party.

Sub-theme: The manner in which tourists traveled to and through Yellowstone reflected not only the current travel technology, but also the degree to which that technology was supported by local infrastructure as well as regional and park policies.

Storyline: The lack of roads leading to and through the park prior to its designation, and for many years following, resulted in visitors having to contend with the conditions of the land to be able to reach the interior of Yellowstone.
Messages: Early visitors accessed the park mainly by way of the railroad to Utah and them by way of the Montana Road from the current terminus of the rail line as it progressed northward, or by steamboat to Fort Benton and then overland through Virginia City to the west entrance or through Bozeman to the north entrance. (Note: see Yellowstone by Train, p.3 for other details.)
Storyline: Road building within the park was and continues to be a challenging endeavor.
Message: In the early years of the park, there were few roads and not even many established horse trails. In 1877, there were 32 miles of roads and 108 miles of trails. Roads led from the north entrance to Mammoth and from the west boundary (Madison River) to the Lower Geyser Basin. Note: Haynes Vol I, p.244.
Message: Improvements to roads was often necessary to keep up with the demands of the changing modes of transportation.
Message: Road construction in Yellowstone showcases engineering feats required for challenging situations and environments.

  • Golden Gate

  • Construction through thermal areas

  • Maintenance in harsh winter conditions

Storyline: Stagecoaches provided the first commercial transportation into the park.

Message: There were many stage companies that serviced the park.

  • Gilmer Salisbury from Spencer, ID 1879

  • Marshall Goff from Virginia City to Lower Basin (Marshall Hotel) 1880

  • Bassett Brothers from Beaver, ID to Lower Basin 1881

  • Wakefield & Hoffman from Cinnabar to Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon 1883

  • Etc.

Message: Stagecoaches were used to transport tourists from the trains in Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs where they began their park tours.

Message: There were many different models of stagecoaches. Some served unique purposes.

  • Mt. Washburn coaches

  • Tally-Ho coaches

  • Buggies

  • Whatever you call a more standard version…..

Storyline: The construction of the early transcontinental railroads and subsequent ancillary lines made Yellowstone more easily accessible.


  • The Northern Pacific Railroad built a line from Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, westward, reaching Livingston, MT in late 1882. A spur line was extended south from Livingston toward the park and terminated at Cinnabar in August 1883. The line was eventually extended to Gardiner in 1903.

    • In 1889, a rail line was built from Laurel (west of Billings) to Red Lodge. In 1937, the improved Bear Tooth Highway was opened, and tourists could reach the park’s northeast entrance by way of this rail line and highway.

  • Although the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, connected the east and west coasts, it was hundreds of miles away from the future park. A progression of rail lines leading north into Montana were developed that assisted with travel to the park. Initially, the route went north from Idaho Falls toward Butte, and park tourists took stagecoaches from the terminus of the line to the west entrance. By 1908, a line was completed from Idaho Falls directly to the west entrance (Riverside/Yellowstone/West Yellowstone).

  • The Burlington Railroad provided service to Cody, WY.

  • Milwaukee Road – to the park by way of Gallatin Gateway to West Yellowstone

  • Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Line to Cody, WY in 1901. Sylvan Pass road opened in 1903.

  • Chicago and Northwestern Line to Lander, WY, over Togwotee Pass to South Entrance – 130 miles- 1922 – by way of Lander-Yellowstone Transportation Company

Storyline: Automobiles changed the way that visitors could reach the park, but also changed the way they toured the park.

Message: Although cars had become a common mode of transportation and many interstate highways had been built, cars were not permitted in Yellowstone until August 1, 1915.

  • Pressure came from automobile clubs anxious to travel in the park.

  • In 1916, both cars and stagecoaches were permitted to travel in the park. By 1917, stages were no longer allowed.

  • In 1917, a fleet of White touring buses ferried tourists through the park.

  • Road conditions in the 1910s were marginal at best for supporting auto travel. (Also covered in Roads and Trails Storyline.)

  • Park accommodations (hotels, service stations, and camps) reflected the progress of auto travel.

  • Bus service evolved over the years, and continues to play an important role in providing access to the park.

    • Service from gateway communities

    • Service from distant locations

Storyline: Travelling through the park in winter dates back to the early explorers and continues today. Since the late 1950s, winter travel has also been a form of recreation.

Subtheme: Gateway communities that developed at the major entryways into the park function as travel and service centers for park visitors.

Storyline: The Park needs these communities and the communities need the park.

Storyline: Some gateway communities exist either primarily or solely because of the park; others, while serving as a gateway, have an economy that is not solely or primarily based on park tourism.
Storyline: West Yellowstone is a gateway community that developed after the arrival of the Union Pacific rail line was built to deliver tourists to the west boundary of the park.

  • The UP built an extensive array of facilities to support railroad travelers’ needs, as well as the functional requirements of a terminus operation.

    • The Oregon Short Line Historic District

  • Services offered by the town’s residents reflected the needs of the tourists, as well as those of the town’s residents.

Subtheme: Travel to Yellowstone was influenced by events and circumstances external to the park.

Storyline: Advertising campaigns, especially those of the major railroads, encouraged travel to Yellowstone.

Storyline: Travel to Yellowstone was featured at major fairs and expositions.

  • PPIE

  • Refer also to Thornton Waite’s book for others

  • New Orleans’s exposition that features Yellowstone specimens – 1893?

Storyline: Throughout its history, Yellowstone has been popularized by authors and artists.

  • Moran

  • Jackson

  • Field & Stream

  • Contemporary photographers

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