Army Years

On August 13, 1886, Special Orders No. 79, Headquarters, Department of Dakota, were issued at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Captain Moses Harris of the First United States Cavalry responded by marching 50 men to Yellowstone National Park from Fort Custer, Montana Territory, and established a tent camp at the foot of the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces. Captain Harris assumed the superintendency of the park on August 20, 1886. Thus was the start of the Army years in Yellowstone National Park and the end of 14+ years of turmoil that gave birth to our first National park. On his second day as superintendent, Captain Harris issued a general order consisting of 8 rules, and the guidelines for enforcing them. This order provided the first ever enforceable framework for administration of the park. 

The Army Years in West Yellowstone

The Army Years in YellowstoneOvernight, administrative power shifted from the civilian hands that created the park to military hands. Quickly, the chaos became subdued. The common practice of hunting became poaching, visiting became trespassing, collecting firewood became unauthorized logging, a pleasant evening campfire became an unauthorized conflagration, and selling fish to the hotels became a crime of theft and larceny (as well as poaching). Tough as it may seem, the Army Years brought martial law to Yellowstone. Becoming more gentle as the park was tamed and populated, Martial law continued until the withdrawal of Army units in 1916. This 20 year span of time was the true birth and maturation of Yellowstone National Park and accounts for much of the continuing attitudes of both this park, and the National Park Service that grew from it.

The positive legacy of the Army Years includes many lasting achievements, constructions, and traditions. The army established camps at strategic points within the park. By the end of 1886 they had six camps established: Soda Butte, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris, Riverside, Fountain Flats, and Old Faithful. By the time they left the park, they had established an additional ten soldier stations: Lake, Snake River, Thumb Bay, Tower Fall, Gardiner, Sylvan Pass, Cooke City, Gallatin, Bechler, and Crevice. The strategic location of these camps has endured to this day; all but one are reachable by road and all but three are contemporary gathering places for modern-day visitors. With access to the Corps of Engineers and the money to fund projects, roads were built and improved, bridges were built (some still stand today), and Fort Yellowstone was completed with the buildings that are at Mammoth today.

The security of the Army Years allowed the concessionaires to build grand hotels and modest emporia with the security that they would be protected from brigands, vagabonds, robbers, and other nefarious adventurers -  though stagecoaches were still robbed and traveling was still an adventure. It was during this time that the Yellowstone Park Company became the umbrella concessionaire in the park, Jack Haynes took most of his famous post card pictures, and Yellowstone became a destination on the American Grand Tour. It was also during this time that bison were reintroduced into the park from around the country. The new herd was an amalgam of genetic stock that had survived in various private and governmental herds across the nation. They were managed as cattle in the Lamar valley, and cowboys were employed to herd them, tend them, and kill them for park consumption. This led to a partial domestication of the herd that persists in the gene pool to this day.

These were years of growth, building, and gentrification. Even as fish from Europe were being planted in the rivers and streams of Yellowstone, the American upper class was developing a grand tour similar in concept to that which had been long established in European countries. There were places that any person of means and social standing just had to see: Niagara Falls, Yosemite, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and Yellowstone National Park. The Northern Pacific Railroad advertised profusely in the papers of the eastern cities. Not to be outdone, the Harriman interests quickly made a deal with the Northern Pacific Railroad (which at the time was in financial straights) to build a rail line to the West entrance. The deal included a financial bail-out and an agreement to build a grand hotel at West Yellowstone. The rail line was built, the station complex was completed (the buildings are still standing in West Yellowstone), but the hotel never came to pass. The railroads controlled the hotels, shops, stagecoaches, and itineraries in Yellowstone Park. Through various schemes, they saw ways to make enormous amounts of money and through a series of circumstances, ended up popularizing the park for both the upper class and common man.