Automobile Years

Several historical circumstances combined to end the Army and Railroad Years and usher in the Automobile Years in Yellowstone. The first automobile was allowed to travel from Gallatin to Yellowstone (current West Yellowstone) in 1913. The Ranger Corps (of two men) was established in 1915 to kill coyotes, wolves, and cougars. The National Park Service was established in 1916 and the Army, which had acted as the third arm of the railroads, left the park that same year. These and a host of other circumstances brought about great change in Yellowstone National Park and in the perception of the park by the people around the world.

The automobile is a democratizing force. It is also a force for change that requires its own infrastructure. For a time, there were competing modes of travel: by horse, by foot, by stagecoach, by railroad. Each required different accommodations and each attracted different sorts of people. As the automobile slowly gained ascendancy as the preferred mode of travel for visitors, the National Park Service and Ranger Corps adjusted their behaviors and rules (more or less successfully) to accommodate the individual and his independent itineraries. No longer could the railroad script the visitations. No longer could the Yellowstone Park Company dictate travel and meal times (and charge for both). No longer could the Army restrict travel to places near their posts. Martial Law was a thing of the past.

Automobile Years
Automobile Years

The transition was slow and, in some cases, painful. Roads began to collapse, bridges were widened and replaced, parking areas grew, pull-outs proliferated, and accommodations in the form of more souvenir shops, hotel rooms, lodges, and campsites bloomed around the park. Tough decisions were heaped upon an ill equipped infant National Park Service. Where should they put the roads (the old ones survived surprisingly intact)? Should gas stations be sited in the park? How big should parking lots be? Where should parking lots be placed? How were camping sites to be regulated? Should they regulate visitation and hotel construction? How should fees be structured? Who was entitled to the fees? Should free enterprise be regulated in the park? Should concessions and profit-generating enterprise be monopolized or diversified? Yellowstone National Park became, more so than before, the test case for these questions, and many more.

Soon, stage coaches were replaced by auto-busses and enterprise inside and outside the park began to offer specialized tours. The National Park Service continued to struggle to accommodate the growing demand for individualized and scripted group access. The railroads held on tenaciously to their rail service to Yellowstone National Park. They only stopped service after World War II when it became painfully apparent that they were losing enormous amounts of money to both the automobile and the nation's fascination with a new form of travel - the airplane. 

The railroads gradually abandoned passenger service to Yellowstone - the Northern Pacific to Gardner, Montana, in 1948, the Burlington to Cody, Wyoming, in 1948, and the Union Pacific to West Yellowstone, Montana, in 1961. The railroad pullout also depleted funds for the Yellowstone Park Company because the railroads could not see the need to subsidize a company that served auto travelers. The services in the park became a chaos of their own. The park and the Civil Aeronautics Administration briefly flirted with the idea of providing an air terminus in Yellowstone. When a study showed that 98.5% of the visitors arrived by automobile the idea died. By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the park was essentially a summer destination visited by automobile.

Though winter visitors, ”keepers," and rangers had existed since about 1919, the discovery of Yellowstone as a winter destination began to gather steam in the post war years with the invention of “snow planes.” During the 1960's and into the mid-1970’s, intrepid skiers, snow-planers, and, eventually, snowmobilers persisted in visiting the park, especially from the West entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana. Much like in the early days of stagecoach travel, the first “over snow” travelers found themselves with free-reign in the park. Though there were initially few winter visitors, those that came fed the wildlife and the snow vehicles traveled where they pleased. With the winter use demand from the public, the park was again forced to contend with access. Snow on the summer roads was groomed for easier and controlled travel, the park concessionaire provided lodging inside the park, and eventually winter visitation grew. As park management philosophies changed, so did winter travel. Currently, the majority of winter travel is limited to guided snowmobile and “snowcoach” tours and even their numbers are regulated.  

The great experiment that is Yellowstone National Park (and our whole National Park System), has seen administrative models come and go. As time and events have conspired to pressure the park personnel to respond to changing conditions, the administration of the park has progressed from the administration of the very first superintendents, to the Martial law of the Army years, to the current administration by the National Park Service. Most recently, there has been talk of restricting summer travel. Park roads and facilities have become over-run in the summer months causing traffic back ups, resource damage from lack of enough parking, and there just isn’t enough funding to staff the National Park Service tasked with protecting the park. Their directive (from The Organic Act of 1916) “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” continues to be a challenging one: How do you allow for enjoyment while still leaving it unimpaired?