Wyoming: Yellowstone Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Yellowstone National Park, dedicated by Congress on March 1, 1872, was the first national park in the United States and the first step toward the creation of a National Park Service. Cultural sites show human occupation dating back twelve thousand years. The park embraces the area traversed by the fleeing Nez Perce Indians in 1877.

Site Office

Yellowstone National Park

P.O. Box 168

Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

ph.: (307) 344-7381; TDD: (307) 344-2386

Web site: www.nps.gov/yell/

With almost 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone is the largest wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Five years after it was dedicated, visitors saw Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians fleeing through the park toward Canada. Caught just short of the border by General Nelson Miles, Chief Joseph surrendered with his famous speech, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

As the nation’s first park, it served as a laboratory for administration of the nation’s natural, historical, and cultural resources. The stone arch entrance, where the cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, bears his name and the legend, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” taken from the Dedication Act of 1872.

The National Park Idea

Stirred by mountaineers’ tales of the geysers, boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents, scientists began to organize expeditions into the Yellowstone wilderness after the Civil War. Two expeditions gave birth to the concept of a national park. In the fall of 1870, the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition explored the watershed of the Yellowstone River. While sitting around a campfire, members agreed that the wilderness should be placed in the public domain for the people to enjoy and preserved from spoliation by unscrupulous speculators and commercial developers.

In 1871, Colonel F. V. Hayden led a U.S. Geological Survey team of scientists, artists, and photographers, who mapped and documented the natural habitat, geothermal sites, and landscape of Yellowstone. Hayden joined with the Washburn team in proposing that Congress reserve the lands as a national park. He used the sketches and paintings made by team artist Thomas Moran to convince Congress that Yellowstone was unique and should be preserved for future generations. Congress enacted the legislation creating Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, and placed the park under the exclusive control of the secretary of the interior.

Congress mandated that the park be operated for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, and that the natural and scenic environment be preserved in an undisturbed condition. The secretary of the interior was empowered to make rules and regulations to preserve the timber, mineral deposits, and natural curiosities, and to protect the wildlife from destruction.

Civilian superintendents managed the park from 1872 to 1886, but they had little expertise in handling public demands, in dealing with concessionaires, or in conserving wildlife. Rather than appropriating funds to hire qualified personnel, Congress expected the park to pay its operating costs from revenue collected on site. However, enough money was never collected in public utility fees, taxes on concessions, vehicle permits, and sales of timber, stone, and animal hides to maintain public services and enforce conservation as well. Without sufficient funding and training, the superintendents were overwhelmed, and park operations were in chaos.

In 1886, Congress eliminated the civilian superintendent’s job and told the secretary of the interior to invoke the Sundry Civil Act of 1883 and request troops from the War Department to protect the park.

Fort Yellowstone

That same year, Company M of the First United States Cavalry, with Captain Moses Harris in command, moved into temporary quarters in frame buildings at Camp Sheridan near the foot of Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. After five harsh winters, the cavalry realized that the assignment was not temporary and requested permanent quarters. Congress approved fifty thousand dollars to build Fort Yellowstone. The original fort buildings included headquarters, officers’ quarters, barracks, a guardhouse, and horse stables.

In 1909, new buildings of native sandstone were added to the fort, including the Scottish Rite Chapel. These red-roofed multiple-chimney buildings are part of the Fort Yellowstone-Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District. By 1910, 324 soldiers were stationed at Fort Yellowstone, accompanied by a number of families and civilian employees.

The Army also built log cabins in the backcountry for use by troops on patrol against poachers, vandals, and forest fires. These outposts, four of which still stand, were a day’s journey (sixteen to twenty miles) apart. They were outfitted with bunk beds, a table, desk, bookcases, and wood-burning stoves. A soldier station at Norris (c. 1886) was rebuilt and modified after it burned in 1897. After the Park Service took over, Norris Station was used as a park ranger station and residence until the 1959 earthquake. Restored in 1991, the station houses the Museum of the National Park Ranger.

The Army served as park rangers and policemen for thirty years, until the National Park Service took control of all national parks and monuments then under the Interior Department’s jurisdiction.

The National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act and transferred Yellowstone National Park to the new agency’s supervision. The Organic Act defined the fundamental purposes of the Park Service: to provide for public enjoyment; to preserve the natural, cultural, and historical features and objects in unimpaired condition; and to protect the wildlife and habitat.

In 1918, when the Army transferred control to the Park Service, some of the soldiers stayed on as park rangers. The Park Service reorganized Yellowstone into three ranger districts, each supervised by an assistant chief ranger. The Park Service adopted distinctive uniforms in 1922. Though few women were park rangers until the 1960’s, the women’s uniforms in the 1920’s had long skirts held up by galluses, worn with buttoned-up jackets similar to the men’s uniforms. By 1925, all permanent rangers were qualified under Civil Service Rules, and seasonal rangers were appointed as needed. Colorado A&M College became known as the “Ranger Factory” because so many of the students worked as seasonal rangers at Yellowstone.

The automobile brought tremendous changes to Yellowstone. The facilities had to be reorganized to accommodate the traveling public’s shift to motorized vehicles. National Park Service Director Stephen Mather called a conference of concessionaires in Washington, D.C., to make these decisions. Yellowstone Park Transportation Company was given exclusive rights to provide public transportation, on condition that it be fully motorized. The company ordered 116 motor buses, with spare parts and tires, at a cost of $427,104.67. Frank V. Haynes retained the photographic concession but surrendered his stagecoach and bus lines. The park also suspended boat operations on the lake.

Control of permanent camping at the park was simplified into a single system. The two camping companies merged, closing old camps and lunch stations, and opening five new camps at locations that were convenient for automobiles: Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, Canyon, and Tower Junction. The Yellowstone Park Hotel Company remained in charge of hotel operations but closed two stopover hotels. The reorganization activities were interrupted when the United States entered World War I and resources were shifted to the war effort.

Under the Park Service, the parks began interpretative programs and museums to enhance visitors’ experience. Yellowstone’s staff naturalist had charge of the educational program. He installed museums and trailside exhibits at stopping points throughout the park, and trained rangers as interpreters. They conducted public lectures, group singing, and storytelling at each of the ranger stations.

In the off-season, park rangers manage the elk and buffalo herds. They cut hay for winter feed and killed coyotes until 1934, when the director ordered that practice stopped. The rangers maintain the elk and buffalo herds at a level the parklands can sustain, killing off any surplus. To protect Wyoming cattle herds, the rangers test the buffalo herds for brucellosis, a disease that is transmissible to humans. Rangers also worked at the Lake Fish Hatchery until it closed in 1958, and the Lake Hatchery Historic District became the headquarters for the southern Yellowstone Lake Maintenance District.

Not all Wyoming citizens celebrate the park’s existence. Stockmen, farmers, and lumbermen want the rights to graze sheep and harvest timber on lands that are not being used. In 1927, proposed changes that would extend the park boundaries sparked a controversy. The state of Wyoming asked the federal government to return the Teton Mountains and part of Teton National Forest for a state park. Senator Tom Cooper of Wyoming asked that three million acres be ceded back to Wyoming to provide income to the public school system.

In the face of protests, the Park Service dropped its request to add to the park the headwaters of Yellowstone River and reservoir sites in the Falls River Basin. On March 1, 1929, Congress enlarged the park by 78 square miles through an exchange of two tracts between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

In reorganizing his administration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive orders giving the Park Service control of all national parks, monuments, and historic sites. During his administration, millions of dollars and hundreds of workers flowed to the Park Service from the Civilian Conservation Corps and other New Deal programs, to build roads, museums, and administration and visitors’ centers, and to improve facilities at the national parks. In 1941, after these improvements, Yellowstone attracted a record visitation of 581,761 people.

However, with the advent of World War II and rationing of gasoline and tires, park visitation plummeted. Many park concessions and services were suspended for the duration. After the war, Yellowstone was inundated with war-weary pleasure seekers, all in automobiles. Yellowstone Park’s facilities were again overwhelmed.

To cope with the problem, the Park Service proposed “Mission 66,” a ten-year project to upgrade all national parks and public services by the year 1966. Yellowstone’s objectives were improved road and trail systems, public facilities for visitors, effective interpretation, and protection of park resources. Projected costs for ten years exceeded two million dollars. Inadequate funding slowed Yellowstone’s renovation even while visitation increased. Mission 66 was incomplete when it was replaced by the Interior Department’s “Road to the Future,” a less ambitious plan oriented toward recreation.

Yellowstone, the nation’s historic pioneer park, has been a showcase for the National Park Service’s mandated challenges–to create an enjoyable experience for visitors and simultaneously preserve the historical and natural treasures for future generations.

Visiting Yellowstone

Yellowstone Park is replete with historic districts, buildings, museums, and trails that tell the history of the park and the land it encompasses.

Historic highlights of each area and descriptions of historic districts and landmarks are available on-line, as are guides to the Thomas Moran paintings and other museum exhibits. Visitors need a week to see all areas. For a visit of one or two days, select one or two areas for enjoyment. Park headquarters and the Fort Yellowstone-Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District are accessible year-round. The Visitor Guide to Accessible Features in Yellowstone National Park is available free on-line and at all visitors’ centers. Visitors should contact the park for information about fees, lodging, camping, rules, reservations, and permits.

For Further Information
  • Fishbein, Seymour L. Yellowstone Country: The Enduring Wonder. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1989. A photographic overview of the park.
  • Frantz, Joe B. Aspects of the American West. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976. Examines the role of Yellowstone in relation to the National Park Service.
  • Haines, Aubrey L. Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974. Historical sketches of early explorations and the creation of Yellowstone Park.
  • _______. The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park. 2 vols. Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.: Colorado Associated University Press, 1977. A richly detailed history inspired by people who made the history of Yellowstone Park.
  • Murphy, Thomas D. Three Wonderlands of the American West. Boston: Page, 1919. Features copies of Hayden expedition maps, Thomas Moran paintings, and photographs of the Yellowstone area.
  • National Park Service. Beyond Road’s End: A Backcountry User’s Guide to Yellowstone National Park. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. Guide for exploring the backcountry.
Categories: History Content