Fort Yellowstone and the Early Days of Mammoth

Yellowstone Park’s Headquarters, located just south of the northern entrance in Mammoth, were originally built in the 19th century as Fort Yellowstone. The story of Fort Yellowstone illustrates much of the history of the Park and the beginning of the National Park Service.

Under orders from General Sheridan of the First Cavalry, Captain Moses Harris lead men of Company M from Fort Custer, Montana to set up what was originally planned as a temporary army encampment. After five winters of living in temporary frame buildings and tents, the army decided their presence had become permanent and construction on a fort began with $50,000 appropriated by Congress. The first building constructed was the guardhouse, completed in 1891, followed by bachelor officers’ quarters, enlisted men’s barracks, non-commissioned officers’ quarters, stables, a chapel and an administrative building. Some of the buildings were constructed of native sandstone quarried at the park.When Yellowstone was established as the first National Park in 1872, earnest civilians attempted to conserve the area, but they were no match for exploiters and poachers. Hotels were built and a laundry business cleaned things in a hot pool near Mammoth. Poachers nearly hunted the wildlife to extinction. In 1877 Nez Perce Indians fleeing the army came through the park, taking several tourists hostage. The Northern Pacific Railroad tried to take land from the park to build railroad tracks to mines. Due to the many struggles the park was facing, the Secretary of the Interior turned to the Secretary of War for help, who sent the US Cavalry to rescue Yellowstone in 1886.

As Superintendent, Captain Harris established rules that would form the beginnings of National Park Service policies. Poaching fish and other animals was forbidden, and rules were established regarding tourism, gathering wood, and building campfires. Hotels and stores were built as entrepreneurs began to feel secure with the knowledge the army would protect their establishments from robbers. After 32 years of keeping order, the US Army turned over control of Yellowstone to the National Park Service. The Park Rangers’ uniform is modeled from those of the US Cavalry, including the hat with the Montana-style crease. More importantly, the rangers enforce a code of conservation that has been modified from the one first established by Captain Harris’ cavalry.

Fort Yellowstone has now become the headquarters for park administration. A self-guided walking tour with a guidebook is available for visitors to learn about the 19th century military architecture used and the early part of the park’s history in Mammoth. The following lists the uses of those early buildings:

  • The Captain’s Quarters has become the Interpretation Office.
  • The Field Officer’s Quarters is now the residence of the Park Superintendent.
  • The Double Officers’ Quarters are used as residences for senior park staff.
  • The Post Headquarters is also a residence, as is the old Guardhouse.
  • The Chapel is still used as a chapel, with a bell added in 1928 and two stained glass windows added in 1939.
  • The Hospital Annex is all that is left from three hospitals that were built. It and the Hospital Steward’s Quarters are used as residences.
  • The New Guardhouse is used for storage.
  • The Granary, Quartermaster Storehouse, and Commissary Storehouse have been turned into residences.
  • The Cavalry Barracks is now the Yellowstone Center for Resources.
  • The Post Exchange has become an office building.
  • The Blacksmith’s Shop is still used for blacksmithing.
  • The former Bachelor Officers’ Quarters are now the Albright Visitors’ Center.

The Albright Visitors’ Center includes a museum and theater. Museum exhibits include information about the American Indians prior to 1800, mountain men from 1807 to 1840, days of exploration from 1869 to 1871, Army days, the early National Park Service, and predator-prey relationships. Watercolor sketches by explorer Thomas Moran and photographs by William Henry Jackson, made during an 1871 survey, are on display. The park rangers show films such as The Challenge of Yellowstone, on the idea of national parks and the history of Yellowstone, and Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran, about the artist whose work helped to inspire Congress to create the first national park. The best part of the museum is hands down the bison mounted on the wall above the fireplace near the entrance to the museum opposite the information desk.

The early days of Yellowstone are as exciting as any western novel, and have given us a national treasure that millions of people have visited over the years. The old Fort Yellowstone located in Mammoth is well worth a visit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *