Yellowstone and The Northern Pacific Railroad

The Northern Pacific Railroad played an important part in the formation and development of the Yellowstone area and Yellowstone National Park. The story begins in 1864, eight years before Yellowstone Park was officially created.

The Civil War had been raging for three years, and President Abraham Lincoln, a former railroad attorney and lobbyist for the railroads, understood the importance of mass transit. Fort Sumter, South Carolina, had been starved into surrender, and the President, determined that this would not happen again, used the railroads to supply his troops with food, clothing, weapons, ammunition, blankets, and medical supplies they would need to win the war. He was also determined to see transcontinental railroads built to unite the continent and mold the states into one nation. In 1864 President Lincoln and Congress granted the Northern Pacific organization a charter for 40 million acres on which to build a railroad from Lake Superior and Duluth, Minnesota to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.

Five years later, when track had still not been laid, and fearing loss of its charter and land grant the board of directors made arrangements with the investment firm of Jay Cooke and Company. A member of Jay Cooke would serve on Northern Pacific’s board of directors with a controlling stock interest in return for the 5 million dollars needed to start building the railroad in 1870. That same year, Jay Cooke met with Nathaniel Pitt Langford, a former bookkeeper who had served as a quartermaster during the Civil War. What was said at the meeting is not recorded, but soon afterward Langford organized an expedition to explore the Yellowstone region, just 50 miles south of the route planned for the Northern Pacific Railroad. H.D. Washburn, the Surveyor General of the territory, led the party and gave it his name. Lieutenant Doane, who wrote the official report and waxed lyrical about such scenery as Tower Fall:

Nothing can be more chastely beautiful than this lovely cascade, hidden away in the dim light of overshadowing rocks and woods, its very voice hushed to a low murmur unheard at the distance of a few hundred yards. Thousands might pass by within half a mile and not dream of its existence, but once seen, it passes to the list of most pleasant memories.

The men were equally impressed with their first sight of a geyser, which many had heard of (this area of Yellowstone National Park had been explored by John Colter in 1807), but now its existence was no longer in doubt. Canyons, lakes, streams, mud pots, hot springs, waterfalls and volcanoes were all recorded with awe by Doane, Langford, Washburn and others.

Accounts of the expedition were published in newspapers in what was the beginning of media attention and advertising that would bring business for the Northern Pacific. The Helena Herald sent its own reporter, Cornelius Hedges, who wrote a series of articles that were published, along with accounts from Langford and Washburn. The Pioneer Press printed Washburn’s and Langford’s descriptions, and the New York Times published a review of Washburn’s account.

Soon Jay Cooke and the Northern Pacific financed a series of lectures by Langford, and began lobbying for a national park. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law Yellowstone National Park, and Langford became superintendent. He accepted no salary, probably planning on his relationship with the Northern Pacific Railroad to provide him with money for concessions. Unfortunately, the Northern Pacific went bankrupt in 1873, and only about 300 to 500 tourists visited per year by stagecoach for the next decade.

In 1883, the Northern Pacific finally began rail service to Yellowstone National Park, and began advertising it as “Wonderland.” The railroad’s service to the West was called the “Wonderland Route.” The railroad advertised the unique features of Yellowstone in publications such as Harper’s, with beautiful illustrations.

The railroad began other entrepreneurial activities. In 1886 the Northern Pacific began to sponsor the building of hotels in Yellowstone. The railroad’s depots were built in the same style of western rustic architecture as hotels such as Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Railroad executives would invite investors, bankers, journalists, and publishers to the park to stimulate business. Frank J. Haynes, photographer on one of the expeditions to Yellowstone prior to its national park status, wrote an illustrated book called Yellowstone Park Illustrated, which was published by the Northern Pacific. Haynes was on hand for photographic work when important people were invited to the park.

The Northern Pacific’s motives were for investment, but the nation has a national park system thanks to the railroad’s efforts, and the histories of the railroad and Yellowstone remain forever linked.

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