December 7, 2023 in Montana

How West Yellowstone Went From Rugged Outpost to Thriving Tourist Town

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Early Exploration

The history of West Yellowstone, Montana begins with early exploration of the region in the early 19th century. This area was long inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Shoshone, Bannock and Nez Perce. It was not until 1805 that the first European explorers entered the region during the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. In 1805, they canoed up the Missouri River and crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass. They followed Indian trails down the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers to Three Forks. While they did not venture far enough north to enter present-day Montana, they gathered information about the Yellowstone region from Native Americans.

In 1807, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, left the group to join fur trappers. He explored the Yellowstone area and became the first white man to visit what later became Yellowstone National Park. Colter described the geothermal wonders of the area, which earned it the nickname “Colter’s Hell.” His reports of the stunning geysers and steaming pools were initially met with skepticism back East.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition and John Colter’s subsequent explorations brought knowledge of the Yellowstone area to the Eastern United States for the first time. While further settlement and development awaited other intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs, this marked the beginning of Euro-American contact with this pristine region.

Railroad Development

In the late 1800s, the construction of railroads opened up the Western frontier, allowing people to more easily access the natural wonders of the region. The Utah and Northern Railway was the first to arrive in Montana, pushing north from Utah to reach the town of Dillon in 1881. From there, the railroad continued building north toward the Yellowstone area.

The Utah and Northern Railway reached the town of Monida in 1882, positioning it as an early gateway community to Yellowstone. However, it was not until 1883 that trains could directly reach what is now West Yellowstone. That year, the Utah and Northern Railway completed a line to a station named Riverside, just a few miles south of the future town.

The arrival of the railroad instantly transformed Yellowstone tourism, as train travel made the park exponentially more accessible. In 1883, travel times from eastern destinations like Chicago dropped from weeks by stagecoach to just a few days by rail. Tourism and visitation surged.

The Union Pacific Railroad would play a similar role in opening up Yellowstone from the east. After acquiring the Utah and Northern Railway in the late 1880s, the Union Pacific completed its Oregon Short Line route that connected directly into West Yellowstone by 1907. The competition between the Union Pacific and other railroads serving Yellowstone also helped drive down passenger fares, increasing affordability.

By the early 1900s, West Yellowstone had direct passenger rail connections to faraway metropolises like Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. The railroad opened Yellowstone to the world, setting the stage for the future growth of West Yellowstone as a tourism gateway. The community’s roots in rail access still shape its identity today.

Establishment of Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park, located primarily in northwest Wyoming with sections stretching into Montana and Idaho, is widely considered the world’s first national park. Its origins date back to the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870, led by surveyor-general Henry Washburn and Nathaniel P. Langford, who explored the region and advocated for protecting the area.

This led to the creation of the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, which designated Yellowstone as a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This pivotal legislation ensured Yellowstone would be protected from private development and commercial exploitation.

The early years of Yellowstone National Park saw challenges in administration and funding. The U.S. Army was tasked with managing the park from 1886-1918 due to concerns over poaching, vandalism, and a lack of regulations. Even with minimal resources, the Army helped establish basic infrastructure like roads and bridges within the 2 million acre wilderness. Their stewardship laid the groundwork for the National Park Service, which was formalized in 1916 to provide unified management of the country’s national parks.

The creation of America’s first national park at Yellowstone launched the worldwide conservation movement and an understanding that majestic public lands should be preserved in their natural state for future generations. Yellowstone became a model for environmental protection at a crucial time when westward expansion and industrial development threatened natural habitats across the country.

Founding of West Yellowstone

West Yellowstone has its roots in the early 20th century development of the railroad and tourism industries around Yellowstone National Park. The town was founded in June 1908 under the name Yellowstone. It started as a railroad town for the newly constructed Oregon Short Line Railroad, which provided direct access to Yellowstone from the Union Pacific main line.

The early economy relied heavily on tourism, with various hotels and shops opening up to serve visitors arriving by train. Significant early businesses included the Union Pacific Dining Hall, the Yellowstone Hotel, and E.C. Waters’ general store and boat rental shop. The population grew from around 50 residents in 1909 to over 200 by the 1920s.

The town was renamed West Yellowstone in 1920 to differentiate itself from other Yellowstone towns sharing the same name. The Oregon Short Line Railroad played a pivotal role in the town’s growth by transporting tourists as well as critical supplies for local businesses. West Yellowstone continued to expand its tourist services in the following decades, setting the stage for it to become the iconic western gateway town to Yellowstone National Park that it is today.

Tourism and the Park

The establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 was a major turning point for the area surrounding West Yellowstone. Though initially remote and difficult to access, visitation to the park steadily grew over the late 1800s as new roads, railroads and accommodations were constructed.

By the early 1900s, West Yellowstone had developed into a gateway community to the park. The town’s fortunes became increasingly tied to tourism traffic heading to and from Yellowstone. Numerous lodges, campgrounds, stores and other visitor services sprang up to serve these travelers.

The completion of the Oregon Short Line railroad to West Yellowstone in 1907 brought a surge in tourists. The railroad promoted the town as the ideal starting point to visit Yellowstone’s natural wonders. New large hotels like the Yellowstone Park Hotel provided upscale accommodations, while more rustic tent camps and auto cabins catered to middle class families arriving by car.

The National Park Service, established in 1916, began improving roads in Yellowstone like the Grand Loop which further increased visitation. The new automobile age opened up the park to many more Americans. West Yellowstone benefitted as the major entrance for cars arriving from places like Idaho and the west.

The years after World War II saw booming interest in automobile vacations and western tourism. Many new motels and amenities were constructed in West Yellowstone to serve the growing numbers of park visitors. This tourism economy continues today, with the town relying heavily on serving Yellowstone tourists each summer.

World War II Era

By the early 1940s, the surrounding regions of West Yellowstone had developed into thriving rural communities centered around ranching, farming, and the tourism trade from Yellowstone National Park. However, America’s involvement in World War II significantly impacted the town.

Many families moved away as men went off to serve in the war. In addition, gas rationing reduced automobile travel, severely cutting tourism to Yellowstone. The town’s population declined dramatically during this period.

To provide jobs, the federal government funded construction projects in the region, including the massive Hebgen Dam along the Madison River. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation, workers completed the earthen dam in 1959. At the time, it ranked among the world’s largest man-made lakes.

The dam brought flood control and a new source of hydropower. Its reservoir, Hebgen Lake, covers an area of over 20 square miles and provides enhanced recreational opportunities. The construction project offered local employment during the war years and its aftermath.

Overall, West Yellowstone suffered economic decline but survived due to support from government programs and construction of the nearby Hebgen Dam. The town weathered World War II and prepared for renewed growth after the war ended.

Hebgen Lake Earthquake

In the middle of the night on August 17, 1959, a severe earthquake struck the Greater Yellowstone area along the Madison River fault line. This 7.3-7.5 magnitude quake was centered near Hebgen Lake just outside West Yellowstone. It is considered the most powerful earthquake to hit Montana in modern times.

The violent tremors caused massive destruction, triggering a massive landslide that dammed the Madison River and created a new lake called Earthquake Lake. Entire hillsides collapsed into canyons and gorges, obliterating campgrounds and causing widespread damage. Tragically, 28 people were killed, mostly in rock slides as they slept in their tents.

In the immediate aftermath, the newly formed Earthquake Lake was filled with trees, mud and debris, flooding downstream towns as the water rose. The town of West Yellowstone had to be temporarily evacuated. Buildings, roads, and infrastructure across the region were badly damaged. Power and telephone service was knocked out for a time.

In the years following the quake, major rebuilding efforts commenced to repair roads, bridges, facilities, and utilities. Earthquake Lake also had to be cleaned of debris to avoid future flooding. The legacy of the quake remains today in the scars left on the landscape, memorials for the victims, and strengthened building codes. Despite the devastation, West Yellowstone showed resilience in recovering and continuing to welcome visitors.

Recent Developments

West Yellowstone has seen steady population growth and economic changes in recent years. The town’s population grew from 1,271 residents in 2010 to 1,338 residents in 2020, representing a 5% increase over the decade according to census data. This growth can be attributed to the continued popularity of Yellowstone National Park and the opportunities it provides for tourism and recreation-related businesses in West Yellowstone.

New construction and development projects have also shaped the town in recent years. In 2019, the Holiday Inn West Yellowstone completed a large renovation and expansion, more than doubling its room count to over 150 rooms. This provides additional lodging capacity for the heavy tourism traffic through West Yellowstone each summer. Additionally, new retail stores, restaurants, and mixed-use developments have been constructed downtown, adding vibrancy to the local economy.

The pending renovation and redevelopment of the historic Rainbow Hotel represents a major investment in West Yellowstone’s future. The completed project will update an iconic downtown anchor while preserving its historic character. It is slated to include hotel rooms, residential units, commercial space, and a microbrewery. Projects like this show confidence in West Yellowstone’s continued growth and appeal to residents and visitors alike.

While staying true to its roots, West Yellowstone continues adapting to meet the needs of a growing community. The town faces opportunities and challenges in balancing economic development with preserving its unique natural setting. Still, steady population increases and strategic new investments position it for an active future role as the iconic gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

Culture and Events

West Yellowstone has developed a vibrant cultural scene centered around its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and the natural beauty of the area. The town’s events calendar is filled with outdoor activities and festivals that attract visitors from around the region.

One of the most popular annual events is the Old Faithful Music Festival, held each summer at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park. This multi-day event features live music performances by nationally touring bands, singer-songwriters, and other musical acts. Festival goers can enjoy the concerts against the stunning backdrop of Old Faithful geyser and the surrounding geyser basins.

During the winter, West Yellowstone comes alive with the annual Rendezvous Ski Trails festival. This Nordic skiing celebration includes races, tours, demonstrations, and other activities focused on cross country skiing. Miles of scenic trails in and around West Yellowstone are groomed for skiing just for the event. The Rendezvous Ski Trails festival attracts serious cross country skiers as well as families and beginners wanting to try the sport.

Between the music festivals, skiing events, and other cultural offerings, West Yellowstone provides a unique blend of outdoor recreation and arts appreciation against the beautiful setting of Yellowstone National Park. The town has cultivated festivities and activities that celebrate the natural wonders surrounding it.

Future Outlook

West Yellowstone’s future growth and economic prosperity continue to be largely tied to the tourism industry and the success of Yellowstone National Park. As one of the primary entrances to the Park, West Yellowstone is strategically located to take advantage of increasing visitation. The National Park Service predicts visitation could reach 5 million people per year by 2025.

To prepare for more visitors, West Yellowstone is focused on redevelopment plans for the town center. Ideas include more parking, wider sidewalks, improved lighting and landscaping. There are also plans to renovate the Yellowstone Historic Center and build a new Library and Community Center.

The goal is to create an updated downtown district that showcases the town’s Old West architecture and rustic mountain charm, while providing modern amenities and services. This will enhance the visitor experience and make West Yellowstone an even more attractive destination.

Ongoing investments in hotels, restaurants and attractions also aim to elevate West Yellowstone’s offerings. And the town seeks to attract year-round tourism by promoting its access to snowmobiling, skiing, fishing and other activities. By proactively shaping its growth, West Yellowstone hopes to solidify its role as the premier gateway community to Yellowstone National Park for decades to come.

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