In 1872, Yellowstone became the United State’s first national park. Initially, visitation to the park was minimal- only about 1,000 visitors annually- due to its remote location, difficult access, and primitive accommodations.
Very early on, this access was dramatically improved as railroads viewed rail service to Yellowstone as a boon for their development. In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Livingston, Montana, and soon they added a spur to Cinnabar, close to the north end of the park. By 1902, their trains reached Gardiner, adjacent to the north entrance to the park. Tourists boarded stagecoaches in Gardiner to continue their trip through the park. In 1898, the Burlington reached Cody, Wyoming. Stage service through the park was available from that location as well.
Even before that, the Union Pacific Railroad had extended its service through its subsidiary, the Utah and Northern Railway, reaching Beaver, Idaho in 1879 and Monida, on the Montana-Idaho border, in March of 1880. (This line was extended to Garrison, Montana by 1883.) Stagecoach service was provided from train stops at Beaver, Spencer, and Monida east to the park. The 85 miles from Monida to the west boundary of the park was an arduous trip, requiring four changes of horses. Once train service was available directly to Gardiner, this trip became less attractive when such a convenient alternative was available.
Union Pacific at the West Entrance
In 1905, E. H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, traveled through Yellowstone National Park to meet with officials from the Northern Pacific Railroad. They likely took the main tour loop through the park, staying at the grand hotels throughout the park, and discussed the growing needs of the increasing numbers of park visitors. Following his visit to the park, Harriman ordered the construction of a rail line from St. Anthony, Idaho (the terminus of the Union Pacific Line at that time) to the park’s western border in Montana. This line was managed by the Oregon Short Line, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Work on grading and laying rails began late in 1905. By January of 1906, the entire alignment for the railroad from St. Anthony to West Yellowstone was established. Shortly thereafter, the site of the station grounds for the rail terminal was proposed for a location in the Madison Forest Reserve (now the Gallatin National Forest), next to Yellowstone National Park’s western boundary.
The railroad workers had completed over half of the 70 miles of rail line between St. Anthony and West Yellowstone by June of 1907. Preparation of the rail bed was done from both ends of the line. Ties and rails were laid only from the south end since the train coming from St. Anthony was used to deliver these items. Construction of the line in the Island Park area and over Reas Pass was especially difficult due to the rugged, isolated conditions.
The final line was laid next to the western park boundary on November 12, 1907. Passenger service did not start to West Yellowstone, then known as Riverside and later as Yellowstone, till the following spring. The section of rail line between Ashton and West Yellowstone was never kept open in the winter due to the extreme snow conditions.
The first passenger train arrived in West Yellowstone (Riverside) on June 11, 1908. A wooden depot and several businesses greeted the first visitors. Now that the rail line was complete, the Oregon Short Line turned its attention to constructing facilities for train operations and passenger care at its new terminus.
Train service to West Yellowstone was limited to the months of June to September as the lines between Aston and West Yellowstone were not kept open during the winter due to the heavy snows. Each year, staring in March, the Spring Campaign was underway to clear the snow from the tracks. Engines equipped with snow blowers and plows were used for this monumental effort.
In 1907, the year before passenger service was initiated to West Yellowstone, 4,105 people entered the park through the west entrance. In 1908, the year train service began, this number reached 7,172, and in 1912, it was 10,783. In 1915, 32,551 people came through the west entrance, with 29,706 of them arriving by rail. World War I impacted park visitation, with 1919 figures for the west gate totaling 23,558, and only 8,897 of them by rail.
Other railroads also provided train service to Yellowstone National Park. The Chicago, Burlington & Pacific Railroad offered service to the park through the East Entrance in 1912. Starting in 1922, the Chicago & Northwestern Railway offered travel to Lander, Wyoming, and from there on to Yellowstone via autobus through the south entrance. The long drive from Lander to the park made this route less popular than many of the others. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railway offered service through the West Gate from Three Forks, MT in 1926, and from Gallatin Gateway in 1927. The Northern Pacific also offered service through Red Lodge Montana in 1937, and through Bozeman in 1927. The Union Pacific offered service from Victor, Idaho through the South Entrance in 1929. But as soon as the Union Pacific line was opened to West Yellowstone in 1907, it was the most popular access point, garnering over 50% of all train passengers coming to the park.
Decline of Rail Travel
The Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of the family automobile greatly affected the number of people travelling by train to West Yellowstone. Following the earthquake on August 17, 1959, regular passenger service was discontinued. It resumed in 1960, but this was its last season.
Freight service continued for some time after that, but this had never been a major component of the Union Pacific’s West Yellowstone operations. Incidentally, freight service was provided immediately after the Spring Campaign and up until the time the tracks were snowed in, extending before and after the regularly scheduled passenger trains. By the late 1960s train service was down to three times a week, and by 1973 it was provided on an as-needed basis. By 1976, the railroad ran one train a week to West Yellowstone. In 1979, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted permission to abandon the line north of Ashton, and the tracks were removed in 1981.