Long before there were trains or tourists, the area around present-day West Yellowstone served as a gateway for wildlife and humans traveling to and from the Yellowstone Plateau. The Madison River Valley provided a natural route for these travelers, including Native Americans, trappers, prospectors, and adventurers. Their paths and the tracks they wore into the landscape became the basis of many subsequent roads and trails. In the 1860s, the earliest “pioneer tourists” ventured through this area, eventually known as the Hebgen Lake Basin, on their way to Yellowstone. They came in wagons or on horseback, camping in the rough all the way. Many skirted Henry’s Lake and, starting in the 1870s, spent a night at Gilman Sawtell’s ranch before entering the valley via Targhee Pass.
Traveling from Henry’s Lake through the Madison Valley
Going around to the east of the (Henry’s) lake…. (we) were soon crossing the Divide to the waters of the Madison. I doubt whether there is a more gradual grade in any of the mountain passes. The trail in many places led through large groves of quakenasps. (quaking aspens) Some of the trees were marked with Indian signs… We nooned in the Madison Basin, some ten miles from the lake. This basin is about 30 miles in diameter, the soil of which is black, and very rich, judging from the growth of vegetation. At night we stopped on the Madison… we entered the canyon that leads to the vicinity of the geysers, which might appropriately be termed the “Valley of the Shadow,” for the narrow defile extending ten miles through the mountains of perpendicular rock, in many places excluding the sunlight, enhanced with the thought that beyond lies the lakes of fire and brimstone that burneth forever, causes an involuntary shudder to pass over the frame of the traveler.
-George Clawson, writing for the New Northwest (Deer Lodge, Montana) November 11, 1871, from A Ride to the Infernal Regions – Yellowstone’s First Tourists, by Calvin C. Clawson
The flow of tourists began in earnest after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. In the 1880s, many of these tourists took trains to Union Pacific railheads at various points in Idaho and Montana. From these railroad stations, stagecoaches ferried the tourists into the park through the Madison River “entrance.” Several stage companies, including the Gilmer & Salisbury Company and the Bassett Brothers, provided this service. In 1898, F.J. Haynes established the Monida & Yellowstone Stage Line, with its headquarters at the Monida train station on the Montana-Idaho border. In 1899, Haynes reported to the Park Service that his company had carried 414 people from Monida through the park. By 1907, this number had ballooned to an annual 2,270.
All this tourist traffic spurred the need for support services. Dwelle’s Grayling Inn, the first commercial establishment in the basin, was built just a few miles west of the park on the South Fork of the Madison. Many travelers spent a night on the road here, eating and resting up before continuing on their park tours. Dwelle’s offerings grew to several hotels and a saloon to serve the booming Yellowstone Park tourist trade arriving in stagecoaches. From Dwelle’s, a road was cut through the forest directly to the Madison. This road nearly aligned with today’s Yellowstone Avenue, just north of the Union Pacific Depot. The stagecoaches rattled along this road into the park and up the plateau to the Geyser Basins. Initially, the stages took two days to cover the eighty-plus miles between the rail lines and the park. That was soon cut to one day, making for a strenuous, dusty, gritty ride.
By 1900, homesteads and ranches dotted the banks of the Madison River near the park’s edge. Many of these hardy ranchers saw the opportunity to earn money by providing hay for the horses and cattle required by park businesses. Ranches along the Madison River produced hay needed to feed the livestock that supported Yellowstone visitors. Still, the need for a town at the park’s western entrance was an idea whose time had not yet arrived.