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Union Pacific Dining Hall Preservation Project Moves Ahead

January 17, 2019 | Katie Moen

WEST YELLOWSTONE – before large hotels and busy restaurants, before highways and visitor centers and movie theaters and bars, before West Yellowstone even came to exist, there was only the railroad. Here, at the end of the tracks, early adventurers lay down roots and set about carving a legacy from the untamed wilds.

“The railroad was built because of the park, and the town was built because of the railroad,” said Kaitlin Johnson, executive director of the Yellowstone Historic Center. “There are a lot of western towns that share a similar history, but West Yellowstone is unique in that you can actually still see where it all began and imagine what it must have been like out here during those first few years.”

Now, thanks to a generous tourism grant by the Montana Department of Commerce, the Historic Center will able to better preserve an important piece of that history for generations to come.

“We have received a $30,000 grant that we plan to use to restore and replace some of the older windows in the Union Pacific Dining Hall,” Johnson explained. “This building has been through some hard winters, and it’s definitely in need of some repairs. The dining hall played a major role in the development of this area as a tourist destination, and we’re very excited to be able to use these funds to help protect it.”

The Union Pacific Dining Hall was built by the railroad in 1925 in order to accommodate the large number of tourists that were flocking to the area, said Ellen Butler, curator and fundraising assistant for the Center.

“Back then, it was a pretty simple operation,” said Butler. “People would step off the train onto the platform where they would be met by waitresses from the dining hall. The waitresses, who called themselves ‘the beanery queens,’ would greet the crowds with a song and show them into the hall for a hot meal and a chance to unwind. Afterwards, visitors would head back to the train station to meet up with their Yellowstone tour groups. The dining hall was basically the last stop for a lot of people who planned to spend a few days sightseeing around the park, so the railroad wanted to make sure that it made an impression.”

The dining hall, Butler explained, was designed and built under the direction of architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who is known for his work on a number of other National Park projects including the Old Faithful Lodge and the Ahwahnee lodge in Yosemite.

Today, the eye-catching structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still serves as a meeting place for local events and private functions.

“We started the window project in 2009 and have been chipping away at it ever since,” said Johnson. “So far, we have replaced a number of the windows in the Mammoth Room [the large dining hall area] and can now start to focus on the Firehole Room [a smaller chamber that serves as the entryway to the structure] and the kitchen.”

As is so often the case, the town that grew up around the simple depot eventually came outlast the railroad itself.

“Rail service was discontinued in the 1960’s, and for a while, both the station and the dining hall fell into periods of disuse,” said Butler. “The buildings started to show signs of neglect after a while.”

Then, in 1969, the Union Pacific Railroad reached an agreement with the Town of West Yellowstone to better serve the needs of both entities.

“The railroad agreed to gift both the buildings and the land that they sit on to the town under the provision that the town would take over maintenance and preservation of the properties,” Butler said. “Today, the train station serves as our museum and the dining hall has become part of our historic walking tour. Grants like this are so important because they not only allow us to preserve the buildings themselves, but to keep the history of the area alive.”

In the years that have passed since the last singing waitress finished her train platform greeting, the Union Pacific Dining Hall has served some unique purposes to the town of West Yellowstone.

“In the 60’s or 70’s, it was actually used as an ice rink,” Butler said, shaking her head. “They would just flood the cement floors and wait for them to freeze. Obviously, there was some damage and we eventually had to lay down tile in the main room.”

Later, Johnson said, the building served as the home of the National Fly-Fishing Federation, which explains the somewhat anachronistic casting pond located near the back of the property.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Johnson said of the Dining Hall. “The original windows that remain let a lot of weather and animals in. We’ve had trouble with bats, birds, all kinds of things.”

Once the window project is completed (the organization will still need to raise another $85,000 to finish it out), Johnson said the Center would like to turn its attentions to other ventures.

“As of right now, we can only open the dining hall for events in the summer,” she said. “We would love to get to the point where we can afford to heat it and open it as a year-round facility, but that’s a ways away. Still, though, we’re making progress, and this grant will go a long way in helping us to meet our goals.”