trouble at yellowstone park -- 12/28/23

Today's encore selection -- from Yellowstone National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey and Elizabeth A. Watry. After its establishment as the world’s first national park in 1872, Yellowstone fell victim to corrupt and incompetent management:

"Before 1869, white knowledge of the Yellowstone region was almost nonexistent. American Indians inhabited the upper Yellowstone country for hundreds of years without Euro-Americans. Although fur trappers explored Yellowstone's wilderness during the period 1822-1840 and told stories of it, the knowledge they gained of it did not become permanent. During the 1860s, gold prospectors from Montana Territory combed every valley of the future park in the search for precious metal, but they too did not leave lasting information about the area.

"It remained for white explorers during the period 1869-1871 to formally reveal the region to the rest of the world. That it required three expeditions to fully reveal the area is a tribute to the richness and complexity of the wonders of the upper Yellowstone. Having heard rumors of strange curiosities at the head of Yellowstone River from fellow prospectors, the Folsom Party, consisting of three men and their pack string, rode through the future park for pleasure in the summer of 1869. They did not publish their account right away but did provide a map, a suggestion to preserve the area somehow, and verbal information to Helena businessmen, who became the next party to explore Yellowstone. That group -- the Washburn Expedition of 1870 -- received ultimate credit for the white discovery of the region. Its leading spirits -- Nathaniel Langford, Henry Washburn, and Gustavus Doane -- wrote and published accounts of their trip, gave speeches promoting the wonders, drew improved maps, and championed the route for the benefit of the Northern Pacific Railroad. A man in the audience at one of Langford's speeches -- Dr. F. V. Hayden of the government's geological survey -- appears to have been inspired by it. Or perhaps he was already intending to explore the same country. Whatever the origin of his plans, Hayden obtained $40,000 from Congress the following summer and used it to take some 30 scientists, packers, and cooks into the wilderness to see the Yellowstone wonders. Hayden produced detailed reports and maps, and his photographer, W. H. Jackson, further documented the wonders with his camera. Upon this base of knowledge, Congress passed the law making Yellowstone the world's first national park.

Tower Falls and Sulphur Mountain, Yellowstone

"During the period 1880-1885, the new Yellowstone Park roiled in turmoil. Railroad tracklayers were attempting to reach the place, a corrupt corporation was attempting to monopolize park land, visitors and employees were illegally hunting animals and destroying delicate geyser formations, civilian officials were incompetent or downright corrupt, and just about everyone was attempting, often without permission, to erect buildings for lodging, housing, sales space, and office space. In short, abuse was rampant, and no one was controlling it. Park officials numbered only around 12. What few regulations were in place had no legal 'teeth,' and often there was no law preventing a perceived abuse. Police, such that they were, were frightfully few and had no statutory authority. Yellowstone was so geographically remote that Congress had difficulty even learning about the abuses, and the fact that Yellowstone lay in three territories rather than one state did not help matters of jurisdiction and administration.

"Thus the stage was set for a period of incredible chaos. Department of the Interior officials fired good-guy Supt. P. W. Norris in early 1882 and replaced him with Patrick Conger. When Conger proved incompetent, the Department of the Interior brought in Robert Carpenter. Carpenter cozied up to corrupt hotel bosses, letting them do whatever they wished, and brazenly staked out park land for himself. Thus the department fired him and hired David Wear. Wear made passable improvements for about a year, but by that time, Congress was fed up with the mess and took a vote to abolish Yellowstone completely. That fortunately failed, but Congress was successful in cutting off all funds to the park. Providentially, Sen. George Vest had attached a rider onto an 1883 law that allowed the Department of the Interior to call on the army during times of difficulty. Beleaguered, the Secretary of the Interior went to the Secretary of War and asked for the U.S. Army to take over Yellowstone. The army marched in on August 17, 1886.

"The period had moved from difficulties through controversial decisions to visions by those who wanted Yellowstone protected for the future.

"During the period 1886-1897, Yellowstone became protected as the status quo changed dramatically for the better. The U.S. Army took over management of the park, the corrupt hotel company went bankrupt, and corporate officials reorganized it as the Yellowstone Park Association. Law enforcement in the park went from essentially nonexistent to the legislated Lacey Act. Congress appointed Judge Robert Meldrum to preside over the first real court of law.

"The U.S. Army entered Yellowstone because of corrupt and incompetent civilian officials and complex administrative difficulties that included poaching, vandalism, and problems with park concessioners. The army was not supposed to stay in Yellowstone for very long, but it remained for 32 years, doing a generally credible and efficient job in the eyes of most historians. Enforcing laws, park soldiers quietly went about making order out of chaos, as they stopped poaching and vandalism, prevented the setting of forest fires, oversaw the hoteliers and other concessioners, and gradually settled into the role of protecting the park, much as later park rangers would do. The bankrupt Yellowstone Park Improvement Company stumbled along through 1884 and 1885, and its officials cried loudly that they were innocent as they were forced out of the park. Hotelier Charles Gibson reorganized the company in 1886 into a financially stable one that tried harder to follow the Department of the Interior's regulations. It erected large hotels in lieu of the old tent camps and hired officials who cared more about serving the public.

"Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1894 and appointed Robert Meldrum as the first U.S. commissioner. The law made it a crime to hunt animals and birds in Yellowstone and set prison time and a large fine as punishments. The army enforced the act by placing violators in jail, often after marching them many miles on foot."



Lee H. Whittlesey and Elizabeth A. Watry


Yellowstone National Park


Arcadia Publishing


Copyright 2008 by Lee H. Whittlesey and Elizabeth A. Watry


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