On Aug. 1, 1915, Yellowstone National Park changed forever.
Sixteen cars led by local businessman Jake Schwoob cruised through the East Entrance and over Sylvan Pass. The occasion marked the first time private automobiles were officially allowed on park roads.
Public pressure to admit cars into Yellowstone had been growing for years, but park administrators and concessionaires alike were resistant to the idea. Railroad companies, stagecoach operators and established tour enterprises were not in favor of allowing easy access to automobile travelers not bound to their services.
Moreover, since the entire park infrastructure had been built to accommodate horses and stagecoaches, the introduction of motorized transport would require extensive access to fuel, wider roads and a smattering of other expensive alterations to facilities around the park. The prospect of introducing cars onto these already marginal transportation routes was inviting inevitable disaster.
In 1908, Buffalo Bill and other residents of Cody had petitioned the Secretary of the Interior for permission to run motor coaches up the North Fork Road and over Sylvan Pass to Lake Hotel. The proposal was rejected out of hand. But the rising tide of the automobile in American life proved more than anyone could withstand, and the policy was revised seven years later.
“Cars are coming to Cody daily,” the Cody Enterprise reported on August 4, 1915, “with the eastern entrance to Yellowstone Park as their destination.”
The influx of automobiles into Yellowstone brought a new set of problems. They were a major disruption to visitors still using horses on the narrow, mostly one-way roads. Jockeying for right of way and unimpeded passage between motorists and equestrians led to heated animosity.
Horses conveying tourists around park roads kicked up immense clouds of dust and deposited a healthy amount of road apples. Rackety, sputtering automobiles frightened skittish horses and posed a safety hazard for the slower moving stagecoaches.
It soon became apparent that transportation on park roads had to be either horse-drawn or motorized. It could not be both.
Park administrators eventually found a compromise – that tacitly handed victory to the predictable supremacy of automobiles – in the creation of the Howard Eaton Trail, a separate system of trails around the park wholly dedicated to non-motorized travel. The route was named after the prominent owner of the Eaton Ranch near Sheridan, who had pioneered the logistics of guiding large horseback parties through Yellowstone from 1883 until 1921.
Beyond the compromises addressing transportation in Yellowstone, the ubiquity of cars required park officials to adapt to many changing circumstances necessitated by the shifting public demands for accommodations and services.
Automobiles allowed more freedom and flexibility when visiting the park. Of course, cars could cover more ground quickly, but motorists were also not beholden to the rigid itineraries arranged by the old stagecoach companies. Drivers could travel where they liked and stay where they liked, on their own schedule.
Like it or not, the private automobile forever changed Yellowstone. They allowed millions of middle-class visitors rambling on a budget to experience what had formerly been an exorbitant luxury accessible only to those with means. Concessionaires initially loathed the change and resisted making the costly switch in their transportation fleets, but none of those same businesses wanted to be excluded from potential profits either.
The National Park Service was created in 1916, just when cars were first flooding into Yellowstone. The fledgling agency operated under the assumption that the only way to justify its continued existence was to increase visitor numbers. This growth mentality brought about aggressive promotion and the subsequent accommodation of the growing hordes of motorists flooding into the park every year to visit the park on their own terms.
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