Yellowstone: American Milestone

With geysers, waterfalls, and hot springs “adorned with decorations more beautiful than human art ever conceived,” Yellowstone National Park is known today for its incredible natural wonders. Our first National Park–and the first in the world–was created by an Act of Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. Newspapers helped popularize the park from its beginnings.

While not everyone was supportive of the idea of creating a national park, the Helena, Montana Weekly Herald championed the action in late March 1872: “The idea of making this region of unparalleled wonders a national park is beautiful. There is no such grouping anywhere else in the world of the beautiful, the magnificent, the grand, the sublime and wonderful in nature…”

Many agreed and Yellowstone’s beauty and otherworldliness were featured again and again in late 19th and early 20th century newspapers. Lists of visitors and ads for railway tours abounded.

U.S. presidents were the most celebrated of visitors. Chester A. Arthur was the first President to visit Yellowstone (seated, center) in August 1883. Late in his visit, several newspapers published a “Startling Report” of a plot to kidnap the president and his entourage and hold them for ransom as reported by the Hailey, Idaho Wood River Times on August 24, 1883. The tale was debunked by the Livingston, Montana Daily EnterpriseAugust 30, 1883, but the earlier report made for exciting reading and it continued to be published into early September.

Even without an alleged kidnapping plot, the April 1903 visit of President Theodore Roosevelt to Yellowstone, as well as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, captured massive attention from newspapers and the public. While on an ambitious speaking tour by train, Roosevelt, the “conservationist president,” devoted two weeks to camping in Yellowstone with a group that included naturalist John Burroughs and Major John Pitcher, acting park superintendent. Roosevelt, of course, encouraged news coverage of his speeches, but he barred the press from the camping trip. This caused widespread speculation, including that the president might ski and even end up “sticking head first in a snowbank” according to a major article in the New-York Tribune.

As it turned out, a later account by Burroughs, “Camping with President Roosevelt,” published in The Atlantic Monthly, May 1906, confirmed not only that Roosevelt had skied, but that Burroughs witnessed “the President taking a header into the snow” with Burroughs doing likewise, and Roosevelt thoroughly enjoying the experience.

On April 24, at the end of the Yellowstone visit, Roosevelt gave a speech and laid the cornerstone at the arch being built at the park’s entrance in Gardiner, Montana. It was named the Roosevelt Arch in his honor after. The honor was well-deserved for Roosevelt who was instrumental in establishing 230 million acres of land for public use while president.

As extensive as the earlier newspaper coverage of Yellowstone was, the images in the articles cannot compete visually with those in the 1919 New York Tribune series “Greatest Scenic Wonders of America.”

The eleven-week series utilized the rotogravure process and the Tribune suggested the striking color images were suitable for framing. Two of the eleven “Scenic Wonders” featured Yellowstone. One reproduced a painting by the prominent landscape painter Thomas Moran, who played an important role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park as a member of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. The other was a National Geographic photo of the most recognizable image associated with Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Geyser.

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