Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon
By John Clayton
(Pegasus Books, 285 pages, $27.95)
A common cliché used to describe the national parks is that they are being “loved to death.” The “crown jewels” (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smokies, et al.) have for some years seen record annual visitation in the millions. Yosemite is notorious for its parking headaches. Zion in Utah is so crowded that it will soon unveil a visitor reservation system. Just this past August Yellowstone broke its monthly visitation record (approximately 916,000). The latter is the subject of Montana writer John Clayton’s Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon. In a series of chapter-length set pieces Clayton outlines the century and a half history of America’s first national park. Art and architecture, wildlife management and forest fire suppression are all considered. Not to mention the weirdness of the place itself.
Yellowstone has an air of mystery thanks to its “thermal features,” the geologic oddities of shimmering hot pools, boiling springs, mudpots and blasting geysers such as iconic Old Faithful. These are the manifestations of a “caldera,” an immense underground volcano found in only a few other places worldwide, such as Iceland. They were viewed with superstitious awe by the native people who frequented the region.
The first white man to explore present Yellowstone was John Colter (1807), veteran of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery and considered by scholars the proto- mountain man. Others followed in the ensuing decades, including Jim Bridger, who used its environs as a setting for his mendacious evening campfire tales, and Osborne Russell, a trapper who kept an accurate journal of his travels.
The U.S. government decided to get to the bottom of the region’s fanciful legends, and in 1871 sent a survey expedition commanded by Ferdinand V. Hayden to seek “fossils to understand the past, taxonomies to document the present, and maps to plan the future.” Along with his scientific and cartographic personnel, Hayden brought along two artists: the painter Thomas Moran, noted for his fine western landscapes, and William Henry Jackson, one of the 19th century’s pioneering photographers.
Moran’s resulting canvasses (“The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” hanging in the Smithsonian American Art Museum today) and Jackson’s hundreds of photographs were a national sensation and spurred the U.S. Congress to create the Yellowstone National “Preserve” (“Park” came with the actual inauguration of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916). On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed the legislation inaugurating a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
The Yellowstone region of the 1870s was still very much the Wild West. The Plains Indian Wars continued (Yellowstone’s advent pre-dates by four years General George Custer’s tragic denouement at the Little Bighorn), and in 1877 Chief Joseph led his Nez Perce’ people through Yellowstone in futile flight from the U.S. Army and bound for Canada. A number of tourists were killed, the result of a brief skirmish. The Army would be the commanding presence at Fort Yellowstone (present Mammoth Hot Springs) until the advent of the NPS. Though poaching was the main concern.
In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt famously presided over the dedication of his eponymous stone arch at the north entrance that featured the inscription “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” Two men who would work hard to realize that ideal were Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. Mather was the first director of the NPS, and Albright his assistant and successor. Together they developed a vision of what has been called “America’s best idea” following the example of their mentor, the conservationist Roosevelt.
The first naturalist to take an interest in Yellowstone as a huge reservoir of wildlife was Ernest Thompson Seton, who toured with his wife Grace in 1897. Accommodations were primitive in the nascent Park, though this didn’t deter Seton’s quest to observe wildlife at close quarters, especially bears. The ramshackle Fountain Hotel in the Lower Geyser Basin kept an open-air dump nearby and Seton would literally bury himself in trash (“with cabbage stalks, old potato peelings, tomato-cans, and carrion piled up in odorous heaps around me”) for a better view of the large grizzlies that frequented the nightly bruin buffet.
The pioneering grizzly bear researchers, the late John and Frank Craighead, were responsible for reshaping the Park’s grizzly policy. In the 1960s they pioneered the radio collaring and drug tranquilizing techniques now commonly used by wildlife researchers. The closing of Yellowstone’s dumps and the daily removal of garbage to outside of the Park caused a period of high grizzly bear mortality, and the Craigheads were among the first to argue that the bruins were an integral part of a “greater Yellowstone ecosystem” that extended beyond the Park’s borders to surrounding public lands. The twin brothers can take much of the credit for healthy grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies today.
Yellowstone wasn’t Ansel Adams favorite national park, as he preferred the granite grandeur of Yosemite in his native California, but you wouldn’t know that when you study the work the photographer did in the former. Adams first arrived in Yellowstone in 1942, when the Park was sparsely visited due to World War II era gas rationing. He encountered few people, and by avoiding photographing the ever-present infrastructure of roads, buildings, and bridges, was able to capture the Park in its more primeval states. No human beings appear in these luminescent black and white photos of lakes, steaming geyser basins and distant snowy peaks. Adams “Fountain Geyser Pool” and “Yellowstone Lake and Mount Sheridan” show his mastery of the gelatin silver print process.
Yellowstone is also known for interesting architecture, or “parkitecture,” as Clayton calls it in his book. The architect Robert Reamer designed the Old Faithful Inn with the support of the Yellowstone Park Company and the Northern Pacific Railway (interested in the Park’s future as a tourist mecca) and its construction was completed in 1904. It is huge. It has four stories of interior balconies and a number of massive stone fireplaces, including one 85 feet tall in the main lobby. The Old Faithful Inn is the primary example of “Park Service Rustic,” the architectural style influential in other subsequent national park infrastructure projects over the years. But such monuments of wood will burn, as the Old Faithful Inn nearly did in 1988.
That summer Yellowstone and five surrounding national forests were devastated by wildfire. Roughly one third (794,000 acres) of the Park’s land area burned. Ninety-six hundred firefighters were employed, and the final bill to the taxpayers was $67 million. Clayton uses a number of human synecdoches to tell this fascinating story, such as firefighter Dan Sholly’s saving of a remote cabin of historical interest, and the heroic collective efforts of firefighters to save the Old Faithful Inn “while perched dangerously on the flat roofs of the inn’s wings.”
Wonderlandscape is a worthy contribution to the ongoing debates on the management of America’s public lands. John Clayton’s story chronicles the history of this “real place with nearly infinite capabilities to inspire that most gorgeous of human emotions, wonder.” And wonder is in short supply nowadays.
Bill Croke is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.