The Arrival of Automobile Touring


When the first car made its way through Yellowstone’s gates in 1902, park officials immediately evicted the automobile. Not only were cars viewed as polluting contraptions unfit for travel on Yellowstone’s roads, but they were also seen as a nemesis to the railroad, stagecoach, and concessionaire owners who had aligned themselves with park superintendents and held great stakes in the Yellowstone tourist industry. With automobiles firmly prohibited, the park was a destination for the rich and the adventurous who were dependent upon trains, stagecoach drivers, and primitive camping and “hotel” concessionaires to make their Yellowstone vacations successful. These greedy business owners were less than thrilled about the automobile’s arrival, and until 1915, they enjoyed the right to charge overpriced rates to visitors willing to pay as much money as necessary to see Yellowstone’s wonders.

The life of these concessionaires dramatically changed in 1915 when the Secretary of the Interior finally agreed to allow automobiles inside the park’s boundaries. For the first time in its history, Yellowstone National Park became a truly national place. No longer relegated a destination for the affluent, the park assumed a commoner attitude allowing anyone with a vehicle to glimpse the park in all its magnificent glory. At the same time, the automobile provided visitors the freedom to set their own schedule without waiting upon the itinerary of a stagecoach or horse tour operator.

While the rest of the world reveled in the Secretary of Interior’s decision, park concessionaires and railroad officials were furious. They balked at the announcement, crying out that automobiles would destroy their businesses and actually lessen the number of visitors. The order, however, was not to be reversed, and concessionaries were soon slapped with stringent guidelines. Only one tour bus company was allowed to operate in the park, along with one hotel concessionaire and one photographer. Other concessionaries and lunch stations were simply forced to shut up shop as park services geared themselves towards independent automobile travelers.

The Secretary of Interior’s plan worked much to the chagrin of previous park concessionaries. Automobile travel significantly enhanced park visitation, and order was finally given to Yellowstone Park’s concessionaire business. Despite experiencing growing pains where the Depression, wartime woes, and a decaying road, campground, and restroom system threatened the park’s livelihood, Yellowstone has persevered for more than 125 years. It continues to garner a strong foothold as one of America’s most beloved national parks.

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