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All Set for the WEST: Railroads and National Parks

2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service. When Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir began leading a movement to permanently protect these areas as national treasures, the railroads were right beside them. Many parks, secluded and pristine by design, could be reached by the general public only via rail. It was the railroads that constructed lodging and public facilities at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, just to name a few. This mutually beneficial partnership persevered until 1972, when Union Pacific donated all of its park facilities to the National Park Service, following the transfer of all passenger rail operation to AMTRAK.

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Partnering with National Parks

Long before vacationers rode Union Pacific trains to Sun Valley, visitors to America’s scenic wonders had discovered the convenience of trains for destination travel.  The nation’s railroads traversed vast untouched parts of the nation, in many places offering the public’s only view of rushing rivers and scenic valleys. From the very earliest days of train travel, railroads marketed America’s scenic beauty as reason enough to take a trip. When Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir began leading a movement to permanently protect these areas as national treasures, the railroads were right beside them. In 1903, years before the National Park Service was established, Union Pacific and the Chicago and North Western formed the “Bureau of Service to National Parks and Resorts,” serving the areas that would become Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.


In 1916 the National Park Service was established and the railroads were an immediate partner. Many parks, secluded and pristine by design, could be reached by the general public only via rail. Since they had been providing transportation to these areas for years, railroads had constructed lodging and public facilities at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon parks. With a budget barely large enough to fund construction of roads, the National Park Service was pleased to allow railroads to remain the primary service providers at the parks. The arrangement worked well for the railroads as well: by controlling the quality of the lodging and dining, railroads could help ensure repeat passengers.


Railroads also became important advertising partners for the parks.  With majestic scenery as a backdrop, railroad photography departments documented every twist and turn of every trail with photos that helped ticket agents sell fully-planned door-to-door escorted excursions. Artists in the advertising department created paintings and drawings that captured the beauty of America and became the basis of nationwide advertising campaigns. And railroad movie departments provided films that reached Saturday cinema audiences across the country.


For Union Pacific, the most important National Parks on its system were Yellowstone and the Parks in southern Utah.

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

Union Pacific became the first railroad to serve Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s oldest national park, when it extended a rail line to the Idaho-Montana border in 1880. The arduous 85 mile trip from the end of the line to Yellowstone Park was eliminated in 1908 when Union Pacific opened a branch line to the west entrance of the park.  The new line immediately became the most popular route to Yellowstone, with park visitors nearly doubling between 1907 and 1908.


Union Pacific’s depot at West Yellowstone was the starting point for park tours, at first by horse and wagon and then by touring bus.  For years, overnight visitors who did not enjoy tent camping or who didn’t want to travel several miles to the nearest hotel stayed in sleeping cars parked on side tracks and supplied with steam and water –an early version of an RV park. By the 1920’s the rudimentary facilities at West Yellowstone were no longer adequate to serve the growing number of visitors. Between 1922 and 1927, Union Pacific added pavilions, staff dormitories and a massive timber and stone dining hall that seated 350.


Union Pacific’s line opened each year in June with a rotary snowplow clearing the route ahead of the first train. It closed again each September when snow made it impassable. Every year, Union Pacific launched an ad campaign to announce the opening day of the line. Capitalizing on Yellowstone’s favorite public feature - friendly bears - the campaign depicted cartoon bears enjoying a new activity every year. Children who arrived at Yellowstone via Union Pacific ordered meals from a Yellowstone Bears children’s menu and received their own Yellowstone Bears activity book. The ad campaign was one of the longest-running in corporate history.


As with most national parks, by the 1950s more visitors began arriving by auto than by train.  After the 1960 season, Union Pacific terminated passenger service to Yellowstone and in 1966 deeded all of the buildings and 10 acres of land to the newly incorporate Town of West Yellowstone.  Today, the buildings comprise a historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the landmark dining hall is home to the Yellowstone Historic Center. 


Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks, Utah

In 1922, Union Pacific announced it would spend $5 million to create an all-inclusive “circle loop” tour of the recently designated national parks and monuments in southern Utah. The railroad created the Utah Parks Company to manage the operation then over the next few years extended its rail line 33 miles from Lund to Cedar City, purchased a fleet of touring vehicles, and built lodges and cabins at Zion, Bryce, Cedar Breaks and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.


Working together, Union Pacific and the National Park Service selected architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood to design the facilities.  From 1924 through 1928, Underwood designed lodges, dining halls and cabins for Union Pacific, culminating in a spectacular lodge on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Underwood’s work for Union Pacific moved from a traditional “Rustic” style to a stylized interpretation that combined native stone and wood with expansive windows that allowed visitors to enjoy breathtaking views. With his lodge design at the Grand Canyon, Underwood’s architectural style became universally recognized as the standard for national park lodges throughout the West.  Unfortunately, his reliance on wood in remote areas also led to the eventual loss of all of the lodges from fire.  The Grand Canyon lodge stood for only four years before it burned to the ground and was rebuilt in a somewhat less majestic style.


For nearly fifty years, visitors to southern Utah could arrive at the train station in Cedar City and board a Utah Parks Company touring car or bus for a 489-mile fully-escorted tour of Utah’s natural treasures. Most visitors spent at least one night at each park and then were sent on to the next park with a “sing-away” by the full staff.


As with other railroad destinations, the Utah Parks Company was not expected to make money, it was created to bring passengers to the railroad. Union Pacific took a broad view of the costs to run the lodges and tour operation and determined that increased passenger traffic and free publicity offset losses at the lodges.  That position held as long as most visitors arrived by train, but by the 1950s 75 percent of visitors were arriving by car. Union Pacific calculated that between 1923 and 1957, Utah Parks Company lost $3.5 million dollars. With no passenger revenue to offset the losses, the railroad began looking for a buyer for the Utah Parks Company.  Because the venture was a partnership with the National Park Service, sale of the facilities and tour operations had to be approved by NPS.  After several failed attempts to reach a sale that was acceptable to all parties, in 1972 the railroad donated all of its facilities at Zion, Bryce, Cedar Breaks and the Grand Canyon to the National Park Service.