In 1872, Yellowstone became the United State’s first national park. Initially, visitation to the park was minimal- only about 1,000 visitors annually- due to its remote location, difficult access, and primitive accommodations. In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Livingston, Montana, and soon they added a spur close to the north end of the park at Gardiner. By the early 1900s, hotels were constructed at strategic locations throughout the park to provide more sophisticated accommodations for visitors.
Harriman Brings the Train to West Yellowstone
In 1905, E. H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, traveled through Yellowstone National Park to meet with officials from the Northern Pacific Railroad. They likely took the main tour loop through the park, staying at the grand hotels throughout the park, and discussed the growing needs of the increasing numbers of park visitors. Following his visit to the park, Harriman ordered the construction of a rail line from St. Anthony, Idaho (the terminus of the Union Pacific Line at that time) to the park’s western border in Montana. This line would be managed by the Oregon Short Line, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Work on grading and laying rails began late in 1905. By January of 1906, the entire alignment for the railroad from St. Anthony to West Yellowstone was established. Shortly thereafter, the site of the station grounds for the rail terminal was proposed for a location in the Madison Forest Reserve (now the Gallatin National Forest), next to Yellowstone National Park’s western boundary.
The railroad workers had completed over half of the 70 miles of rail line between St. Anthony and West Yellowstone by June of 1907. Preparation of the rail bed was done from both ends of the line. Ties and rails were laid only from the south end since the train coming from St. Anthony was used to deliver these items. Construction of the line in the Island Park area and over Reas Pass was especially difficult due to the rugged, isolated conditions.
The final line was laid next to the western park boundary on November 12, 1907. Passenger service did not start to West Yellowstone, then known as Riverside and later as Yellowstone, till the following spring. The section of rail line between Ashton and West Yellowstone was never kept open in the winter due to the extreme snow conditions.
The Train Arrives
The first passenger train arrived in West Yellowstone on June 11, 1908. A wooden depot and several businesses greeted the first visitors. Now that the rail line was complete, the Oregon Short Line turned its attention to constructing facilities for train operations and passenger care at its new terminus. The chart below outlines the major facilities built by the Union Pacific Railroad at its West Yellowstone terminus.
1908 - Temporary wooden depot built
1908 - Eating house known as “The Beanery” built
1909 - Permanent Depot built
1910-15 - Water Tower, Pump House, Freight House, Generator House, and Oil House built
1922 - Baggage building built
1922 - Rest Pavilion built
1925 - Dining Lodge Built
1927 - Men’s Dormitory built
1927 - Beanery altered/converted to Women’s Dormitory
1927 - Pump House, Oil House, and Generator House altered through addition of stone and log cladding
1927 - Pylon built
1927 - Rustic Signs installed
1928 - Stagecoach Shelter built
The Railroad District Grows
By the 1920s, the numbers of passengers arriving in West Yellowstone aboard the trains had dramatically increased. The depot and the “Beanery” eating facilities were bursting at their seams. Union Pacific officials made plans for immediate expansions and additions, resulting in changes to the depot, the addition of the baggage building and the rest pavilion, and soon after that, the construction of the new Dining Lodge. A six foot wide concrete sidewalk was installed just north of the railroad tracks to connect all of the railroad facilities and provide a pedestrian link between them. The 1920s also saw the addition of dormitories to accommodate the growing Union Pacific staff required to serve the increasing numbers of train passengers.
This expansion of facilities impacted the amount of open space in the railroad district, and many of the lodge poles that had graced the lawns were sacrificed for the building locations. A row of vertical posts was installed to the north of the buildings to define paths of travel and prevent traffic from driving across the lawns that had been planted between the buildings. It was reported that this row of posts was replaced by a fence to refrain local domestic livestock from damaging the lawns.
In 1927 a sign plan was implemented to enhance the previous signage which was restricted to the south side of the railroad buildings – visible to passengers arriving or departing on the trains. This sign plan included the massive rustic sign just to the north of the depot, which identified the property as belonging to the Union Pacific Railroad. A concrete pylon which held the shields of the Union Pacific was constructed at the east end of the railroad property, near the park boundary.
During this same time period, the Union Pacific had plans for building a great hotel on its West Yellowstone property to provide additional accommodations for its traveling guests. The hotel was to be located on land to the south of the depot. For reasons that have not been documented, the hotel was never built. However, the discussion that surrounded the potential hotel further indicated the desire of the Union Pacific Railroad to have nothing less than first-class service for its Yellowstone-bound travelers.
There are two distinct styles of architecture featured in the West Yellowstone railroad facilities in the Oregon Short Line Terminus Historic District. The Depot and Baggage House are similar in style, featuring quarry-faced native rhyolite stone. The other major structures throughout the railroad district display the rustic park architecture theme – peeled and unpeeled fir log slab and rusticated native rhyolite stone. This rustic style aimed to blend with the surrounding forest landscape. Prior to 1925, the buildings and structures were designed by the Union Pacific Railroad’s Engineering Office. Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed the Dining Lodge and the Men’s Dormitory. He also designed the modifications for the “Beanery,” the Pump House, the Oil House, and the Generator House to achieve their architectural appearance that is similar to that of the Dining Lodge.
The End of Rail Service into West Yellowstone
Train travel to West Yellowstone reflected the travel patterns of upper-class Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. This population had wealth and leisure time, and was intrigued by the American West and the elegance of travel on the transcontinental railroads. However, this age of elegant train travel was fleeting, succumbing to many external pressures. The rise of the middle class and the advent of the personal car forever changed the face of travel to national parks. “Car Camps” provided night-time accommodations for travelers – first in the form of rustic camps, then cabins, and ultimately motels. The railroad’s stronghold on rail-hotel facilities was losing its grip. This, coupled with the impacts of two world wars and the Great Recession, forever changed the face of vacation travel, especially in the west.
Following the termination of rail service to West Yellowstone, the Union Pacific Railroad deeded its facilities and 10 acres of land to the Town of West Yellowstone. This transfer of property took place in 1966, the year the Town was incorporated. In 1983, the entire 10 acres and the remaining structures were designated as the Oregon Short Line Terminus Historic District. The District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, several of the railroad buildings are used for different purposes. The Depot houses the Museum of the Yellowstone, while the Baggage Building serves as the Town’s police headquarters and jail. Part of the Dining Lodge hosts some of the town’s offices as well as the year-round Yellowstone Historic Center headquarters. The Dining Lodge is also used as a convention center of sorts, and is the site of many meetings, weddings, and other special events. The Men’s Dormitory houses the Town’s medical clinic. Many of the buildings and structures have been lost to fire or were torn down.