Park Branch Construction
By Craig Reese
Originally Published in The Mainstreeter
The quarterly publication of the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association
To Park Branch Operations
To Park Branch Promotion
Construction of the first 51 miles of the Northern Pacific's branch to Yellowstone National Park took six months. The last three miles took 20 years.
Grading on the branch from Livingston, Montana to the park began in April 1883. Track laying was completed in August. This branch was simple and easy to construct as road and bridge work were not heavy, wrote roadmaster Daniel McLaughlin in a 1930 memoir. Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines notes that contemporary newspaper accounts described construction of the 30-mile stretch from Allenspur to Point of Rocks as the most rapid on the entire system.
The work may have been simple from an engineering standpoint, but it had its human obstacles, a series of sometimes-comical disputes with settlers who had beaten the railroad to the area. The disputes escalated as the line neared the national park.
The first came when the railroad reached Emigrant, then called Fridley. Haines quotes Floyd Bottler, whose family was one of the first to settle in Paradise Valley, as saying the Northern Pacific was feuding with Fridley's founder and namesake, F.F. Fridley, who had been ranching in the area since 1874.
He was told the station there would be called 'skunk' before it would be Fridley, but moderation prevailed, and the name of Emigrant, given the station, was finally accepted by the town, Haines wrote. Park County historian Doris Whithorn notes, however, that the name was not accepted until 1911.
Three miles upriver from Emigrant construction crews came to Fred Bottler's ranch, established in 1867, and a new dispute, again described by Haines:
Construction of the roadbed was begun across Bottler's fields before coming to an agreement with him. He feared the outcome might not be in his favor, and so stopped the work by turning all his ditch water where the crew were working. The legal formalities were swiftly attended to.
Then came Yankee Jim (James George), the eccentric who owned the toll road through the canyon north of Yellowstone Park that bears his name. The road followed the same route along the Yellowstone River the railroad wanted. According to the Park County News, when Yankee Jim saw the NP coming, with a shotgun he held up the construction workers until the railway company agreed to build him another road.
Haines adds a postscript to that romantic story:
Despite much written about how Yankee Jim bested the railroad, he never received a cent for the right-of-way across his land. The railroad claimed a 200-foot strip under the Act of Congress of March 3, 1875, because the land was unpatented; but Jim wanted an annual rental for the use of his land. The stalemate lasted through his lifetime and the railroad was only able to clear the title by purchasing a quiet-claim deed from Yankee Jim's heirs after his death in 1923. The price was $97.60 for 9.76 acres.
Finally, there was Buckskin Jim Cutler, who kept the terminus of the park branch out of Gardiner from 1883 to 1903. Gardiner had existed as a town since 1880, when a post office was established. By 1883, with the arrival of the railroad believed imminent,it had grown to a population of nearly 200. In July, gold was discovered within the city limits.
Haines writes that Cutler refused to give up a placer mining claim he had staked across the right of way. A 1900 souvenir edition of the Livingston Enterprise offers a little more detail:
In the early eighties (Gardiner) existed as the property of Buckskin Jim, who had jumped the claim of Jim McCartney and sold it to Ed Stone, of the Northern Pacific Railway; but as this claim could not be transferred for the location of a townsite, the railroad company staked out a town about three miles down the Yellowstone River.
The first scheduled train up the line, on Sept. 1, 1883, included two luxurious coaches: the Montana, carrying the NP's chief engineer and the engineer in charge of the Park Branch; and another belonging to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, carrying that line's vacationing VIPs.
Haines writes that the train also included cars intended for the use of President Chester Arthur, who was then touring Yellowstone. The presidential train from Cinnabar was the first to return eastward over the Park Branch, according to Haines.
Arthur's visit was widely publicized nationwide, but it was only one of a half-dozen that summer. Carloads of newspaper correspondents and European aristocrats, the guests of park concessionaires and entrepreneurs, arrived at Cinnabar to begin park tours.
Twenty years later, on April 8, 1903, another president, Theodore Roosevelt, arrived at Cinnabar. The dispute with Buckskin Jim apparently resolved historical accounts are silent as to how the line had been extended to Gardiner. However, the wye and loop at Gardiner were incomplete, according to Park County historian Whithorn, so Roosevelt's train waited in Cinnabar while the president spent 16 days in the park.
On April 24, Roosevelt dedicated the park gateway arch at Gardiner. After spreading the mortar for the arch's cornerstone, he climbed to an 8-foot-high platform on the arch's other pillar and addressed a crowd of 3,500, brought from Livingston on four special trains.
Roosevelt's train back East was barely out of sight before the dismantling of Cinnabar began. It was removed as an NP station stop May 3, and the post office closed June 15.
Between the two presidential visits, attempts to extend the Park Branch even beyond Gardiner stirred 10 years of debate in Congress that Haines called the first Yellowstone war.
The line was planned to extend from Cinnabar through the park to Cooke City, the greatest mining district of Montana, as the Enterprise modestly described it.
On Jan 5, 1884, the Enterprise reported ... It is believed that Congress will grant the right of way through the park with little opposition, as the road will run along the ... border of the park and interfere with no point of interest. This would be a great boon to Cooke City and would increase the value of her mineral discoveries to an incalculable extent. ... Cinnabar would also have a great accession of prosperity ... even without the ore reduction works the township proprietors propose to erect.
Two weeks later the Enterprise reported incorporation of the line, and a new site for the planned reduction works:
The company is to build and operate a railroad from Cinnabar to Cooke City ... and it also has for an incidental object the erection of ore reduction works at Livingston. The names of the incorporators as they appear in the certificate are Col. Geo. O. Eaton and Geo. A. Huston, of Cooke City, D.E. Fogarty and Major F.D. Pease, of Livingston, and George Haldron, of Billings, and beside those a glittering array of Eastern capitalists, some of them of national fame, are connected with the company.
Although backers of the line claimed no connection with the NP, the connection was clear to local residents. In case anyone missed it, the Enterprise ran a short item a few days later noting that George Haldron, one of the incorporators, was an NP lawyer.
Incorporation touched off a long battle in Congress over efforts either to grant the railroad a right of way through the park, or to segregate a strip of land from the park for a right of way.
One of the first unsuccessful segregation attempts failed to take account of the Livingston-area climate. Railroad backers in Washington, D.C., had arranged a telegraph signal to associates in Gardiner, who were to stake mining claims when it appeared the segregation bill would pass.
Unfortunately for the backers, the signal was No wind in Livingston. The editor of the Enterprise noted that the phrase was so manifestly mysterious and doubtful in its probability that it aroused suspicion outside the circle for whose benefit it was particularly intended.
People outside the circle were tipped off, and many of them staked their own claims. But the segregation bill failed to pass.
The railroad fight continued for ten years, with new bills and amendments introduced and defeated in each session of Congress.
The situation was summed up most eloquently by Congressman John J. O'Neill, quoted in the Enterprise in 1885. Asked about the Cooke City railroad, O'Neill said:
... I tell you right now there will never be a d----d inch of that park cut off. I want to see it enlarged, instead of cut down. Your bill came nearer passing last winter than it ever will again. Just on information and belief that it had passed just about half the population of this country got fresh and plastered the park with mineral notices. That settled it. It looked a good deal as if the land was of more importance than the railway ... I met a man who impressed it upon my mind, or tried to, that all his past life and future prospects were entombed in that northern strip of the park like a toad in the trunk of a tree ... This nation has only got one park and I want to see it left alone.
By 1892, the NP had given up. Haines writes that at the end of that year, NP President Thomas Oakes told Congress the railroad had studied the Cooke City mines and the routes to them, and would not build a line into the area.
Three years later, in the NP guidebook Sketches of Wonderland, historian Olin D. Wheeler actually called for expansion of the park:
In all justice and propriety the park proper ought to be extended far beyond even the present limits of the forest reserve. ... Let those who love God's groves and rejoice to see standing timber in all its richness of growth and garb, never cease to pray that some day, before it is too late, the size of this park may be largely augmented.
Interest in the area for mining, however, continues to the present day. Mining continued intermittently near Cooke City into the 1950s, and the gold mine at Jardine, just up the hill from Gardiner, was reopened in 1989. A Canadian firm has made a controversial proposal for a mine on 186 acres near Cooke City and the northeast corner of Yellowstone.
As for the route from Cinnabar to Cooke City, the dispute over its use was replayed briefly in 1989 after the Yellowstone fires, when logging firms sought to use the road through the northern end of the park to remove fire-damaged timber. As it did a hundred years earlier, the effort failed.
Author: Craig D. Reese. Title: Park Branch Construction.
© March 20, 2002