By the early 1890's, visitation to both Yosemite and Yellowstone had increased steadily each year, but the numbers reflected the limited tourist market the railroads had targeted. Only the wealthy could afford the passage, and many of them were more interested in visits to urbane San Francisco, lavish Monterey, or nouveau riche Los Angeles. By 1890, no new parks had been nominated or preserved, and it seemed that they were a phase of the past until new cultural trends and national concerns as well as the changes in America's economy and population presented new opportunities and needs for the railroads. The tourist in the 1870's was first targeted as a potential investor and settler, but in the 90's the tourist was simply a visitor who needed to be persuaded to ride the rails west year after year for vacations. Even though the urgency of attracting investors had subsided, the railroads had invested in park accommodations and passenger equipment. The structures for tourism were in place, and the railroads began a mass-marketing strategy that appealed to a much wider market of tourists than the elite investors of the 1870's.


The Northern Pacific "Fair On Wheels," 1883

The American west had changed in the twenty years since the railroads had entered the unsettled wilderness beyond the Rockies. By this time, the West was not nearly as wild as it once had been, and vestiges of the old west vanished rapidly in the flurry of new settlement. As early as the mid 1880's, Northern Pacific engaged in active marketing strategies to demonstrate that the West had come of age and that the badlands of the North had at last bent to the will of the plow. In 1883 an exhibition car called the "Fair on Wheels" (photo above) made its way from Minnesota throughout the East to display minerals, timber, and specially made stuffed animals representative of Yellowstone's species along with fruits, grains, and potted plants indicative of the bountiful harvests of the old Northwest--all made possible by the railroad. Over 400,000 people visited the car and took away promotional literature about the "Yellowstone Park Line," its hotels at Mammoth Springs and Old Faithful, and the names of the nearest ticket agents. Throughout the 80's, Northern Pacific circulated travel brochures in the East that promised the best of both worlds--an "authentic" wild west experience in a wilderness made safe, prosperous, and civilized by the railroad. Although the railroad estimated a distribution of 2 million pieces of promotional literature about Yellowstone, visitation to the railroad car was considerably higher than visitation to the park, which averaged only about 500 per season, largely because of the tremendous expense of travel West. Still, the "Fair on Wheels" stunt indicated to the railroad that there was enough public interest in the West to consider opening travel to a mass market in the near future. (Kinsey 75).

As Northern and Southern Pacific made payments on their outstanding debts and enjoyed economic success in the freight business, it was time to reconsider the parks. They had invested millions in construction, passenger cars, and advertising, and now that the search for investors had slowed, something had to be done to stimulate interest in travel to the parks. Again, the railroads were able to take advantage of America's fascination with the West to increase tourism on a mass scale. In 1890, the Census reported that there was no longer a distinguishable frontier line in the United States, and settlement spread from coast to coast. This pronouncement had an uncertain but uneasy effect on Americans. After more than 250 years of an ever-present wilderness which existed beyond a settled point of civilization, Americans faced at last the realization of the nation's "manifest destiny" to spread from Atlantic to Pacific. Although the importance of this event would not be analyzed until Frederick Jackson Turner presented his speech `The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, many Americans understood that the country had reached a landmark in its development. Coupled with the rise of the urban East and the manufactured detritus of industrialization which polluted the cityscapes and encroached upon the surrounding countrysides, it seemed as though the announcement of the Census suggested the loss of a significant portion of America's cultural identity. The same Census report also indicated a depleting amount of timber and arable lands in the public domain, adding the insult of declining material resources to the injury of a vanishing cultural resource. The thought that the American wilderness--and the American identity by implication--were in jeopardy spurred a cultural revolution of sorts which embraced the preservation of nature in order to protect American history and prosperity. In 1890, President Harrison signed the Forest Reserve act to protect remaining timber in the West, and Yosemite and the adjacent Sequoia groves won federal protection, making it the nation's second National Park-thanks to a little help from Southern Pacific.

The proclamations of the 1890 census impacted popular attitudes toward America's wilderness now that many felt it was vanishing, but American society had also changed dramatically since the 1870's. Rampant industrialization rapidly overtook towns and cities alike throughout the eastern part of the country. The infamous Tammany Hall government of New York was representative of urban management in its neglect of city maintenance and sanitation. Photographer Jacob Riis documented the decay of New York's streets in publications like Harper's Weekly and exhibited his photos around the country to dismayed audiences from Philadelphia to Chicago--all of whom recognized a degree of Tammany neglect in their own cities. Images of the West, however, still maintained the promising luster of virgin land. Photographs of the Western landscape circulated in the east and provided the ideal alternative to the photos presented by Riis. The East strained under the weight of industry and population, but the West was still fresh, open, and new--or so the photographic dialogue between Western photographers and Riis suggested.


"Five Cents a Spot," Jacob Riis, c.1890


"Glacier Point Rock, 3201 ft. Yosemite Valley" Isaiah West Taber, 1886.

In addition to the census findings and the increasingly industrial East, the popular arts were inventing their own versions of the West which were sold to a mass audience eager to buy them. Dime novels that told adventurous tales of fiercely independent cowboy heroes, lawless bands of shooters and thieves, or romances between cowhands and rancher's daughters created their own mythical visions of a wide-open West that sounded more appealing than the decaying urban neighborhoods where many readers of these books lived and worked. During the 1880's and 1890's, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show toured the country and brought similar visions of the West to the East and expressed them in the three dimensions of the theater. The products of popular culture brought images and ideas of the West to the minds of the masses just as the paintings of Moran and Bierstadt and stories in Harper's conveyed a vision of the West to the elite audiences during the 1860's and 1870's. As increasingly romanticized notions of the West emerged in the national consciousness through these other avenues, the railroads found a new way to appeal to a mass market by selling a romanticized version of travel on the old frontier.

The railroads certainly did their part to contribute to the popular notions of the romantic west. Northern Pacific distributed this calendar, which featured Thomas Moran's 1892 version of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a much more evocative and painterly display of color and light than his more linear and much more realistic 1872 rendition.

Southern Pacific began to capitalize on the protection of the Mariposa grove of sequoias. The age and size of the trees was proof of antiquity on the American continent, but images like this expressed the view that the East was for technology and advancement while the West was a museum of our heritage



In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition provided a mass market audience to target for visitation to the parks. Both Yosemite and Yellowstone were represented at the Fair, but because Northern Pacific had easy rail access from Chicago to Yellowstone, the line took advantage of the number of travelers already attending the fair and encouraged continued travel west to Montana and Washington. Once tourists visited the spectacle of technology and industry, they could ride the rails to the source of American innovation and ingenuity and commune with the wilderness in the comfort and style made possible by the railroad industry. In order to symbolize this "best of both worlds" invention, the Northern Pacific adopted the Chinese yin-yang, symbol of the balanced universe, as its logo. This choice not only suggested harmony between nature and industry and wilderness and civilization, but it also reminded the public that Northern Pacific had expedited the manifest destiny of America by building the transcontinental link to the Orient, the fabled "Passage to India."

Southern Pacific engaged in similar promotion during this time, emphasizing its access to perennially popular San Francisco and newly fashionable Los Angeles. Playing even further to its niche-market of sophisticated travelers, Southern Pacific sponsored the publication of Sunset, "the Magazine of Western Living," which was a lifestyle magazine with decorating tips, garden advice, fashion updates, and popular fiction set in the West which became one of the most ingenious marketing strategies employed by the railroad. The magazine was distributed on both coasts, but Southern Pacific played down its role in the publishing process enough to leave many readers unaware that they were subscribing to a railroad publication despite the full-color ads for Southern Pacific's passenger routes sprinkled liberally throughout each issue. After reading about the splendors of California, readers intrigued enough to visit the state knew precisely how to get there.

Sunset offered proof that the west was civilized and that America had achieved its destiny by bringing style and culture to the Pacific coast. California glittered with the luster of a promised land in the pages of the magazine. It had the elite culture, palatial hotels, and Epicurean delights of San Francisco; the sublime scenery of the Yosemite; ports with access to the Orient; and even a land of deserts and orange groves, proof enough for some that California was indeed the New Jerusalem. Sunset enjoyed such widespread popularity that it is still published today, although the Southern Pacific relinquished its rights to an independent publisher after the company abandoned passenger service.




Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite

Northern and Southern Pacific each adopted prominent spokesmen during the 1890's in order to keep their companies and their parks in the limelight. Southern Pacific co-opted John Muir as a chief publicist because of his passionate involvement with Yosemite, but Muir was a reluctant accomplice. Muir's popularity with preservationists and his well-known favor of an officially legislated system of protected wilderness provided Southern Pacific with free publicity and an opportunity to align itself with his beliefs to show the public how important their association with Yosemite was in maintaining the valley's protection. Northern Pacific associated itself to ardent sportsman Teddy Roosevelt in order to capitalize on his outspoken pleas for more areas of federally protected wildlife and wilderness. Neither Muir nor Roosevelt had any interest in building an association with either railroad, but the railroads readily took advantage of the popularity of these two men by echoing their opinions in new advertising strategies designed to advance their own interests in targeting new tourist markets.

Muir, Yosemite's most celebrated resident and the park system's most ardent defender, was writing and speaking often about the merits of preservation based on on ecological values alone. He had criticized the "blank, fleshly apathy" of the class of tourist that visited Yosemite in its early years and loathed the passive and consumptive role played by wealthy visitors who came to nature for nothing more than contemplation, conversation, and convalescence--a role encouraged by Southern Pacific's advertisements (Pomeroy 52). Muir was instrumental in winning National Park status for Yosemite in 1890, but he conceded that "even the soulless Southern Pacific Railroad, never counted on for anything good, helped nobly in pushing the bill for the park through Congress" (Runte TD 33). Muir's deep ecological beliefs were far ahead of his time, but slow increases in visitation and burgeoning interest in the West made the railroads as determined as ever to protect these parks and seek new ones for protection. Although Muir was opposed to the kind of tourism encouraged by the railroads, he understood that ecological defenses for preservation would not win popular or congressional support. An unlikely but effective alliance developed between Muir and Southern Pacific. The railroads had the means to bring influential people to the parks, and through high visitation and higher profits the railroads could demonstrate the economic value of scenery. As the benefits from railroad profits created more jobs and more resort areas, the preservation movement would gain a strong defense for its cause.

The problems in the East and the promise of the West helped contribute to the rise of the "Wilderness Cult," a trend which appealed to many who favored the outdoors and looked to the "simpler, more ordered world of Mother Nature, where life adhered to nobler principles" (Demars 46). Muir's famous Sierra Club formed from a group of concerned Californians who worked tirelessly during the park bill debates. Once Yosemite was protected, the group became actively involved in interpretive visits to the park which involved wildlife study, back-country hikes, and camping excursions. Wilderness groups emerged East and West, motivated by a common belief that wild nature was the source of abstract notions such as beauty and spiritual truth--qualities threatened by both the utilitarian approach to nature as an economic resource and the Romantic tourist approach to nature as an entity to conquer and imprint with the comforts of civilization. Shifts in tourist approaches were slow to come, but throughout the 1890's, outdoor enthusiasts entered Yosemite and Yellowstone as often as the high society tourist, and outdoor camps were constructed opposite the plush hotels sponsored by the railroads. Tourism was changing, and the railroads recognized the need to expand their market to include this new breed of park visitor.

In 1896, Southern Pacific became the first railroad to accommodate the new tourist by reducing fares enough to appeal to a middle-class clientele and even checking camping equipment free of charge. Now, visitors from the East could haul tents, cookstoves, and lanterns to Yosemite. New camps were constructed with rough but pleasant accomodations, and all visitors were encouraged to participate actively in wilderness adventures. Hiking, bird- watching, boating, and overnight back-country excursions provided visitors with an opportunity to experience the parks on a more ecological basis--at a price considerably lower than the Pullman-to-hotel journey purchased by the wealthy. Despite the different emphasis of the nature tourist, Muir's Sierra Club blended harmoniously with Yosemite's reputation of a "civilized wilderness," and Southern Pacific was able to continue marketing the park as a moving and nearly divine landscape even though experiences of Sierra Club participants and Hutchings hotel guests were markedly different.

Northern Pacific took advantage of Theodore Roosevelt's popularity as a wilderness advocate and turned him into the unofficial spokesman of Yellowstone. Roosevelt, contrary to Muir, was the rough-and-ready sportsman, an easterner who remade himself into a pioneer after buying a ranch in the Dakota territory. Where Muir espoused deep ecology and respect for leaving nature to its own devices, Roosevelt was an avid hunter and explorer who shared only a love for wilderness and a respect for preservation with Muir.

Roosevelt's "Boone and Crockett Club" appealed to others who shared interests in big game hunting and forestry preservation. Although the club's manifesto included objectives such as "promoting manly sport with a rifle" and "promoting travel and exploration in the wild and unknown or partially unknown parts of the country," Roosevelt also intended the club to work for preservation of big game animals in order to control the populations and impose stiff penalties for poachers who defied the protection boundaries of Yellowstone when hunting (Harper's Weekly 37:1881). Roosevelt was as interested in preservation as Muir, but his approach emphasized the wild in the west, in keeping with the differences established between Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Northern Pacific sided with the future president and worked with the preservationists in the Northwest just as Southern Pacific did in the Southwest. In traditional Northern Pacific fashion, railroad officials created publicity for wildlife protection in America, beginning with a proposed expansion in Yellowstone that would ensure a preserve for migratory wildlife during the winter. When land speculators in Cooke City, Montana lobbied for permission to mine ore on the border of the park, Northern Pacific and Roosevelt opposed vehemently and gained editorial support from the popular press. An 1893 issue of Harper's featured an editorial on the issue that praised Northern Pacific's stance, saying that "if the people of the United States took in this national park the same kind of interest that people in New York and Philadelphia take in Central and Fairmount Parks, there would be fewer efforts made to encroach upon it," which appealed to the sensibilities of Easterners by couching the argument in terms of the city parks they enjoyed (Harper's Weekly 37:1892 2). Northern Pacific president Terry Oakes declared in the same article, "let the vandals once get a foothold in it... and there will be nothing worth preserving" (3). Sixty years later, well after the railroad passed its heyday, Jackson Hole and Grand Teton were annexed to Yellowstone and Northern Pacific received full credit for the idea initially proposed by passenger agent Olin D. Wheeler in a 1902 issue of Wonderland magazine, the Sunset of the Northern Pacific (Runte TD 24).


Northern Pacific was quick to capitalize on Yellowstone's reputation as America's largest game preserve

Roosevelt was instrumental in bringing the value of preservation to the attention of the public, and his practical perspective on wilderness won the approval of many influential citizens. Roosevelt saw the wilderness as something the nation could and should use for economic development, but his emphasis was on wise and controlled use. To him, the failure to use available resources was as wasteful as exploiting them without regard for future need and availability. His association with Northern Pacific railroad, although unintentional and unofficial, worked to the favor of the railroad. Now the Northern Pacific was able to market their expanded passenger service to include wilderness tourists, and Yellowstone succeeded in becoming a sportsman's paradise and a camper's dream.

Lower fares and increased interest in wilderness brought new visitors to the parks each year. Preservation was popular, and new railroads followed the precedents of Yosemite and Yellowstone to discover and invent playgrounds along their lines. The Santa Fe Railroad adopted the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Utah valleys, and ancient Native American ruins; the Great Northern worked with Glacier National Park almost as aggressively as Northern Pacific promoted Yellowstone; and the Burlington Northern promoted the Dakotas and Wyoming. If the land the rails sought for protection was worthless for valuable resources but featured majestic and monumental scenery, protection was justified because the railroads demonstrated that scenic preservation in Yosemite and Yellowstone was indeed profitable for the nation. Although personal profiteering was forbidden in any National Park, protection was not "inalienable." Future development in National Parks was limited to profit which was in the "national interest," meaning that if natural resources in the park could provide more benefits to the economy than the railroad-related profits could, protection would be repealed. Runte notes that this distinction between valid and illegitimate development marked the double standard of the National Parks: "the sin of exploitation was not the pursuit of personal gain, but personal gain that could not be defended as being in the national interest" (Runte NP 53, emphasis mine). Tourism, of course, could be defended as being in the national interest because the railroads were providing the means for all Americans to commune with a preserved monument to their cultural history, thus uniting profit with patriotism.


Boom Times in America's Playgrounds, 1900-1916