As late as 1850, much of the territory west of the Mississippi was only roughly sketched geologically and geographically. Exploratory expeditions modeled after that of Lewis and Clark became the primary taxonomical tools for the largely unexplored and unsettled Rocky Mountain West. Until the Civil War interrupted these surveys, most expeditions were sponsored by the military in order to settle territorial disputes or provide cartographic information for proposed wagon routes. By 1867, renewed interest in exploration for settlement and economic development emerged. Between 1867 and 1870, the United States sponsored what were known as the Great Surveys, four extensive campaigns of comprehensive research on the western landscape sponsored by the government but subsidized by private enterprise as well.

Rail companies were among the largest private contributors. Railroads had a primary interest in detailed geographical information and speculated on survey results which would facilitate their marketing enterprises in the West, and they counted on profits from their investments, both in offering real estate from their land grants and then in hauling the raw materials of farming and mining from the settled territories. Northern Pacific Railroad acquired 47 million acres between Lake Superior and the Puget Sound along a proposed line that spanned 1,975 miles, the largest land grant ever given to a railroad.(Poor 471) Based on current rail costs in the 1860's, the estimated construction cost per mile ranged from $17,000 in the level eastern portions in Minnesota and the Dakotas; $30,000 in the high plains of Montana; and nearly $50,000 in the Northern Rockies of Idaho and the Cascades in Washington. The Central Pacific railroad, contracted to build from San Francisco east to meet the Union Pacific, estimated a cost of over 97 million dollars, only a quarter of which was to be paid in government subsidy (Poor 425).

The railroads were justifiably optimistic about their future prospects for selling real estate that could be developed to provide valuable raw materials to haul. Tales of California's fertile land and agreeable climate compared it to the Mediterranean, and rumors of the moist climate and exotic land in the Pacific Northwest painted tropical pictures in the minds of Easterners who nicknamed it "Jay Cooke's Banana Belt," referring to the chief financier-cum-chief publicist of the Northern Pacific Railroad.(Harnsberger 46) The railroads marketed each region along their lines to sell the land for settlement, often exaggerating or distorting the truth about the territory in order to make it more appealing to immigrants and disgruntled Eastern urbanites. "The Old Northwest" of Minnesota and the Dakotas was touted as the most fertile land in the New World, and California became "Cornucopia of the World" in advertisements from Southern and Union Pacific. These schemes worked, and scores of settlers, almost all of them unaware of the harsh realities of life in these territories, rode the rails west to claim their land.

"Room for millions of immigrants," prolcaimed Southern Pacific in this ad, which was distributed throughout Europe. Thousands of eager settlers rushed to California to begin new lives in the "land of health and wealth." Southern Pacific did not prepare these immigrants for the hardships they would endure, both in cross-country train passage in substandard cars and in the California wilderness, where a lack of established communities made acclimation difficult at best.


Northern Pacific had its own schemes, such as this 1872 ad from Harper's which touted the fertile soil and agreeable "health-giving" climate of Western Minnesota and the Dakotas. Jay Cooke and Company targeted these campaigns at Scandinavia and Northern Europe, assuming that the constitutions of these nationalities would be well-suited to life on the Northern Plains. Despite the abundance of Scandinavian settlers, famine, poverty, and death plagued the region early in its settlement.


Selling real estate and speculating on stable economic success from future markets for freight and resources did not address the immediate necessities of building the railroad. The high price of transcontinental railroad construction required immediate capital, and rail companies could only sell real estate once the track to available land was completed. Primary railroads like Northern, Union, and Southern Pacific each offered almost 100 million dollars in available stock, an amount roughly equivalent to their costs of construction. From the 1860's to the mid-1880's, railroad companies needed to work just as hard at attracting investors as they did to attract future settlers. In order to win the financial support of potential shareholders, the railroads needed a way to entice the wealthy into riding the railroads in order to persuade them into believing that buying stock in the railroad was a solid financial investment.

A well-developed campaign to attract settlers and sell real estate was part of proving to investors that the railroads would enjoy future prosperity, but scattered along any Western rail line were regions of rugged mountains, steep slopes, and poor soil unsuitable for settlement. Initial reports dating to 1855 claimed that these areas were more majestic and awe-inspiring than any Swiss scene. As tales of regions like Yosemite and Yellowstone traveled east and fascinated the public, the railroad companies seized the opportunity to maximize the utility of their holdings and capitalize on the idea that selling scenery could be as profitable as selling arable land. Although the popular view of land at the time, as Alfred Runte succinctly states it, held that "wealth of resources, not of scenery, had become the nation's ultimate measure of achievement," the railroads saw Yosemite and Yellowstone as different kinds of economic resources that they could use for tourism. (Runte NP 53)

Because of railroad interest in sponsoring scenic parks in the West to attract investors and build a market for passenger travel, the railroads became the most active and effective supporters of the idea of creating National Parks in America. Despite the best intentions of preservationists and the gradually emerging notion that the American wilderness represented one expression of a national heritage, the National Park System of today is a product of the needs of the railroads in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The railroads did not consciously create protected spaces of Western ecology or American heritage, but instead took advantage of popular trends in perceptions of the West to maximize their profits through tourism, visitation, and investment.

Advertisements for travel to Yellowstone and Yosemite illustrate the ability of Northern and Southern Pacific Railroads to shape and respond to interest in the West in order to encourage rail travel and park visitation to meet their economic needs. From the 1860's to the 1880's, the railroads targeted an elite audience in order to win their support, and the publicity they stirred before rail construction and the advertisements they sponsored after its completion promised the elite an unparalleled experience on the exotic American frontier with plenty of luxury to make the trip palatable. In the 1890's, both the needs of the railroads and the character of the West were changing, and the railroads shifted their advertising strategy to a mass- market approach to target new tourists who could help the rails achieve greater returns on their tourism facilities in Yosemite and Yellowstone. Finally, as the West came of age economically and posed threats to the issue of park preservation, the railroads led the final impetus to legislate a central government bureau to protect the parks from development--and protect the substantial investments and profit centers the railroads had in the national parks.


Discovery and Invention in Yosemite