Although the rails no longer carry passengers, their advertising legacy lives on in the brochures distributed by the National Park Service. Yosemite is still considered a Romantic tourist's resort, where the wealthy stay at the tony Ahwahnee Hotel and play golf behind a chain link fence at the base of the Sierras. Vestiges of Muir remain strong too, and Yosemite is also the deep ecologist's national park where spired peaks and mighty waterfalls fill visitors with awe and respect for nature. Images of Yellowstone still feature the canyon of the Lower Falls from Moran's perspective, and the park still exudes an appeal for the wild west tourist who seeks an outdoor experience on the order of the Boone and Crockett Club.

Northern and Southern Pacific left more than magnificent public spaces and enduring publicity strategies to the American public. The national parks provided both the railroads and the American public with the most complete expression of America. Yosemite and Yellowstone were both monuments to American nationalism which battled for primacy over the exploitation of free enterprise but were finally protected because of the profit potential realized by the railroad industry and tourist trade. Despite concerns about commercialization, Americans were ready and willing to purchase an idea of cultural heritage in the dramatic landscapes of the West. The railroads did not create public curiosity about American scenery, but they did create a particular story about the landscape by selling scenery as a cultural asset. For millions of Americans uneasy about their country's heritage, the railroads helped to locate and then continually reaffirm a strong sense of national pride in the Western landscape. For many other Americans who denied the wilderness any value beyond strict utilitarianism, the railroads opened a new motive for profit and demonstrated through their "enlightened selfishness" that the majestic, stunning, and often exotic lands of the old frontier were indeed one of the country's most significant historical treasures.

Most importantly, the railroads shaped an idea of the American West as a region in which America could redeem itself culturally and economically. Until the 1920's, protected land lay exclusively in the West, and the enduring images of mountain vistas, roaring rivers and falls, and dramatic canyonlands competed with images of death, disease, and decay in the East. These images suggested that resources were ample, land was plentiful, and possibility was infinite in the landscapes of the West. The railroads encouraged the belief that they followed the wagon train through the "virgin land" and brought civility, fertility, and prosperity to the frontier while preserving what Runte calls "the imposing backdrops" in which Americans "played out their final act of territorial development" (Runte TD, 11). The protection of the Western landscape ensured that America would always have an opportunity to renew itself through recreation in these culturally important parks and the railroads believed that they would always be the singular agent of deliverance in this cultural reenactment.

The images and the ideas generated by the railroads persist, even though America's "Romance of the Rails" has turned to a love affair with the automobile. Northern Pacific's Yellowstone and Southern Pacific's Yosemite have become the two most visited parks in the nation, averaging over 2 million visitors per year. As contemporary park management debates over the ecological strain of the automobile and the crush of summer tourists escalate, the National Park Service is reconsidering the railroad. Rail service has been reinstated at the Grand Canyon, Mt. McKinley, and in Colorado's Front Range. Yosemite officials have recently suggested the restoration of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and Amtrak's Empire Builder may find renewed popularity because of its direct access to Glacier National Park in Montana. Accolades for the revival are as plentiful as passengers who come to relive the experience of train travel as a part of the journey instead of just a means to the destination. As we turn the next century, Americans may rediscover their country by rail, heeding the romantic and evocative call of "All Aboard!"


Notes and Further Reading