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Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Craig Mellis/Florentine Films.

Yellowstone National Park

Tourist peers into Grotto Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1872 Add to Scrapbook

Tourist peers into Grotto Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1872

The first reports of Yellowstone, in the early 1800s, described a place in the northwest corner of the Wyoming Territory where mud boiled, water spouted, and steam came out of the ground.

The area in question was at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, the longtime home of a band of Shoshone Indians. In 1807, John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, met with ridicule when he first described the fantastical place. People then jokingly referred to it as "Colter's Hell."

Legendary mountain man Jim Bridger also told tales of a place where there was a canyon so deep that a man could shout into it at night and be awakened by his echo the next morning. In 1869, a group of prospectors wrote an account of their journey into the area, but editors in the East refused to publish what they deemed to be a work of fiction.

Nathaniel Pitt Langford Add to Scrapbook

Nathaniel Pitt Langford

Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1871 Add to Scrapbook

Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1871

Thomas Moran's <i>Hot Springs of Gardiner's River,</i> 1872 Add to Scrapbook

Thomas Moran's Hot Springs of Gardiner's River, 1872

In the late summer of 1870, an expedition led by Nathaniel Pitt Langford set out to investigate the claims. Langford believed that the future prosperity of the Wyoming Territory rested with completion of a second transcontinental railway, the Northern Pacific. He also knew that any publicity about the region's attractions would be good for the territory, the railroad, and – since he was on the railroad's payroll – for himself.

Two weeks into the journey, as the expedition party passed through a landscape of boiling sulphur springs, it became clear that the rumors were true. Upon his return, Langford wrote glowing magazine articles about the expedition's discoveries and toured the East Coast, delivering lectures about the wonders of Yellowstone. Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, decided it was time for professional explorers to take a look.

In 1871, Hayden led an expedition to Yellowstone to determine the real value of the land. The expedition party consisted of a botanist, zoologist, mineralogist, meteorologist and a team of topographers who were there to collect scientific data about the landscape. Also accompanying them was a young artist named Thomas Moran and a photographer. For the first time, Americans were able to see what mere words had previously described.

At the urging of A. B. Nettleton, a shrewd lobbyist working for the Northern Pacific, Hayden suggested that Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever. Hayden assured Congress that the Yellowstone region was unsuitable for farming, ranching, or mining and warned of the dire consequences if they did not protect the area from private development.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone Park, the first national park in the history of the world. Despite the fact that the new national park comprised more than 2 million acres of remote, mountainous terrain, Congress did not see fit to put any money aside for its management or protection.

Nathaniel Langford eagerly accepted the position of superintendent, even though the job paid no salary. He assumed that once the railroad reached Yellowstone, bringing with it thousands of tourists, the franchise fees from prospective concessionaires would cover the costs of administering the park.

Stage coach near Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, 1905 Add to Scrapbook

Stage coach near Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, 1905

But with the economic crisis of 1873, the Northern Pacific's track-building stalled more than 500 miles from the park. Those who were prepared to make the arduous journey by stagecoach had to endure days of bumpy travel along dusty roads. As a result, Yellowstone received only 300 visitors in its first year. For the next four years, the park received no more than 500 visitors a year.

Without funds, the park was left unprotected. Visitors hacked off pieces of geyser formations to take home as souvenirs, while hunters slaughtered the park's elk. Superintendent Langford was conspicuous by his absence, visiting Yellowstone only twice in five years. He seemed to be deliberately delaying development of the park until the railroad arrived and the choicest concessions could be awarded to his former employer.

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THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

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