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What Happened in Yellowstone Country a Century Ago?

July 6th, 2015 by Park County Travel Council | Be the first to comment!

The Fourth of July holiday parade is one of the biggest events in Cody, Wyoming every year, and one of the things that is especially exciting is finding out who was selected to be the parade grand marshal. The honor of grand marshal has been bestowed on many recognizable individuals – John Wayne, Bobby Allison, Steven Seagal and Chuck Yeager, to name a few. Chances are, though, you haven’t heard of this year’s grand marshal, but his selection has had me brushing up on my Cody history. I thought you might like hearing about what I learned.

2015 Cody Stampede Parade Grand Marshal Chief Joseph Medicine Crow High-Bird

2015 Cody Stampede Parade Grand Marshal Chief Joseph Medicine Crow High-Bird.

Our 2015 Grand Marshal was Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow. He is 101 years old and is the only living person to receive the oral history from the Custer Battlefield. His grandfather was a scout for General Custer. What was it like to live in Yellowstone Country when Dr. Medicine Crow was a youngster? I found some clues in “The Cody Club 1900-1999,” a book about the history of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.

To put it literally, it’s been a rough road.

1914 – The year Dr. Medicine Crow was born, the Cody Club began petitioning for allowing automobiles into Yellowstone National Park. Up until that point, the stagecoaches provided the only visitor transportation in the park.

1915 – The year Dr. Medicine Crow was one, Yellowstone National Park finally permitted private automobiles in the park. Even after they became legal, however, they were not-so-subtly discouraged. Admission in 1915 for a single-passenger car was $5. (Today that would be equal to about $120.) Additionally, all cars had to stop at checkpoints with attendants who knew exactly how long it would take to get from point to point driving the speed limit. If drivers arrived too quickly they would be given a steep fine. Travelers who drove their own vehicles also faced significant challenges driving on the park’s single-lane dirt tracks. All cars entering the park from Cody were expected to stop in Cody to have their carburetors adjusted for the high altitude. That first year, 3,056 private vehicles entered the park.

Yellow Buses were some of the first to provide transportation in Yellowstone Park.

Yellow Buses were some of the first to provide transportation in Yellowstone Park.

At this point, lobbying efforts for better roads inside and outside the park began to gain traction, “Road Associations” were formed to promote better infrastructure. Each road association focused on a specific transportation route. There was the Billings-Cody Way, Yellowstone Highway (from Cheyenne, Wyo. to Cody) and Black and Yellow Trail (Chicago to the Black Hills to Cody). For many years, a big portion of Cody Club’s budget was devoted to helping these highway associations.

Clearing snow for the spring opening of Yellowstone is still a challenge

Clearing snow for the spring opening of Yellowstone is still a challenge.

1917 – When Dr. Medicine Crow was three, the park’s official opening day was scheduled for June 20. But that year there had been a huge amount of snow in the winter and unusually heavy spring rains. Even though the National Park Service had planted dynamite along steep and narrow Sylvan Pass in the fall in anticipation of blowing it up to loosen the snow pack, Sylvan Pass wasn’t cleared of snow until July 7 that year. But there was an annual tradition that makes me particularly proud to be from Yellowstone Country. Before the spring park opening, the men of Cody traveled up the North Fork and shoveled snow by hand until they met the National Park Service workers shoveling toward them from the park direction.

I’ll be picking up my copy of Cody Club again so I can share some other interesting bits and pieces about our history. This week, though, I think I’ll head up the North Fork, find a little picnic spot and imagine just what it must have been like for the dozens of workers determined to clear the roads to the world’s first national park.

Until next time, I’m lovin’ life and appreciating history in Yellowstone Country.



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