Rediscovering the Historic Yellowstone Trail

By 
John And Alice Ridge
Thursday, December 9, 2021
Greg Childs in front of The Yellowstone Trail exhibit at the Laurel Chamber of Commerce.

Greg Childs in front of The Yellowstone Trail exhibit at the Laurel Chamber of Commerce.

Laurel, as it was over 100 years ago, when The Yellowstone Trail was routed through the city on Old Highway 10.

Laurel, as it was over 100 years ago, when The Yellowstone Trail was routed through the city on Old Highway 10.

The cross-countryYellowstone Trail map.

The cross-countryYellowstone Trail map.

The home office of the Yellowstone Trail Association announced today that Lee Mains, race driver from Billings was expected to whizz through Laurel along Main Street in his Oldsmobile at about 10:30 pm today. Crowds of loyal supporters of the Yellowstone Trail are expected to cheer him on as he speeds on westward to Livingston, his apportioned leg of the race toward Seattle.

That report was from June 17th, 1915, on the third day of the 2,000 mile relay race on the Yellowstone Trail from Chicago to Seattle. It was a muddy and stormy trip for most of the race, but crowds everywhere along the route pressed forward, and cheered the 22 drivers on. Bonfires along the route aided the nighttime drivers in this nonstop, dare-devil adventure. And they did it in 97 hours. A record for coast-to-coast driving.

The race was a promotion sponsored by the Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA) to show America the usability of their long-distance highway, the Yellowstone Trail. That relay race proved that by 1915 “the Yellowstone Trail was a road over which an average speed of 26.2 miles per hour can be maintained day after day,” said the Association literature. Autos had just started to replace the horse and there were few roads for them on which to run their new black beauties because state and federal governments were more interested in railroads. When thousands of automobiles suddenly appeared by the trainloads early in the 20th century, crude wagon roads became seas of ankle-deep mud and despair. Nevertheless, the switch from horses to automobiles was well underway by 1912.

Twenty-five years ago the authors asked readers of newspapers in cities along the historic Yellowstone Trail to share any family stories they might have about the Trail, the first coast-to-coast automobile highway through 13 northern tier states, 1912-1930. We received a surprising number of responses; people were proud of “grandpa’s tales.” We thought that it was time to report a bit of what we learned about that Trail that went right through Laurel. This report fulfills a goal of today’s Yellowstone Trail Association of passing on the stories and creating interest about the historic Yellowstone Trail.

Men wrestled with their new auto then, crying “Whoa” instead of hitting the brake. Cars crumpled like tin foil in accidents; injuries were serious with many deaths. Road maps were rare, so frustrated autoists tried to follow railroad maps. Horses bolted at the sight of the Tin Lizzies so in some areas very early drivers had to be preceded by someone waving a red flag to warn the horse of the oncoming “devil wagon.”

Counties took on the task of dragging the wagon roads with horse-drawn flattened logs, called “drags,” to smooth out the dirt and gravel, but a good rain un-did it all. Ever hear of your downtown called a “main drag?”

So, in response to government recalcitrance, ordinary citizens formed groups called trail associations to get a good auto road through their town. (A trail, at the time, was simply a longdistance road.) They lobbied townships and counties to build connecting roads. Then they put their signs on the roads, enlisting membership to help “boost” the trail to get travelers to come through town, hopefully hemorrhaging tourist dollars.

Extraordinary “ordinary citizens,” led by Joe Parmley of Ipswich, South Dakota, created the non-profit, all-volunteer Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA) that quickly became one of the earliest, strongest, and most famous of the groups in America. The 8,000 members of this national association voted on Trail issues. Trailmen kept an eye on their local portion of the Trail, reporting changes to the YTA. Laurel’s Trailmen were G.W. Fenton, A.L. Garvey, and John Gehrett. The YTA’s 15 Bureaus distributed thousands of maps, weather forecasts, and road condition reports to travelers on the Trail. In the northern Rockies and Cascade mountains, getting counties to build a road was especially difficult. Road funds were scarce; population was sparse, terrain was rough and expensive to build on, but the scenery was wonderful. Across the country, towns fought to get on the route of the Trail. One town even stooped to bribery.

As good roads, or at least usable roads, were established across the country,the Yellowstone Trail Association changed its purpose from promoting road building to promoting auto travel along the trail. It acted as a tourism office, primarily to draw tourists from the East. And while the West was still a bit wild, they felt compelled to report to Easterners that “No, the Indians were not dangerous.”

The YTA faced national challenges of the day. Campgrounds that they had established in communities could not remain free of cost due to the growing number of long-term“squatters” causing health and policing concerns. Getting cars allowed into the Yellowstone National Park was high on their agenda, accomplishing that in 1915. The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 affected travel and membership. The Association was named one of only four cross-country highways designated as “Military Roads” to carry military supplies across the continent to be shipped to Europe during World War I. That, of course, added to local Trail maintenance problems.

Another issue to be faced was the high number of auto accidents and deaths. Since the vast number of accidents involved trains and railroad crossings, the YTA worked hard to route or reroute the Trail to avoid crossings, effectively eliminating hundreds of potential accident sites.

Numbered highway routes were unheard of. The YT was marked with yellow painted rocks, hoodoos in North Dakota, yellow arrows on telegraph poles, painted L’s and R’s on buildings (announcing left and right turns), and, eventually, with standardized metal signs with the yellow circle with a black arrow pointing to the Yellowstone National Park.

The route numbering system first established by Wisconsin in 1917 was followed by all states as well as adopted for federally funded routes in 1926-1927. Those numbers replaced the colors and marks of all trail associations. The government numbering of routes and the effects of the Great Depression doomed the Yellowstone Trail Association and it was closed in 1930.

But back to this 1915 relay race. It had all the excitement, press coverage, and daring-do of a modern tv plot. Rain came down in sheets across South Dakota, a team of horses narrowly missed oblivion, blown tires by the dozens slowed drivers, and “trailer” cars following in case of need were sometimes nowhere to be seen. But they still beat their estimated 100 hour trip by three hours! Another relay race was repeated across the whole country, through Laurel again in September, 1916, with just as much exhilaration, from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound, 3,600 miles.

Of course, today the route of the Trail in most places doesn’t look exactly like it did in 1912. And most people today know little about it. However, nationally, there is growing interest in heritage travel and the search for the Great American Road Trip. The modern YTA helps libraries, museums, and communities along the Trail look into their past. As a result, there are more than 500 Yellowstone Trail yellow highway markers up along the Trail, museums have created displays about their Trail, and communities hold Trail Day celebrations in the summer.

Laurel has an informational Yellowstone Trail sign on the lawn of the Chamber of Commerce. Go look at it.

Information, publications, and maps about the Yellowstone Trail can be found at www.yellowstonetrail.org. For more information Greg Childs of Laurel would be happy to answer questions. He can be reached at (406) 628-2345.

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