National Park Icons: Yellowstone’s Roosevelt Arch
Two arches in the National Park System’s built environment have attained iconic status. One is the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and the other is the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Some think that the Gateway is just eye candy, but everyone knows that the Roosevelt is history with a capital H.
As the 19th century drew to a close, Yellowstone National Park already had a basic tourism infrastructure. Stagecoach tours were inaugurated in 1881. A road and bridge building campaign had been launched by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1883, and the park’s Grand Loop road system was already in place by the early 1890s.
Yellowstone had some very nice accommodations by 1903, too. The Mammoth Hotel, first of Yellowstone’s grand hotels, opened in 1883. The (“Old”) Canyon Hotel opened in 1890, and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel opened the very next year. The Old Faithful Inn, though yet to be completed, would open to the public in 1904.
Despite these amenities, Yellowstone remained an isolated place that attracted few visitors. This was the park’s pre-automotive era, and the absence of railroad connections made it just too darn hard to get there.
Everything changed in 1903 when the Northern Pacific Railway (NPR) finally reached Gardiner, Montana, at Yellowstone’s north entrance. The park was suddenly connected to the country’s big, rapidly expanding railway network. Yellowstone was now quite reachable, at least for the wealthier class that actually took vacations (not a commonplace thing in the early 20th century) and could afford to travel to distant places like Yellowstone.
The NPR and other regional railroads were strong boosters of national park tourism. More tourists meant more passengers for the railroads and more business for the hotels and related tourist facilities the railroad companies built in and near the parks.
After the railroad arrived, NPR’s Reamer depot in Gardiner functioned as the place where railroad passengers transferred to the stagecoaches plying Yellowstone’s Grand Loop road system. That meant that the immediate vicinity of the depot is where the vast majority of Yellowstone’s tourists acquired their first impressions of the park’s purpose-built tourism infrastructure.
That could have been a serious drawback, because the depot’s staging area was initially just a noisy, dusty, unattractive place. It definitely needed some improvement.
The idea of building a prominent landmark at the main portal originated with Hiram M. Chittenden, the Corps of Engineers officer then in charge of the Yellowstone roads. Captain Chittenden knew that constructing a formal gateway would greatly improve the park's primary entrance, not just by making a bold statement about the park and all that the park represented, but also by adding some visual excitement to the depot staging area. They didn’t use the term “eye candy” back then, but Hiram Chittenden certainly understood the concept and its value.
The Gardiner citizenry heartily endorsed the landmark idea. It was only logical that the community would want a park-defining landmark visible from the depot, and not just because it might be pleasing to the eye. Passengers stepping off the train would see this landmark and recognize it for what it was – the symbolic and actual entrance to the magical place that was Yellowstone National Park. And they would see it from Gardiner.
Whittlesey and Schullery wrote an authoritative history of the Roosevelt Arch. In this excellent work, which was published in the Arch’s centennial year (2003), they pointed out that:
Construction of the arch in 1903 solidified Yellowstone’s somewhat abstract northern entry point into a place more defined and tangible, especially when the arch combined with the new train presence and its symbol, the Reamer depot. Completion of these structures seemed to usher the park formally into the 20th century, literally and symbolically—literally because it was 1903 and symbolically because the arch represented a step into modernity: trains now came right to the park boundary.
Although the historical record provides scant proof, renowned architect Robert Reamer, designer of the Old Faithful Inn (and the ill-fated original Canyon Hotel), is said to have designed the arch in addition to helping with the construction planning. I’ll leave it to historians to sort out the truth of it.
The stone archway constructed at Yellowstone’s north entrance in 1903 was, and to this day remains, quite impressive. Although even a small arch could have effectively conveyed the notion of a gateway or portal, this particular landmark arch was designed for dramatic effect and is conspicuously large. Constructed of locally quarried columnar basalt stone, and completed on August 15, 1903 (at a cost of around $10,000), the Roosevelt Arch soars 50 feet high, or about the height of a five story building. Its flanking towers, each 12 feet wide at the base, frame a main opening that is 30 feet high by 25 feet wide. Twelve-foot high walls on each side of the arch originally curved around a landscaped area that included a pond and a nicely landscaped garden.
The arch faced north toward the Reamer depot so debarking passengers could see it clearly. Inscribed at the top of the arch are the words: "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” The identifier “Yellowstone National Park” is carved into the east tower, while the west tower bears the words “Created by Act of Congress, March 1, 1872.”
Most historical accounts of the Roosevelt Arch dwell on the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt, who was vacationing in the Yellowstone country when the structure that was to bear his name was being built, helped to lay the arch’s cornerstone on April 23, 1903. He gave a speech, of course. His words to the 2,000 or so people who attended the ceremony still echo through the years:
"The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world...This Park was created and is now administered for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of us all."
Being a product of America’s passenger railroad era, the Roosevelt Arch’s heyday lasted only a couple of decades. Tourists began arriving in Model T’s by 1915. As automobiles gradually became the preferred mode of travel, and as other entrances to the park were opened (there are now five), more and more visitors arrived at the park via roads that led to the east, south, and west entrances. Yellowstone’s rail passenger era was effectively over by the 1940s, and rail passenger service to Gardiner was terminated in 1948.
Sixty years have gone by since then, but the Roosevelt Arch is still a popular tourist attraction. Motorists who enter the park from the north drive through it, and many stop to take photos. It’s really a shame that so few know its story.
Postscript: The time capsule beneath the Roosevelt Arch’s cornerstone contains, among other things, a bible, newspapers, and a picture of Theodore Roosevelt.