In a gateway community near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, 30 vehicles, some ancient, sit empty and unused. Ranging from horse-drawn carriages to fire hose carts, the National Park Service Historic Vehicle Collection in Gardiner, Mont. reflects the 138-year-old park’s remarkable human history and showcases the many modes of transportation that have been used over the years to introduce visitors to the world’s first national park.
The vehicles were owned and operated by either the concessioner or the National Park Service. Although the vehicles are not presently available for public viewing, they have been preserved thanks to the dedication of many volunteers and funds provided by Yellowstone Association and Yellowstone Park Foundation. It is the hope of the National Park Service, which oversees the collection, that one day funding will be available to find a more suitable storage and exhibit facility.
Until that day, a look at the collection as well as those vehicles still in use today provides a fun and fascinating review of the park’s colorful past.
“When you look closely at the many vehicles that have made their way down our roads, you will find that they show not only the technology of the day but also reflect the values and priorities of each generation,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts in Yellowstone. “Vehicles range from the funky-looking yellow Bombardier snowcoaches still in use today to the drop-belly wagons that were used in early road construction. And without exception, the vehicles offer solid examples of American ingenuity as park managers throughout the generations developed ways to transport guests around our rugged park.”
Here are examples of some of the park’s historic vehicles. Not all of these vehicles are represented in the National Park Service Historic Vehicle Collection.
Snowplanes. A precursor to the later snowmobiles, snowplanes were first developed in the late 1920s and constructed of a light steel frame with ski runners and pusher propellers. Snowplanes were used to transport small numbers of winter visitors from the gateway community of West Yellowstone into the park. Developed by West Yellowstone resident Walt Stewart, the snowplanes intrigued two friends who paid him to develop the machines for park excursions. In response to the National Park Service’s interest in the safety of the machines, the three agreed that one machine would never come into the park alone. Stewart reportedly said the planes could accommodate a passenger and a small child if the passenger wasn’t too large. One report indicated 35 visitors entered the park in Stewart’s snowplanes during the month of January 1949. Snowplanes were also used by park rangers for official duties. By the 1950s, visitors began transitioning to warmer, more comfortable snowcoaches, although the National Park Service continued to use them for another decade.
Bombardier snowcoaches. The brainchild of a young mechanical genius named Joseph-Armand Bombardier, these vehicles look like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a yellow school bus – except for the skis on the front and tank-like tracks where the back wheels should be. Bombardier snowcoaches first began transporting the park’s few, hardy winter-season visitors in 1955. Today, Xanterra operates 16 Bombardiers carrying up to 10 passengers each.
Ski-Doos. Bombardier was also one of those responsible for the development of the modern snowmobile. In 1959 he developed an open-cab snow machine for one rider he called a Ski-dog. A typo on a company memo produced the name Ski-Doo instead. Snowmobiles including Ski-Doos, Arctic Cats, Polaris and other brands were first permitted into Yellowstone in the mid-1960s. The original snowmobiles have long since been replaced by the cleaner, quieter four-stroke engine snowmobiles that are used on a limited basis in the park today.
Stagecoaches. Stagecoaches provide a fine example of the important early association between the concessioner, called the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company (YPTC), and the Northern Pacific Railroad. The companies developed a stagecoach line in 1884 that first commenced from the Northern Pacific terminal in Cinnabar, Mont., three miles northwest of Gardiner, Mont., and then from Gardiner beginning in 1903. Arriving by train, travelers would embark on a multi-day “Grand Loop” tour of the park aboard these bright yellow coaches. The largest of these vehicles, six-horse “Tally-Ho” stagecoaches, transported train passengers to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel just inside the northern entrance. Smaller four-horse “Observation Wagons” were used for the Grand Loop tour. Stagecoaches provided tours through the summer season of 1916 and were replaced by buses in 1917. Replicas of the Tally-Ho coaches are used for summer tours today.
Surreys. These buggy-like vehicles transported small private groups of travelers during the stagecoach era.
Drop Belly Wagons. These utility wagons had a mechanism under the driver’s seat for raising and lowering the hinged bottom of the rear box, much like a dump truck. The vehicles were used for road construction and custodial duties.
Private automobiles. While other national parks began allowing privately operated automobiles into the park as early 1908, Yellowstone did not permit them until 1915. The reason for the delay, at least in part, was because YPTC head Harry Child had deep financial ties to the Yellowstone stagecoach business as well as many friends in high places. The resistance was also supported, for obvious reasons, by the railroad. Even after private cars became legal, they were not-so-subtly discouraged.
Admission in 1915 for a single-passenger car was $5. Today, that $5 would be equal to $93. Additionally, all cars had to stop at checkpoints with attendants who knew exactly how long it would take to get from point to point while driving the speed limit. If drivers arrived too quickly they would be given steep fines. Travelers who drove their own vehicles also faced significant challenges driving on the park’s single-lane dirt tracks.
Concessioner automobiles. In 1917, YPTC began providing tours to affluent visitors in yellow touring vehicles of various sizes. These touring cars and buses were built by White Motor Company and operated by drivers called “gearjammers.” The seven-passenger versions replaced the surreys and featured four doors, a front seat, rear seats, two rear jump seats, a canvas convertible top and storage compartment. The 11-passenger Model 15-45 had five doors, four bench seats, a canvas convertible stop, luggage boot and three-speed non-snycromesh “crashbox” transmission. By the mid-1920s there were more than 300 11-passenger vehicles along with a smaller fleet of seven-passenger vehicles. The concessioner would brag that it had a “bus for every day of the year.”
Historic Yellow Buses. These distinctive yellow White Motor Company Model 706 touring vehicles were used by summer-season travelers from the 1930s to the 1950s. When private vehicle usage increased to the point where they were not needed, the vehicles were sold and disbursed across the country. In 2007, Xanterra purchased eight of the original vehicles and refurbished them to bring them to acceptable safety and mechanical standards. With seating for 13 people, the vehicles are now used to for a variety of tours during the summer season.
Xanterra operates lodges, restaurants, tours and activities in Yellowstone. To make reservations and for more information visit www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com or call toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375) or (1) 307-344-7311.