Our National Parks at 100: What a Ride!

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 10/2016
  • posted in: Great Garages

This year, our National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its Centennial, and what a ride, and rides, it has been for the millions of visitors who have enjoyed them: on horse, by stagecoach, car, carriage, bus and boat.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act on August 25, 1916. At the time, the Department of Interior was overseeing 14 national parks, 21 national monuments and Native American reservation sites at Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Casa Grande Ruins, Arizona. But, disorganization was creating many challenges.

The NPS was, therefore, established, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Included in today’s system are 412 areas: national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House. In 2015, 307,247,252 people visited them, NPS says.

Dedicated to legendary rides and enjoying life at the highest level, Highline Autos celebrates this occasion, as we visit a few of our Western parks to learn about the transportation visitors have used to get to them and enjoy their stays during these glorious first 100 years.

The Boats of Crater Lake

Approximately 500,000 visitors enjoy Crater Lake National Park annually, including driving the 33-mile Rim Drive around the spectacular lake, the deepest in the United States at 1,943 feet. The deep-blue waters, considered the world’s cleanest body of water, fill a caldera scooped out 7,700 years ago when volcanic 12,000-foot Mount Mazama collapsed. Similarly, near the southwest shore, Wizard Island is a cinder cone on a platform built after the climactic eruption.

Private watercraft have never been permitted on Crater Lake since its now 183,000 acres were placed under federal protection in 1902 as a national park. Instead, park concessionaire, Greenwood Village, Colorado-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts®, provides boat tours, a park tradition since 1907. Among the company’s other hospitality services is managing historic Crater Lake Lodge, opened in 1915 and reconstructed and reopened in 1995.

“In addition, rental row boats were provided by the concessionaire within a decade of 1907 until 1972, after which it was boat tours only,” says Stephen R. Mark, an NPS historian at the park.

“We’ve had a total of six concession operations from 1907 until now, and each of them has provided this service to the public,” he adds. From 1931 until about 1964, the NPS offered a day-long boat tour, and interpreters were added to do concession boat tours in 1972.  

The daily Wizard Island shuttles are relatively new, as fishermen and others interested in hiking the island’s volcanic features go back and forth four times daily. The general-tourist boat takes two hours and points out features of geological and biological interest in a circumnavigation of the lake, Mark says.

“A separate concessionaire has operated a trolley bus service on Rim Drive throughout the summer season since 2012,” he says. “A NPS interpreter provides commentary and dictates the stops where passengers step off and take pictures.” See craterlake.nps.

Park Your Horsepower, Saddle The Horses in Death Valley

The native Timbasha Shoshone people, some of whom still live on a reservation in Death Valley, used horses for transportation, and the earliest visitors to Death Valley came by horse and wagon in 1849, explains Clark R. Davis at Furnace Creek Resort. Death Valley became a national monument Feb. 11, 1933, and a national park Oct. 31, 1994.

Surefootedness, toughness and “street smarts” are critical in Death Valley. At 3.3 million acres, this is the largest national park in the lower 48 states and often the hottest place in the country, with summer temperatures averaging 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, is also geographically the lowest spot in North America. 

While the prospectors never found gold or silver in Death Valley, they discovered borax, which led to the creation of the legendary “20-mule teams” (18 mules and two horses) used to haul the multi-use ore from the area to the nearest railroad 165 arduous miles and 10 days away.

At oasislike Furnace Creek, tens of thousands of ancient glacial waters create a desert paradise. Mules and horses were cared for at what’s now the Furnace Creek Ranch. This is also the place where Death Valley Days, the popular TV show, hosted by a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan, was filmed in the mid-1950s and early 1960s and then Star Wars in the 1970s.

When the borax ran out in the 1920s, the Pacific Coast Borax Company started The Ranch, with accommodations, a trading post, a spring-fed swimming pool (temps are a constant and relatively cool 85 degrees), post office, stables, restaurants, a gas station and the lowest golf course on Earth. It’s also near the AAA Four Diamond Inn at Furnace Creek.

The Borax Company also had another mine in Ryan, about 13 miles east of Furnace Creek, and their small-gauge rail line powered by a steam engine linked it to the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad at Death Valley Junction. That train was eventually converted to carrying visitors from Death Valley Junction to Ryan and then by touring car to Furnace Creek.

Many of the implements and others of those times are now all at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek and the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center. Visitors can find the famed 20-mule-team wagons, a steam engine, buggies, and even Old Dinah, a monster steam tractor used to haul borax.

Horseback is still one of the best ways to see Death Valley from October to April for one- and two-hour rides on the desert floor and into the hillsides from Furnace Creek Ranch. “One of the best secrets are the full-moon rides, where visitors get on horseback in the moonlight –– unique to Death Valley,” Clark says. “Of course, there are also carriage rides in the evening as well.” Visit furnacecreekresort.com for more information.

You Can’t Miss the Red Buses at Glacier National Park

“The Crown of the Continent”: Glacier National Park, on the Canadian border in northwest Montana, became a national park May 11, 1910. Approximately 700 miles of hiking trails are available as well as the 50 mile-long Going to the Sun Road, one of America’s great highways.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the concessionaire, operates 33 of its signature red buses daily in July and August and fewer during the shoulder season of June and September, explains David Eglsaer, transportation director at Glacier. The company also maintains the park’s three historic motor inns and two lodges including historic Lake McDonald Lodge, built in 1913.

“All of the 33 buses we currently operate have the original bodies from the ’30s; however, all of the running gear is contemporary to 2001. None of the earlier generations of buses from the ’20s and as early as 1914 are still used in the park, but on occasion private collectors will bring their vintage bus to the park to show them off,” he explains.

Most of the company’s tours are concentrated on Going-to-the-Sun Road inside the park, but some pick-ups are made in the gateway communities just outside, he adds. “From what I understand, the buses were used a lot more outside the park in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and up until 2013 we had two buses a day go up to Waterton Park in Canada for a tour.”

Originally based in Cleveland, Ohio, The White Motor Company produced the first touring buses, 10 gray and black Model TEBs, which were sent to Glacier in June 1914; this motorized service was a first for the national parks. White Model 15-45s were added in the 1920s, the first to be liveried in the familiar red and black.

In 1927, an experimental White Model 54 was delivered to the park and is in storage at the Park Service Headquarters in West Glacier. Another experimental bus, a 1935 Indiana-manufactured model, was also used. The early drivers were called “jammers” by the visitors because they could be heard “jamming” the manual gears going up and down the mountain pass. Later buses had automatic transmissions.

From 1936 to 1939, for seven Western national parks, White produced 500 Model 706 buses, with roll-back canvas tops for sight-seeing and a variety of colors. Today, 33 of the original 35 buses purchased by the Glacier Park Transportation Company –– known as “Reds” for the color of ripe Mountain Ash Berries –– were restored and updated by Ford Motor Company and TransGlobal in 2000−2002. The 34th has been kept in original condition.

“This fleet is considered by some to be the oldest continuously running fleet of touring vehicles anywhere,” Eglsaer says. “As a result, the beautiful scenery seen by the guests from the buses left a lasting impression and helped maintain their popularity and appeal. Many people come back with their kids or grandkids to experience the same ride they had back in the ’30s and ’40s.” See glaciernationalparklodges.com.

Steam or Vegetable Oil to the Grandest of Canyons?

Coronado’s conquistadors were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon, and they weren’t deeply impressed by a big hole in the Earth that stopped their and their horses’ progress; after all, they were looking for Cities of Gold, not golden opportunities for enjoying nature.

A few centuries later, a $15 eight-hour tourist wagon ride from Flagstaff provided a multi-wheel innovation, albeit bumpy.

The economical $3.95 train ride from Williams, about 30 miles west of Flagstaff, began Sept. 17, 1901, when the Grand Canyon Railway brought visitors to the South Rim. Four years later, the landmark El Tovar Hotel was completed on the Rim, 7,000 feet above sea level. Together, they made for a great overall tourist experience.

The track was begun in 1897 by the Santa Fe and Grand Canyon Railroad Company, a deal facilitated by Buckey O’Neill, charismatic Yavapai County sheriff, Prescott mayor, prospector, promoter and later one of Colonel Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The sheriff told the money people back East there was gold-mining wealth in the canyon. He died in Cuba, and the lure of mining died about the same time, but the dollars for tourism kept the track-laying going.

From then until 1968, when the last first-generation train ran, thousands enjoyed the dramatic ride, including Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.

Ridership declined because of automobile travel and “the road trip” on the Interstate highway system. But, 88 years after its debut, the railway reopened for passenger service Sept. 17, 1989, by entrepreneurs Max and Thelma Biegert.

“As Grand Canyon Railway was working on getting the final paperwork complete, a corporation which made a failed attempt to restore the Grand Canyon line had begun tearing it up for salvage materials,” says Bob Baker, general manager of the Grand Canyon Railway for Xanterra, which owns and manages the line and the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams as well as manages El Tovar and other lodging at the South Rim. “If it hadn’t been for Grand Canyon Railway, train service to the Grand Canyon would have been permanently lost.”

Today, the 65-mile journey takes two hours and 15 minutes each way with a 3½-hour layover at the canyon. Overnight packages with Xanterra’s in-park lodging are also available. About 200,000 enjoy this unique approach to the canyon each year, with bandits who stop the train, good guys who stop them, banjos and cowboys, fiddlers and singers.

To celebrate the centennial, the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel is using historic steam engines #4960, built in 1923, and the 185-ton #29, built in 1906 by ALCO in Pittsburgh, to pull 1950s-era streamliner rail cars, including “dome” cars and a classic open platform observation car.

Both steam engines are fueled by waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants and establishments around Williams and throughout Arizona, and steam is produced by harvested rain water and snow melt. The fuel reduces carbon emissions, and with its burning completes a full waste-disposal cycle.

The train is also responsible for keeping approximately 50,000 cars outside of the canyon. Explains Baker, “By traveling aboard Grand Canyon Railway, you are not only experiencing an entertaining an historic journey but you are also doing your part to help preserve the pristine beauty of the Grand Canyon.” Visit thetrain.com, grandcanyonlodges.com.

Harvey Cars Make Branch Stops at Petrified Forest

Early on, wagons and trains, later automobiles and finally only automobiles transported tourists to the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert in northern Arizona, explains William G. Parker, Ph.D, chief of Science and Resource Management at the park, established in 1906 as a national monument and designated a national park in 1962.

“Petrified Forest was also part of the Harvey Car Tours during their heyday,” he says. The most celebrated of the hundreds who took these were Albert Einstein and his wife on March 1, 1931.

Harvey Cars also visited the Grand Canyon, Rainbow Arch and other American Indian lands. Hospitality entrepreneur Fred Harvey (1835−1901) and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway brought miners, settlers and tourists to the Southwest, establishing high standards for on-train meals and restaurants. Service was by aproned Harvey Girls, 18 to 30.

By 1883, Harvey had more than a dozen eating houses from Kansas to New Mexico, and in the late 1880s, his company also began to manage food service for the Santa Fe dining cars. The Harvey Houses continued into the 1960s.

Along the way, hotels such as La Fonda in Santa Fe, the Alvarado in Albuquerque (razed in 1970) El Tovar and La Posada in Winslow provided hotel accommodations. After 1926, Harvey Cars or Harvey Coaches were used for” Indian Detours”: cowboy-chauffeured and tour-guided services offered from a number of Harvey hotel locations. Xanterra through its Grand Canyon Railway staff is redoing one of these cars, a 1929 Cadillac, and hopes to have it complete by the Grand Canyon National Park Centennial in 2019.

An early ad, from 1930, touts this tour to the Petrified Forest, for just $4.50 a head: “The outing itself, climaxed by the stop among the jeweled trunks and fragments of the Rainbow Forest, offers a new conception of the fascination of this portion of the Santa Fe Southwest.”

Yellowstone, Yellow Buses

Yellowstone became the world’s first national park March 1, 1872, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in one of the memorable acts of his challenged two terms. Here are Old Faithful geyser, grizzly bears, bison and elk. For historic lodging, there’s Old Faithful Inn, dating to 1904.

The wealthy originally came to the park in stagecoaches, after detraining at any of five railroads that have serviced the park, explains Leslie James Quinn, interpretive specialist at Yellowstone National Park Lodges, for Xanterra.

These were the Northern Pacific at Gardiner, the first in 1883 (and later at Red Lodge as well), Montana; the Union Pacific at West Yellowstone, Montana; the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific, “The Milwaukee Road,” at Gallatin Gateway, Montana, a few miles west of Bozeman; the Chicago, Burling-ton, & Quincy at Cody, Wyoming; and the Chicago & North-western at Lander, Wyoming.

For sightseeing in the park, the stagecoaches were purchased from Abbot-Downing of Concord, New Hampshire, the premier coach builder of the day. For the longer, around-the-park tour, passengers boarded a smaller 11-passenger coach. Both the large 36-passenger “Tally-Ho” coaches and the 11-passenger “Four-In-Hand” coaches were Concord Coaches, as Abbot-Downing’s were nicknamed.

Today, three replica stagecoaches operate each summer at Roosevelt Lodge –– close replicas of the 36-passenger “Tally-Ho” stagecoaches from the park’s “Carriage Trade Era,” 1883−1916.

Originally, the park owned six of the Tally-Hos, and five of these are still in the Museum Collection of the National Park Service at Gardiner. The sixth is in Cozad, Nebraska, at the Hundredth Meridian Museum and still gets pulled by six horses occasionally, mostly for parades, he says.

“Until the 1980s, some of the originals were still used by the concessioner,” Quinn adds, “but they lost their extra rows of roof seats over time, and while they are in good shape today, to the best of my knowledge they are unrestored.”

After successfully testing buses on a route from Cody to Lake Village in Yellowstone in 1916, the park acquired buses from White Motors, Cleveland, Ohio, including the White 706 model, built 1936−39.

At one time, Yellowstone owned 98 of these, and almost all of them exist today, but as they aged, and before their true worth was realized, they were auctioned in the 1950s and 1960s, Quinn explains.

In 2002, Yellowstone repurchased eight of the open-roof buses from the Skagway Street Car Company, Skagway, Alaska. In the fall and winter of 2006−2007, they were refurbished by Trans-Global of Livonia, Michigan, with 2007 Ford motorhome chassis and running gears, and the yellow buses have been in service since the 2007 summer season.

Yellowstone has five buses in original condition, two model 706s and three older units as well. Gettysburg National Battle-field has two of the park’s originals. And the Museum of the Rockies in nearby Bozeman, Montana, has a 1936 model in its education collection which is driven regularly and a 1937 model in its Hamilton Stores vehicles collection that is not driven but kept in operational condition.

Bus #401, after it was in a shed unused for 45 years, has been restored by Buses of Yellowstone, Billings, Montana, and is occasionally used in Yellowstone Park and local parades. See yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

Zion: Charged for the Future

Slot canyons to 1,000 feet high, sandstone cliffs, 90 miles of trails in 146,000 acres: Since its establishment in 1919, Zion National Park has attracted visitors by horseback and wagon, automobile, trailer and now electric vehicles such as the high-performance Tesla S and the Lexus 450H.

The park has recently reaffirmed its commitment to sustain- ability and preservation of the national treasure by opening electric-car charging stations. These are available to Zion Lodge Hotel guests year round and to visitors when Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to all passenger cars mid-November through mid-March, when the Park Shuttle System is not running, says Daisy Hobbs, general manager of the park for Xanterra.

The first car entered Zion Canyon in 1914, and a road was constructed here by 1917; this was paved by the early 1930s. Railroad promotion of the park began in the 1920s, when The Union Pacific built Zion Lodge in 1925. Into the 1930s, the Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of Union Pacific, offered 11-passenger open-top buses, says Reuben Wadsworth, an adjunct history instructor at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

And, beginning in 1926, daily bus service took tourists from the railroad spur in Lund along the “Grand Circle Tour” of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon North Rim. “After World War II, however, the Utah Parks Company abandoned these tours as it realized the automobile was king and that most tourists were arriving in their own private cars,” Wadsworth explains.

But too many cars created problems. “There were regularly squabbles over parking spaces and so many cars were parked on the side of the road where they shouldn’t, which, of course, was horrible for the vegetation,” he adds. “There was a lot of noise, and visitors who came seeking a wilderness experience got a crowded fight-for-a-parking space experience.” 

A shuttle system, begun in 2000, was transformative. Visitors parked their cars at the visitor center or in nearby Springdale and rode a bus into the park. “The canyon was quiet again and vegetation and wildlife, such as wild turkeys, returned,” Wadsworth says.

But the system was designed for the number of visitors the park was then receiving: 2.5 million a year. “At that level of visitation, it was comfortable: hardly any long lines and hardly any overcrowded shuttles,” he says. “Today, long lines and overcrowded shuttles are a daily occurrence as more than 4 million visitors are expected this year, so solutions are being considered, including a bus line from St. George to Springdale.”

Considering the many challenges and opportunities for the next 100 years, we remember President Theodore Roosevelt’s words at the Grand Canyon May 6, 1903: “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you . . . .”

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