Tuesday, 29 June 2010

National Parks and the Romance of the Rails

The railway companies of North America were instrumental in the creation of the United States' and Canada's National Parks. Though seen as rapacious destroyers of the environment - felling tree, mountain and buffalo alike in their relentless march westward - preserving wild spaces was a logical goal for the Railway Barons. They held out the allure of the tourist dollar.

Canadian Pacific Railway train arriving at Glacier House,
now Glacier National Park, British Columbia.

Northern Pacific at the northern gate of
Yellowstone National Park.

Every tourist meant not only a ticket on the train, but a hotel room, backcountry lodge, horse outfitter, and fine dining for weeks on end. For a government jurisdiction starved for cash, the interest of the railways was crucial. They constructed the amenities and, often, the necessities of the parks' operations. First came the rails, then the stations, then the hotels, then the roadways, along with the sewer, telegraph and telephone lines.

Canadian Pacific Railway's Banff Springs Hotel, Banff National Park.

Santa Fe Railways's El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon National Park.

Magnates began to treat the parks like private fiefdoms. Northern Pacific strove for the creation of Yellowstone. Great Northern got it's hand in with Montana's Glacier National Park. Southern Pacific staked out Yosemite. Santa Fe laid tracks directly to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Union Pacific took the north rim, with Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks along the way. Union Pacific also snuck into the western side of Yellowstone, and claimed Grand Teton National Park with it. The Canadian Pacific Railway had near-uncontested domination of Banff, Yoho, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks in Canada. Grand Trunk Pacific, later Canadian National Railway, took up the cause of Jasper National Park. And each one tried to outdo the other in competition for tourists, providing unparalleled luxury and appointment.

Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon,
Northern Pacific and Yellowstone,
Canadian Pacific and Glacier, 1910's.

These hotels and their services became parts in a chain that we would recognize today as the all-inclusive vacation. When "The Empire Builder" James J. Hill consolidated a hodge-podge collection of failing railways into Great Northern, he introduced a line dubbed the Oriental Limited. The Oriental Limited was so-named because it was, Hill asserted, the premier route from the Eastern United States to the Far East, via Great Northern Steamship from the Pacific coast. It was also the premier route to Glacier National Park. Great Northern's Glacier Park Lodge, on the southern fringe of the park, was mere steps from the station. Inside its grand lobby with towering tree trunk pillars, the oriental theme continued with Japanese lanterns and tea service.

The lobby of Great Northern's Glacier Park Lodge.

Inside the Oriental Limited's observation car.

Great Northern's Oriental Limited
to Glacier National Park, 1920's.

It was Great Northern, during the dark days of the Great War, that coined the "See America First" campaign. With the European tourist market shut down, it was the needed opportunity to strike a blow for homegrown tourism. This was quickly leapt upon by the National Parks Service itself. Meanwhile in Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway had a different compulsion with their advertising. To this day, one of the spectres haunting the True North's park system is a confused mandate that, early in its history, had these tracts of lands preserved for the benefit of hunters and anglers rather than for the ecosystems themselves.

Seeing America First.

Canadian Pacific travel booklet cover.

The Canadian Pacific did promote other sports and activities through the mountains, including the allure of mountain climbing. Materials sent to Europe and the American eastern seaboard extolled the virtues of "The Canadian Alps" and promised "Fifty Switzerlands in One". Aspiring mountaineers responded to the call of "Why go to Switzerland", resulting in the tragic death of Philip Stanley Abbot on Mount Lefroy, in 1896. As a result, Canadian mountaineering was in danger of being extinguished entirely. To redeem it, the CPR imported guides from Switzerland in 1899 who could accompany tourist climbers, assuring their safety. The Swiss Guides became an indelible part of Canadian Rocky Mountain culture in places like the majestic Abbot Pass, high above Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The pass was named in testament to the deceased.

Canadian Pacific ad, c.1910's.

A pair of Swiss Guides.

Abbot Pass.

Tourists required guidebooks as much as guides. These promotional and informative pamphlets whet their appetites for the wonders the railway was ready to unfold before them in full-service vacation packages. Northern Pacific, for instance, provided the following guide to Yellowstone, which is viewable by clicking on the cover...

Some texts endorsed the Grand Railway Hotels, such as this pamphlet on the Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel. The author, Fred Harvey, was the main concessionaire common to the lion's share of the American parks. His company began with the idea of selling hot, fast, good food to rail travelers on the Santa Fe and it grew into a great chain of hotels and resorts.

Santa Fe Railroad itself chose a more thorough and literary approach with their anthology Titan of the Chasms, on the Grand Canyon...

The United States Railway Administration created a series of pamphlets of their own, promoting the full line of National Parks. Click on the cover for Yosemite to peruse a collection that includes Crater Lake, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Hot Springs, Mesa Verde, Mt. Rainier, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and General Grant, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

A critical move for the railways was using fine art to appeal to fine tastes. The likes of John Fery and Thomas Moran were commissioned by the railways and given incredible access to the lines and the parks in order to create their Victorian and Edwardian landscape masterpieces. These, in their showings in Eastern and European galleries (as well as on the walls of stations and hotels), did as much to advertise the railway destinations as straight commercial script and graphic art.

John Fery, Many Glaciers Region, Glacier National Park (c.1910);
for Great Northern Railway.

Thomas Moran, Golden Gateway to the Yellowstone (1893);
for Northern Pacific Railway.

Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, Lake Louise (1912);
for Canadian Pacific Railway.

Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, Coming Storm in the Rockies (1914);
for Canadian Pacific Railway.

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne,
Mount Cheops, Canadian Rockies (1895);
Van Horne was the president of the Canadian Pacific,
as well as a painter.

Eventually, the romance of the rails gave over to the institution of the Great American Roadtrip. Automobiles replaced steam trains and horse-drawn surreys in carrying tourists, not to Grand Railway Hotels, but the burgeoning autocamps. Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana, was completed in 1932, crossing the Continental Divide over Logan Pass. Kootenay National Park in British Columbia was established in 1920 around a highway rather than a railway. Nowadays, RV motorhomes and Harley-Davidsons are the signs of National Park travel.

Some of this railway romance still exists. Throughout the American National Parks, the former Fred Harvey Company and its hotels are now under the Xanterra brand. In Canada, most of the former Canadian Pacific hotels now carry the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts brand, after the global corporation was bought by Canadian Pacific in the 1990's. Modern railway companies run on many of the old lines. Great Northern replaced the steam-era Oriental Limited with the diesel-era Empire Builder, which is now run by Amtrak and continues service to Glacier National Park. For a measly $8000 dollars, one could take the Royal Canadian Pacific luxury train vacation. The Rocky Mountaineer has a more affordable run on the CPR route while Via Rail runs on the Canadian National route through Jasper. The old Santa Fe line into the Grand Canyon has been taken over by the Grand Canyon Railway.

Camp Hampton with the Teton Mountains in the distance,
Grand Teton National Park, from the Haynes Photo Fargo
Northern Pacific Views

Blackfoot First Peoples arrayed at
Glacier National Park, Montana.


HeadBurro Antfarm said...

A wonderful post! I've tweeted it out & added a link to the Steelhead & New Babbage Nings :)

Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much!

Viewliner Ltd. said...

Incredible post Cory. Railroads and National Parks... both subjects near and dear to my heart. Much appreciated, Richard.

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

Folks on the Steelhead Ning loved this post!

Cory Gross said...

Excellent HeadBurro, I'm glad!

Richard, I thought you might like it ^_^