How The US Army Saved Yellowstone National Park

By Nolan Moore on Friday, December 11, 2015
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“Every object in nature is impressed with God’s footsteps, and every day repeats the wonders of creation.” —Thomas Guthrie, “Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers”

In A Nutshell

Yellowstone National Park is an iconic American destination. However, in the late 1880s, the park was in big trouble due to poaching, vandalism, and incompetent management. Frustrated, the US government gave control of the park to the army. That act saved Yellowstone for generations to come.

The Whole Bushel

If you were to visit the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District in Yellowstone Park, you’d probably run across Fort Yellowstone. There are 35 structures left standing from the 1890s and early 1900s, a time when nearly 330 soldiers patrolled the park. However, these troops weren’t in Yellowstone to ward off hostile Native Americans. Instead, they were tasked with protecting the region from poachers and vandals.

In fact, if it weren’t for the US Army, chances are good Yellowstone Park wouldn’t be around today.

Yellowstone was first established in 1872 and was placed under the not-so-watchful eye of the Department of the Interior. Originally, there were only 10 superintendents patrolling the entire park, a whopping 2.2 million acres. As you might assume, this didn’t really work out. The park was jam-packed with poachers, picking off everything from buffalo to elk. Vandals signed their names on geysers, lumberjacks hacked down trees, and shady businessmen ran laundry services at the hot springs. Perhaps worst of all, arsonists actually set multiple fires throughout the park.

Needless to say, Congress wasn’t pleased with the way things were going. Frustrated with the Department of Interior, they decided to withhold any funding. Some politicians even wanted to hand the land over to settlers. But eventually, Congress and the Department of the Interior reached a compromise. Congress would continue sending funds to Yellowstone if the army was placed in control of the park. The Department of the Interior agreed, and in 1886, Captain Moses Harris and 60 troops from Company M, First Cavalry, rode to the rescue.

Right off the bat, Harris started cracking down hard on poachers. Since there weren’t any strict penalties for poaching back in the 1880s, Harris had to get creative. If he caught any hunters, he locked them up for weeks—on his own authority—before kicking them out of the park. (The guardhouse was the first building in Fort Yellowstone that the army actually built.) Harris also posted guards at the geysers, and if they caught any graffiti-happy punks, they ordered the vandals to scrub the geysers clean. In addition to punishing the bad guys, the army also brought in fish and buffalo to replenish diminished populations.

After three years, Harris left Yellowstone and was replaced by Captain F.A. Boutelle. Fortunately, Boutelle kept up the good fight. This time, however, he was up against Washington. Evidently, somebody thought it was a great idea to build an elevator so people could ride down to the bottom of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. When Boutelle found out, he was absolutely appalled and fought tooth and nail to keep Yellowstone free from any such contraption. Luckily for the park, Boutelle won out, and ever since then, the government has done its best to keep the national parks as natural as possible.

By 1910, there were over 300 troops keeping Yellowstone safe, and as the number of soldiers increased, so did the amount of tourists. But the soldiers moved out in 1916, handing control over to the newly created National Park Service. Thirty years after Captain Moses Harris showed up on the scene, the park was absolutely thriving. Thanks to the US Army, Yellowstone was saved from destruction and has become one of the most iconic natural parks in the world.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: How the U.S. Army Saved Our National Parks
National Park Service: Fort Yellowstone