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Yellowstone's Supporting Railroads

Northern Pacific RR


Copyright 2020 by Robert V. Goss. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author.

Northern Pacific Railway Co. letterhead

The Northern Pacific Railroad - Yellowstone's First Rail Access

A Pictorial History of the Early Days

Jay Cooke

    Jay Cooke, born in 1821, was an American financier, whose firm raised more than $1 billion in loans for the federal government during the American Civil War.    After the war Cooke undertook to raise $100 million for the projected route of the Northern Pacific Railroad from Duluth, Minnesota, to Tacoma, Washington.  Cooke became head of the Northern Pacific RR in 1868 and served until 1873.   However, the financial burden was too great, and the firm went bankrupt, thus precipitating the panic of 1873, which brought rail building to a standstill until 1879.  Cooke's firm never reopened, but Cooke, through mining investments, repaid his creditors and accumulated another fortune within seven years.   Frederick Billings took control of NPRR in 1879 and rail building began again at a rapid rate.  He was suceeded in 1881 by Henry Villard who oversaw the completion of the rail line in August of 1883.  A Last Spike Ceremony was held at Gold Creek, Montana, 59 west of Helena, on September 8.   Prior to the 1870 Washburn Expedition, Cooke hired Nathaniel Langford as a sort of publicity agent to help spread the word of the wonders of the western lands that the railroad would be passing through.  Cooke City was named after Jay Cooke by the miners in that area in an attempt to attract a rail line to the gold mines there.

The Northern Pacific Railroad . . .


      The NPRR was formed in 1864 when the company was awarded the rights to build a rail line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound.  As incentive, Congress granted them about 10 million acres of land along the proposed route.  Construction began in 1870 but progress was halted for six years when the Panic of 1873 caused most all rail construction in the US to come to a standstill.  The line finally reached Livingston Montana in the fall of 1882 and was completed across Montana to the West Coast in early fall of 1883.  That year the Park Branch Line was built from Livingston to Cinnabar and became the first rail access to the park on September 1. 


Cinnabar was about 3 miles north of Gardiner.  A land dispute between the railroad and 'Buckskin Jim' Cutler prevented the rail line from coming all the way into Gardiner.  The railroad was the owner or part owner of the hotels in the park until 1907 when H.W. Child acquired all the remaining shares.  Beginning in 1883 the railroad attempted to build a line along the northern end of the park to the gold mines of Cooke City.  The controversy over the proposal raged on for over 10 years before the railroad finally backed off on the plan.

Cinnabar station Northern Pacific RR

Cinnabar, Mont. Station.

Both photos courtesy Burton Holmes Travelogues, 1905

Cinnabar station northern pacific rr

The company was reorganized in 1896 and became known as the Northern Pacific Railway (NPRy).  They continued to provide loans and financial backing for the construction and operation of the hotels and transportation fleet in Yellowstone into the mid-1900’s.


In June 1902, the company extended their Yellowstone Park Line to Gardiner, with the first passenger train arriving in early July to a temporary depot and loading platform.  A rustic log depot was erected in Gardiner at the end of Northern Pacific’s ‘Yellowstone Park Line' in 1903.  Robert Reamer, architect of the Old Faithful Inn, designed the building and the firm of Deeks & Deeks was awarded the $20,000 construction contract on April 27, 1903. The rail line was extended into Gardiner and opened June 20, 1902.  A temporary depot was used until the new edifice was completed.  Visitors exiting the building looked upon a pond and the new stone Arch built at the entrance to the park that same year.

The Gardiner Wonderland newspaper commented on July 3rd that,

“For the first time the regular passenger train on the Park branch ran into Gardiner and unloaded its passengers at the temporary depot and platform erected in the western part of town. Many of our citizens went down to greet the train and witness the fruition of their long deferred hopes, It may be said now that Gardiner is the terminus.”

Roosevelt Arch Gardiner construction
Roosevelt Arch Gardiner

The Roosevelt Arch 


Located at the north entrance to Yellowstone.  It was built near the Gardiner Depot in 1903.  The Arch was constructed out of native stone from a design by architect Robert Reamer.  Theodore Roosevelt dedicated it on April 24, 1903 and by September visitors were able to drive through the Arch via stagecoach to enter the park.   A stone gatehouse was built near the Arch in 1921 and used as a check-in station until it was razed in 1966. The Arch is also known as the North Entrance Arch.

Top Left:  Construction of Roosevelt Arch 1902.  YNP #16174

Top Right:  Roosevelt Arch, 1904.  YNP #29448

Gardiner Depot construction nprr
gardiner depot, arch, w.a. hall, nprr

Gardiner Depot


A temporary depot was used until the new edifice was completed in 1903. The rustic log depot building erected at the terminus of Northern Pacific’s ‘Yellowstone Park Line' was designed by Robert Reamer, architect of the Old Faithful Inn. The firm of Deeks & Deeks was awarded the $20,000 construction contract. Upon completion, visitors exiting the new depot could gaze upon a pond and the new stone Arch built at the entrance of Yellowstone Park.

Left Top:  Construction of the depot in 1902.  YNP #16174

Left Bottom:  Depot & Arch, Haynes Sepia Post Card, ca1905

Right Bottom:  Stages in front of depot. Real-Photo post card, undated. Goss Collecction

gardiner depot, nprr, stagecoach

An excerpt from a 1904 edition of the Railroad Gazette boasting about the new NPRR Depot:

   "The station at Gardiner was designed to harmonize with the other structures [Arch, etc]. It is essentially rustic and is built of native materials. The foundations and lower parts of the walls are rough boulders. The walls above, including the platform shelters are made of unbarked logs. The roof trusses, gables and ceilings are finished with similar material. The interior contains a large waiting room with fireplace, ticket office, express office, baggage room and toilet rooms. The rustic effect is also carried out in the interior, the doors, windows, settees, chandeliers, hardware, etc., all being in keeping with the general design. The projecting ends of logs are smoothed and polished, and where lumber is used for finishing it is of high grade and finely polished. Wrought nails, bearing on their heads the trade-mark of the company, are used wherever they will show. The fireplace at the end of the waiting room is broad and forms a pleasing feature of the interior."

northern pacific railroad, monad

The Northern Pacific RR adopted the Monad Logo 1893.  It was patterned after the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol. The two comma shaped halves represent the dual powers of the universe – two principles called Yang and Yin. Their primitive meanings were: Yang, light; Yin, darkness. Philosophically, they stood for the positive and the negative. The bottom of the logo reads "Yellowstone Park Line".  The company's headquarters were in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Wonderland of the World

     The Northern Pacific Railroad began publishing "The Wonderland of the World" guidebook of Yellowstone in 1884 in order to advertise their services. It featured imaginative colored images on the covers. The brochures were supplemented with photos by F.Jay Haynes, Official Photographer of the Northern Pacific RR. It published yearly until 1906 with articles on Yellowstone and other points of interest along the NPRR’s route through the Northwest.

Covers from the 1885 and 1897 issues of Wonderland.

wonderland, northern pacific
wonderland, northern pacific

The Northwest Improvement Company

The Northern Pacific Railway sold their interest in the hotels in Yellowstone to their subsidiary, the Northwest Improvement Co. in 1898, making that company the sole owner of the Yellowstone Park Association stock.  NWIC continued to be the front company for the NPRy’s financing of H.W. Child’s enterprises in the park for many years. In 1917 financial backing was done jointly with the NPRy, Union Pacific, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads  NWIC was also responsible for the opening of the travertine quarries near Gardiner in the 1930’s. The last railroad loan was obtained in 1937 and was paid off by 1955.

Yellowstone Comet

A Depression-era train between Chicago and Seattle, the Yellowstone Comet was a joint operation of the Northern Pacific and Burlington railroads. Splitting at Billings, Montana, the train offered access to the park via either Gardiner or Cody,

yellowstone park  comet, nprr
yellowstone park line, nortthern pacific
yellowstone park, wonderland, stagecoach
yellowstone park line, cowboy art, nprr
yellowstone park line, northern pacific, badge

Top Left:  Yellowstone Park ad from the Wonderland brochure in 1900.

Top Right:  Poster art from the Northern Pacific's "Yellowstone Park Line."

Bottom Left:  Brass fob for the Yellowstone Park Line.

Bottom Right:  Conductor's Badge worn on the Yellowstone Park Line.

yellowstone park line, northern pacific, badge
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