Wylie Way Camps
Zion NP & North Rim, Grand Canyon
Copyright 2021 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.
The Wylie Camping Co. in Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks
1917 - 1928
Zion National Park is the third most visited national park in the US with almost 4.5 million visits in 2019. The canyon can be reached via an easy half-hour drive from I-15. A hundred years ago the area was remotely located and required a slow and difficult route to traverse. Even in 1919 when autos made the journey, a 7-8 hour trip was required for the 100-mile route from the rail depot at Lund, northwest of Cedar City, Utah to Zion Canyon.
In the beginning . . .
Zion Canyon proper was set aside as a national monument on July 31, 1909 by President Taft and called Mukuntuweap. Explorer John Wesley Powell named the canyon in 1872 using a Paiute word variously defined as "straight arrow," "straight canyon," "straight river," or "land of the springs." Local Mormon pioneers generally referred to it as Little Zion, or Zion Canyon. On March 18, 1918, President Wilson enlarged the monument and changed the name to Zion National Monument. A little over 1-1/2 years later the monument was again enlarged and it attained status of a national park.
Painting of the entrance to Zion Canyon
by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh in 1903.
Interest in the area as a tourist destination had been percolating for a number of years. Late in the fall of 1913 a party of visitors to Zion included Utah Governor Wm. Spry, A.W. Miles, president of the Wylie Permanent Camping Co. in Yellowstone, Howard Hays and Ed Moorman of the Wylie company, Douglas White, of the Salt Lake & Los Angeles rail line (LA&SL), and other Utah promoters who investigated the area for potential tourist development. In August of 1916 another visit was arranged which consisted of the Utah Governor, officials of the Salt Lake rail line and the Oregon Short Line (both companies later came under the corporate umbrella of the Union Pacific RR), Howard Hays, representatives of the White Motor Co. (who were negotiating to provide buses for Yellowstone National Park), along with other promoters to investigate both Zion and the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Crawford Ranch, Mormon homestead ca1860s.
The nearby village of Springdale was established Mormons in 1862.
The Wylie Way Camp
The end result of these trips was an offer by railroad officials to bankroll William W. Wylie in establishing tent camps in Zion and Grand Canyon for the 1917 season at a tune of $13,000. The National Park Transportation and Camping Company was formed with W.W. Wylie as president, son Clinton as secretary, and Gronway and Chauncey Parry as vice-president and treasurer respectively. The Parry brothers provided transportation services and the Wylie family set up the camp operation. W.W. Wylie had founded the Wylie camps in Yellowstone in 1883, but had sold out in 1905 after creating a viable and camping business enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Wylie would assign the task of setting up a camp at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim of Grand Canyon to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas H. McKee.
Gronway Parry driving tourists through Zion in a wagon, ca1917.
[Courtesy Cedar CIty Homestead Museum]
A dapper-looking William W. Wylie in front of the Office Tent, ca1920.
Visitation was limited that first year but gradually increased as the roads were improved and word of the wondrous sights to be appreciated spread across the land. In 1918 the Parry brothers were off to war and upon their return in 1920 discovered that they had been somewhat unceremoniously ousted from the company by Wylie. Chauncey successfully filed suit to regain their status and ultimately created an independent transportation company, the Utah-Arizona Parks Transportation Co., that served not only Zion and Grand Canyon parks, but also Bryce, Cedar Breaks and Pipe Springs national monuments.
The two National Highway Cars purchased by the National Park Transportation and Camping Co. in 1917. The Parrys ran the cars while Wylie ran the camp. [Salt Lake Tribune, 10Jun1917]
One of buses traveling the unique early road to Zion Park. [Southern Utah Univ., #18B01I0988]
The Wylie camp during these years consisted of a simple tent camp which lay against the cliffs in a shady grove of trees just south of today's Zion Lodge, On the East Wall behind the Wylie Camp is the large alcove listed on current maps as “Wylie Retreat.” The camp featured a central assembly hall, dining room, and 10 wood-floored tent-cabins with partial board walls. Each tent-cabin had two double beds separated by a canvas wall down the center, and a separate dressing area. The tents were kept clean, were watertight, had screen doors and were lighted with gas lanterns. Meals were served in the dining room tent on oilcloth-covered tables with linen napkins.
Mrs. Wylie and two girls waited on the tables, serving traditional old-fashioned meals. Entertainment included an evening campfire, horse rentals and daily excursions up the canyon. Margaret McCartney, who worked for Wylie in Yellowstone, joined the staff at Zion as the Camp Matron and Hostess. In 1917 patrons could plunk down $26.50 for the 8-hour auto ride to and from Lund via the Parry brothers auto stages. The plan included two meals along the route at Cedar City, with two nights lodging and five meals. Visitors arriving on their own terms or those who continued on beyond the two-night plan paid $3.50/day or $21.00/week. Horses were available for $3.00/day, guides for $4.00/day, and auto tours ran 75 cents/hour.
View of the Wylie Camp showing the distinctive Wylie Retreat Alcove in the East Wall. [1919 US Railroad Administration brochure]
Close-up view of Wylie tent cabins [Courtesy Southern Utah Univ. #27649252]
Advertisement for the Wylie Way Camp in Utah's Wonderland. The camp first opened around June 20th. [Washington County News, Ut., 28Jun1917]
Professor Wylie greeting guests to his camp in Zion Canyon. [South Utah Univ. Special Collections]
Postcard view of the Wylie tent cabins in Zion. [Real-Photo PC by Putnam Studlok of Los Angeles]
The "Polly-Ann" travel articles were written by Marion A. Byrne, who wrote about other historic and scenic areas in the Southwest. She was accompanied Douglas White, agent for the Salt Lake RR (later Union Pacific), a photographer and moving picture operator. The Zion article was part of a 4-part series, also published in the Arrowhead Magazine in 1917. It was written as if a letter to an old travel friend.
Polly-Ann Motors by the Wylie Way
Over one more little meadow and we roll up in front of the Wylie Camp. Our arrival is the real day’s event, and everybody is out to meet us. Oh, how I wish you could have been there. It would have done you good to have seen the great big hearted Miss McCartney with her bright smile that tells of constant effort to make her guests comfortable and happy. I well remember how you told of her many thoughtful attentions when you visited the Yellowstone by the “Wylie Way." You always said she was an ideal hostess, and really I believe she has improved by being transplanted to Zion Canyon. Then there was Mr. Wylie himself, chock full of the kindly welcome, with the two Wylie boys and dear Mrs. McKee, all out on the Plaza of the camp waiting to do something to start our visit right.
The camp is just a beauty spot snuggled into a little hollow among the rocky cliffs with the crystal creek running in front, and the sweetest crystal spring water trickling down from the rocks at the back. There are the same cunning little tent houses that you remember in the other Wylie camps, a great big social hall and a cheerful dining room, all set under the shade of the great big trees. In the center is the regulation camp fire space, where, after nightfall, the bright red blaze lights up the tent circle and sends fantastic shadows playing hide and seek upon the rocky walls.
[Iron County Record, Cedar City, Aug.17, 1917]
The Utah Parks Company Takes Over
The Zion camp was never a financial success and was consistently losing money. In 1921 Wylie, now 73 years old, asked the railroad to foreclose on his chattel mortgage and take over the camp. The LA&SL agreed and paid Wylie and his wife $2,000 annually to operate the camps for the 1921-22 seasons. Wylie sold out completely after that and retired. He transferred ownership of the operation at North Rim, Grand Canyon to daughter Elizabeth.
In 1921 the railroad became part of the Union Pacific System and in 1923 formed the Utah Parks Company as a subsidiary to operate the Zion camp with plans to build lodges in Zion, the North Rim, Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks.
The UPCo operated the Zion camp during the 1923-24 seasons while building a new lodge just north of the camp. They negotiated continued services with the Parry brothers who operated under the name of Utah-Grand Canyon Transportation Company. But in the spring of 1925, the UPCo received permission from the Utah Public Utilities Commission to operate forty 10-passenger touring cars in Zion. They were garaged in Cedar City near the new rail spur that had been built from Lund. The Parrys however continued operations at the other parks.
Two Wylie Camp buses, operated by the Parry Brothers on Main St. in Cedar City, ca1918 [Courtesy Frontier Homestead State Park Museum, Cedar CIty]
Utah Park Co. buses at the Cedar City Union Pacific Depot, ca1930.
The new Zion lodge was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had also designed the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone and the new lodges being constructed in Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon. The 2-story lodge opened on May 15, 1925 and included 46 guest cabins (15 more were built the following spring). Huge opening day ceremonies were held on May 18 and were attended by the Utah governor and a variety of local, state, federal and corporate officials. The day celebrated not only the new lodge, but also the improvements made in the road system and the railroad spur to Cedar City, which brought rail visitors closer to the park. 16,817 tourists visited the park that year – twice the previous year
New Zion Lodge with Angel's Landing in background, ca1928. [Keystone View Co. Stereoview #29031]
Zion Lodge Lobby, 1927. [Keystone Mast Collection, Stereoview Segment]
Map of Zion Canyon and surrounds, from a 1919 Railroad Administration booklet.
Map of Zion and the surrounding national parks and monuments and the routes used by the Parry Bros. bus operation. From a 1924 Utah Parks Transportation Co. brochure.
(Click on images to expand)
Wylie Camp at North Rim of Grand Canyon
Facilities similar to the Wylie Camp in Zion were arranged at the North Rim of Grand Canyon, which attained national park status in 1919. Access to the area was primitive at best, as only two automobile parties are known to have reached the general area of Bright Angel Point prior to the establishment of the camp. Gordon Wooley is believed the first in 1909, which required passengers to build much of the road along the way; and a trip made by Joseph and Anna Brown about 1916.
The camp was organized by W.W. Wylie’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas McKee. Son Robert was in charge of hauling water up a steep trail from a spring some 200’ below the rim. An elderly burro named Brighty did most of that work. Once, some of waitresses and maids mischievously put up a sign on a tree: "Wylie Water Works. Power Plant, Brighty; General Manager, Bob." A girl one day asked: "Bob, which is the boss of this shebang, you or Brighty?" Reply: "Neither. We are pardners." Occasionally Bob and his “Pardner” would give burro rides to some of the younger children of the camp guests, which of course, thrilled them to no end.
Overview of the Wylie Camp on the North Rim, Grand Canyon, taken from a nearby forest ranger fire tower. [Photo courtesy Southern Utah Univ. Special Collections]
Family and employee photo. Thomas Mckee at left, Elizabeth & Robert McKee at right. Camp employees surround the famed burro Brighty. [Courtesy Eliz. McKee Scrapbook]
The camp became a part of the “Circle Tour” driven by the Parry brothers buses. The route began at the Union Pacific depot in Lund, Utah and traversed to Zion Canyon. Then travelers were escorted to Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Pipe Springs on the Arizona Strip, and on to the North Rim. Visitors returned to Lund, later Cedar City to catch the UP Train. Although the camp operation was limited in the first years, by 1920 the Wylie camp consisted of a central dining tent and sleeping tents to accommodate 25 guests. Rates were $6/day and included meals. 1 and 2-day horseback trips were available at $3/day plus $2.50/day for bedding and provisions.
Left: Newspaper ad touting Utah and North Rim as tourist destinations. [Salt Lake Tribune, 17June1917]
Right: View of the Wylie tent cabins in the meadow amidst the forest. [Courtesy Margaret Kruger & Eliz. McKee Scrapbook]
W.W. Wylie sold his Zion operation to the Utah Parks Co. in 1923, and the next year transferred his rights to the North Rim camp to daughter Elizabeth. By 1926 the McKees could lodge, feed, and entertain as many as 120 people, and had built a new central services building, installed electric lights, increased their product line for the tourists, and expanded the number of guided tours, conducted almost daily to Points Sublime and Imperial, Cliff Spring, and Cape Royal.
From the National Register, North Rim Entrance Road Corridor Historic District (ca2012):
“Beginning in 1917, Thomas and Elizabeth McKee offered wagon trips and by 1924, automobile trips, from their camp at Bright Angel Point to Point Sublime and Cape Royal. In the latter year, they drove their few customers to these scenic points in a Dodge and two seven-passenger Buicks. Also by 1924, the Parry Brothers of Cedar City, Utah, began to offer automotive bus trips to these points in cooperation with the Union Pacific Railroad and Utah Parks Company. At this same time, motorists in their private vehicles began to visit North Rim. The number of automobiles entering the park from the north increased approximately 1,000 per year through the middle and late 1920s. To handle the increased traffic, the NPS determined to build two new roads at North Rim: a new scenic highway from Bright Angel Point to Cape Royal, and a new entrance highway from the park boundary at Little Park to intersect with the Cape Royal road within Thompson Canyon. After grading Cape Royal Road in 1927-29, they immediately made plans for North Entrance Road.”
View of the Wylie Camp on the North Rim. [Courtesy Margaret Kruger & Eliz. McKee Scrapbook]
The new camp lobby building, built in 1926. [Courtesy Margaret Kruger & Eliz. McKee Scrapbook]
The Grand Canyon Wylie Camp continued operations through the 1927 season. That year the NPS solicited bids for a North Rim concessioner that would construct a large lodge facility. The operation had never been very successful financially, and the McKees were unable to compete with the corporate giant Union Pacific. The UPCo obtained the contract and began construction of the lodge, under the direction of architect G.S. Underwood. UPCo bought the Wylie Camp for a disappointing $25,000 and negotiated with Elizabeth and Thomas to operate the camp for the 1927 season. The UPCo also bought out the Parry transportation interests so they could expand their own transportation operation.
The New Lodge at North Rim
The new Grand Canyon Lodge opened in 1928 with great fanfare, although the official dedication was not held until September 14. More than a million dollars was spent on the facilities and water and power development. The rustic 56,000-square-foot structure was built of native sandstone and rough-hewn ponderosa pine, and designed to blend in with the rugged and rustic location atop the rim of the Grand Canyon. Sleeping accommodations were provided by 100 2-room log lodges and 60 rooms in 20 deluxe lodges, with private bath, fireplace and porches. The operation could sleep 264 guests and offered electric lights, recreation room, lounge, barber shop, 200-person dining room, showers, and other modern luxuries.
A mere four years later the interior of the magnificent structure was destroyed by fire, but only two of the cabins were destroyed. The North Rim Inn had been constructed at the nearby campground in the late 1920s, and visitors could stay there and in the remaining guest cabins and partake of meals at the camp cafeteria. The lodge was rebuilt beginning in 1936.
Newspaper article about plans for the new North Rim Lodge, with an artist conception sketch. [Salt Lake Tribune, 20Feb1927]
Photo of the new Grand Canyon Lodge, ca1929.
In Conclusion . . .
The Wylie Way system of camping and touring successfully operated in three of our great national parks. Begun in 1883 in Yellowstone, the Wylie name and tradition of a simple yet fastidious and enjoyable camping experience continued on for 33 years in Yellowstone and 11 years in Zion and Grand Canyon.
Today the camps are merely a memory. The astute explorer may find a few vestiges of some of the camps in Yellowstone, but one will find few, if any signboards or plaques commemorating this early history. Nor will you find much of any discussion of this early history in the various park's museums, save for the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge where photographs delineate the story of Brighty the mule, who once played a small part in the North Rim Wylie camp. In general, the history and memory of the Wylie camps (and the many other camping companies in Yellowstone) have been unceremoniously erased within the boundaries of the national parks.
The success of the Wylie Way was probably matched only by the Curry Company in Yosemite, founded in 1899 by David Curry. He and his wife Jennie also got their start in Yellowstone, and they no doubt looked upon the Wylie Camps as an inspiration and blueprint for their somewhat similar and very successful camp operations.
But that is yet another story . . . .