When the U.S. Army took over administration of Yellowstone National Park in 1886, they brought the Corps of Engineers with them and began building roads. Hiram Chittenden, the engineer in charge, said Park roads should be the best in America and made that so. By 1898 the Corps had completed Park roads in the “Grand Loop” pattern that exists today.
The first bicyclists visited the park in 1881. They rode “ordinaries,” ungainly contraptions with tiny rear wheels and front wheels up to 60 inches tall. In 1885 “safety bikes” with equal-size front and rear wheels were invented. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century “wheelmen,” as cyclists called themselves, frequented Yellowstone’s fine roads. Here’s how one of them described his trip in 1898.
From Cinnabar, through the park, the government has graded 170 miles of road and is adding more each year. The air is bracing, the blood tingles in one’s veins. Along an avenue of trees, the roads—which are good—with grades and curves enough to fascinate, soon lead to Beaver lake, quiet, in the valleys. Then to the left that great mountain of jet black glass, Obsidian Cliffs, looms up hundreds of feet high, and next Twin Lakes—one a lovely green, the other a somber black—two sisters, one in bridal garb, the other in deep mourning.
And just beyond a group of tents suggested that my appetite for things of earth had come back. A dinner for a dollar, and I got all I paid for; then out of the valley came smells of that other country that has been a standing menace to bad boys from time immemorial. Jets of steam raising in the air lead one down the road and suddenly you are in the midst of the grandest group of boiling springs in the world.
The smell is of the infernal regions. Spouting geysers of crystal water, boiling hot, boiling springs of purple, yellow and green waters are on every side. Awestruck with the mystery of the world, we moved along with hot water, smoke, steam, hissing noises and bad smells on every side.
Here, in the midst of Nature’s grandest efforts, a storm broke loose, the rain fell, the lightning flashed, and thunder roared and crashed upon the mountainside, until the writer, who had found shelter under an overhanging rock, began to figure up his life insurance. Then the storm cleared away.
Having gone down hill several miles to cross Gibbon river, I began the climb again, mile after mile along winding hillsides, yet so gradual that very little walking was necessary; then along the summit of the mountain, with elk, antelope and deer in sight every few minutes; then down another long slope until the Madison river is reached; then for miles along an enchanted stream.
For miles the road leads through these marvels of the world until the Upper Geyser basin is reached, and old Faithful greets you with a spout of crystal water a hundred feet high. The giant roars a welcome. Almost countless boiling springs are on every side.
The road leads out through the pines, and a start is made for Yellowstone Lake sixteen miles away. Again the mountain road becomes too steep to ride, and we dismount and push our wheel up the winding hill until the summit is reached.
It is a perfect wheeling road that you traverse for miles after passing the divide. Then comes into view Yellowstone lake, hid away in the midst of snow-capped mountains. The past fifteen miles has been through grand parks, along enchanting streams and meadows, and over roads lined with rarest wild flowers that fill the air with perfume.
A group of white tents on the bank of the lake, with the smell of roasting beef, broiling trout and coffee, calls one back to life. The wheel is set against a tree while a dinner is stowed away, and then rest on the grassy slopes in the balmy breezes that ruffle the green waters in the midst of God’s grandest hills.
From this point there is a fine road for eighteen miles skirting the lake. Also, there is a small steamer that will convey you to the other side. Both ways are tempting and it is hard to decide, but sitting on the deck of a steamer is easier than sitting on a wheel. That settles it, and soon we are on the craft for a ride on waters that are magical with their green hues and shadows of the giant mountains.
It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon when a landing is made at the Yellowstone hotel, a tempting place to stop for the night. But in that latitude there are six hours of daylight still in which to make the seventeen miles to the Grand canon. The roads are fine and a start is made.
At the hotel a brook trout, hot from the broiler and as large as the platter, is set before one. A good dinner and a good bed followed the day, and the next day to come finds one still fascinated with the magnificence of the scene.
Another day, and the wheel is pushed three miles to the summit of the range. For three miles the road leads down the mountain past the Virginia Cascades, the road too rough to ride part of the way, then good wheeling except in a few places, back to Cinnabar, thirty-five miles.
One hundred and seventy-two miles had been made on the wheel, less about fifteen miles of walking up and down hill. Were there any mistakes? Yes, two of them. The wheel bucked one day and a header was taken down the hillside, and a bruised knee and torn trousers resulted, requiring the service of sticking plaster and a tailor.
Another time, the road being good and winding down hill around the base of a mountain, the wheel was fairly spinning along, when around a curve not twenty feet away was lying in the track a large black bear. There was every indication of a collision head-on, and the wheelman thought he would be telescoped. He yelled, then jumped, rolling over several times in the rose bushes, by the roadside. The wheel shot ahead. All this time the bear was “a humping of himself” to get out of the way. I don’t know what he thought, but he went up the side of that mountain like a bounty jumper going to Canada. The wheel came out of the circus all right, but the rider had to take off his shoes to find his collar button.
— Abridged from C. E Belknap, “A Wheel Trip in Yellowstone Park.” League of American Wheelmen Bulletin and Good Roads. August 28, 1896.
— Image, advertisement from League of American Wheelmen Bulletin and Good Roads.
3 thoughts on “A Tale: Bicycling Through Yellowstone Park in 1898”
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