Friday, May 25, 2018
After bidding adieu to Garryowen on Wednesday, we drove the short distance to Billings to run some errands. We still had one day to kill before we were scheduled to be in Gardiner, Montana, so we spent the night at Sam’s Club. It was way better than Wally Docking. We hit the road early the next morning, pointing our motorhome toward Gardiner, at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park.
As we topped the last hill on U.S. Route 89, before entering the town of Gardiner, we caught our first glimpse of the iconic fifty-foot tall Roosevelt Arch, the original entrance to the park. Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872. Gardiner served as the main gateway to the park. Due to Yellowstone’s remote location, the park only received about a 1,000 visitors annually during its first few years in operation.
Tourism exploded after the Northern Pacific Railway reached Livingston, Montana. Soon afterward, the Northern Pacific added a spur to Cinnabar, a few miles north of Gardiner. From there, people traveled by horse-drawn carriages to the park. In 1902, the trains reached Gardiner. Passengers boarded stagecoaches to continue their trip through the park.
The idea behind the arch is said to have been the brainchild of Hiram M. Chittenden of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. He felt the approach to the park was barren and lacked visual flair. Gardiner had just built a beautiful train depot in the rustic architectural style, and both park administrators and townspeople agreed that something was needed to improve the dusty staging area.
Construction on the soaring edifice of native columnar basalt began on February 19, 1903. It was positioned to face the train depot. On April 24, Gardiner had its big day with the laying of the arch’s cornerstone. It was pure happenstance that President Theodore Roosevelt had planned a two-week vacation to the park to coincide with the laying of the cornerstone. The arch was not originally intended to honor Roosevelt, but the decision was made to name the arch after him when he was asked to help dedicate it.
A canister was arranged by local Masons and placed inside the arch during the dedication ceremony. The canister, which is now known as a time capsule, is said to contain a Bible, a picture of Roosevelt, Masonic documents, local newspapers, U.S. coins, and a copy of the World’s Almanac dated 1903, among other items.
The side of the arch that faces Gardiner is embellished with three ornamental tablets molded entirely with concrete. The largest tablet sits above the crown of the arch. It reads: FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE. It is an extract from the Act creating Yellowstone National Park. The tablet on the left tower is inscribed with the words: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, and the one on the right tower reads: CREATED BY ACT OF CONGRESS MARCH 1, 1872.
It was gloomy this morning when we set out to visit Yellowstone. Our first stop was to view the arch, a popular attraction for visitors entering the park through the north entrance. I waited impatiently for people and cars to leave so I could take pictures of the icon without any impediments. Though rustic in design, the arch is striking against the stark landscape. To the east, Electric Peak, the sixth highest mountain in Yellowstone, stands sentinel over the arch’s right flank. Still capped with snow at the brink of June, the peak is nearly as captivating as the arch. But as beautiful as the mountain is, my eyes were riveted on the arch. Don’t get me wrong—Old Faithful, Hayden Valley, and even the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are spectacular, but there is something about the simplicity of the Roosevelt Arch that outshines them all.
Roosevelt never returned to Yellowstone to see his namesake completed. But you can still see the cornerstone on your right as you pass through the historic arch from Gardiner. The stone is more squarely finished than the surrounding stones, and is inscribed with the date “Apr 24 1903.” If you ever visit Gardiner, I encourage you to take a moment to admire the foundation stone Roosevelt laid 115 years ago. Although nondescript, it is still a remarkable piece of history.