Fort Yellowstone

Picture of Fort Yellowstone

The nationally significant Fort Yellowstone-Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District is in the northwestern portion of Yellowstone National Park on an old hot springs formation. The buildings on this plateau represent the first development of administrative and concession facilities in the park.

For the decade after 1872 when Yellowstone National Park was established, the park was under serious threat from those who would exploit, rather than protect, its resources. Poachers killed animals. Souvenir hunters broke large pieces off the geysers and hot springs. Developers set up camps for tourists, along with bath and laundry facilities at hot springs. Civilian superintendents were hired to preserve and protect this land from 1872 through 1886. The good intentions of these early administrators, however, were no match for their lack of experience, funds and manpower. Word got back to Congress that the park was in trouble and legislators refused to appropriate any funds for the park's administration in 1886.

Yellowstone National Park turned to the U.S. Army for help. Invoking the Sundry Civil Act of 1883, the Secretary of the Interior called upon the Secretary of War for assistance in protecting the park. The Army came to the rescue and in 1886 men from Company M, First United States Cavalry, Fort Custer, Montana Territory under Captain Moses Harris came to Yellowstone to begin what would be more than 30 years of military presence in Yellowstone.

When Company M arrived in August 1886, they lived in temporary frame buildings at Camp Sheridan, established at the foot of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. After enduring five cold, harsh winters, the cavalry realized there was no end in sight to this assignment. Therefore, in 1890, Congress appropriated $50,000 for a permanent post. So the days of Fort Yellowstone began.

The first buildings of Fort Yellowstone were finished by late 1891. As more troops were needed, more buildings were constructed: officers' quarters, guard house, headquarters, barracks for enlisted men, stables for their horses and non-commissioned officers' quarters. In 1909, Scottish masons began constructing sandstone buildings here - among them the Albright Visitor Center (then the Bachelor Officers' Quarters) and the administration building (then a two-troop barracks for 200 men). The Chapel, the final building constructed during the Army's tenure, was also constructed of native sandstone. The stone from these buildings was obtained from a local quarry between the Gardner River and the Mammoth Campground.

In 1910, at the height of the Army's presence in Yellowstone, there were 324 soldiers stationed here - plus some families and numerous civilian employees. These troops staffed not only Fort Yellowstone, but were stationed throughout the park in small details at various outposts.

The U.S. Army constructed backcountry cabins and snowshoe cabins to provide facilities for troops patrolling for poachers. Typically these were about 16 miles apart-a day's travel. The four backcountry cabins surviving from this period are still used by the National Park Service for backcountry patrols (visitor safety, law enforcement, poaching), to temporarily house researchers, and as visitor contract stations. Located in remote parts of the park that are accessible only by foot and horseback, these cabins serve as welcome refuges for crews where they can rest and get out of the cold, rain, and snow.

Each cabin is rectangular in the "Rocky Mountain" style which is exemplified by the entrance and covered porch with a gable end. This contrasts with eastern and midwestern log cabins where the entrance is often found on a side wall and the covered entry porch incorporates a shallower pitched shed roof. The roofs are cedar shingles, but were originally sod. Foundations (floors) were originally dirt, but have been replaced with concrete. Doors are on the south side. The cabins rest on concrete foundations with the sill logs directly on the foundation.

Each cabin is on the edge of a relatively flat, irregularly-shaped meadow. Vegetation in the meadow area consists of thick bunchgrasses with a predominance of Idaho fescue. Outside the meadow, the canopy is lodgepole pine, with some Englemann spruce and subalpine fir.

Cabins are one or two rooms incorporating sleeping, cooking and work areas. Interiors are simple. Cabins have both wood heat and cooking stoves. Interior furnishing are typically sparse and include bunk beds, bookcases, table, and may have desks.

Thorofare Patrol Cabin

Built in 1915, the Thorofare patrol cabin is 27.8 feet (L), 15.5 feet (W), and 12.5 feet (H) and consists of two rooms. The saddle notched log walls consist of logs that measure 10-12 inches in diameter at the butt. The gaps between the logs have mortar and lodgepole dowel chinking on the exterior. The roof extends out ten feet to form a covered porch with a wood deck and support posts at each corner. The gable ends are a continuation of the log walls from below and are trimmed in a descending pattern from sill log to roofline.

Fox Creek Patrol Cabin

Constructed in 1915, the Fox Creek Cabin is one room with an overhanging porch (21.5 feet [L], 15.0 feet [W], and 12.2 feet [H]). The log walls have dovetail notching at the corners. The roof extends out 4.5 feet to form a covered porch with a wood deck. The cabin has been modified by replacing original dirt floor with concrete and the original sod roof with cedar shingles (by the CCC in the 1930s).

Harebell Patrol Cabin

This 1915 cabin is just inside the south boundary of the park. Dimensions are 23.0 feet (L), 16.2 feet (W), and 11.0 feet (H). The walls feature saddle notching. The gable roof extends out four feet to form an overhand. The cement floor has a 3.3 feet x 3.7 feet x 4.3 feet cellar in the south corner. The cellar is used to store canned goods.

Buffalo Lake

The men of the "snowshoe cavalry" liked their rough life in the remote recesses of the mountains and often applied freely for detached service. The life was demanding and often isolated, rugged and dangerous, and very different from that most of them had known before. Edwin Kelsey, who served as a soldier in Yellowstone in 1898, later became the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Private Kelsey's letters to his niece describe a difficult but very enjoyable life as a Yellowstone soldier. "December 3, 1898. Left here for the Post [Fort Yellowstone] the Sunday before Thanksgiving...I made 26 miles the first day, staying all night at the Norris [Soldier] Station. The next morning it was 22 degrees below zero, but I pulled out for the Post, which I reached about two p.m. after a cold hard ride of 20 miles." It is not difficult to imagine how important the shelter afforded by the backcountry cabins and snowshoe outposts that the Army constructed was during such outings.

The army built Fort Yellowstone and backcountry outposts during the years they managed the park and these buildings may have the highest integrity of any army post from that period. When you visit Mammoth Hot Springs, park headquarters, be sure to take the Fort Yellowstone Walking Tour which begins at the Albright Visitor Center.

Fort Yellowstone Web Site


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