Images of the West
Entrepreneurs on the Edges of Yellowstone
Stagecoach service between Bozeman and Mammoth Hot Springs began in 1873 over a sometimes treacherous road that passed through Yankee Jim Canyon. Service from Virginia City to the Lower Geyser Basin began a few years later. Photo By: Pioneer Museum
Gilman Sawtell, far right, poses with travelers in his cabin at Henry's Lake, Idaho. He led a group to the park in 1871 becoming Yellowstone's first paid guide. Early travelers often spent several days at Sawtell's. Photo By: Island Park Historical Society
Bottler's Ranch in the Paradise Valley was halfway between Bozeman and Mammoth making it the perfect overnight stop. Bottler catered to travelers providing horses, supplies and guide services. Photo By: William H. Jackcon
James McCartney's cabin at the mouth of Clementis Gulch near Mammoth was the first structure in the park and served as a primitive hotel. Photo By: National Park Service
Railroad tracks skirted by "Yankee Jim" George's cabin ending his toll road monopoly on access to the north entrance to Yellowsstone Park. A notorious teller of tall tales, Yankee Jim earned entries in many travelers' journals. Photo By: Pioneer Museum
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IN THE DECADE BEFORE THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CREATED THE WORLD’S FIRST NATIONAL PARK, AMBITIOUS MEN FLOODED INTO MONTANA. They came to find gold, but settled into other businesses instead. After the Washburn Expedition of 1870, word spread about the wonders of the area, these former fortune hunters anticipated a lucrative tourist trade and began building roads, hotels, and stagecoach lines.
One of these bold men was Gilman Sawtell, a blue-eyed blond who came West after the Civil War. After spending some time prospecting in 1866, he settled at Henry’s lake in eastern Idaho about 15 miles west of the present West Yellowstone.
Sawtell’s main business was harvesting and selling trout — as many as 40,000 of them a year. To make his commercial fish business work, Sawtell had to keep his product fresh and haul it quickly to market. So he built a road to the closest market, Virginia City, 90 miles away. Sawtell sawed blocks of ice from the lake in winter and stored them in a thick-walled icehouse he built of logs. He harvested fish until he had enough to fill his wagon, packed them in ice and hauled them to market.
While launching this enterprise, Sawtell built a veritable village. By 1871 he had six well-built log buildings: a residence, a blacksmith shop, a stable, a storage shed for skins and game, and his icehouse. Sawtell apparently had guests in mind when he built his compound. His whitewashed house was big enough to accommodate 20 people and had numerous bedsteads, stools, and tables. He kept enough stoneware to feed that many. Sawtell’s road and his location a day’s ride from the Lower Geyser Basin made his ranch an ideal stopover for travelers going to see the geysers.
Nobody knows when Sawtell began visiting Yellowstone, but he was telling stories about geysers by the mid-1860s and reports of his stories leave no doubt about what he saw. One traveler who heard his tales as a little girl said:
My fairy books could not equal such wonderful tales. Fountains of boiling water, crystal clear, thrown hundreds of feet in the air only to fall back into pools of their own forming; pools of water within whose limpid depths tints of various rainbows were reflected; mounds and terraces of gaily colored sand.
In 1871 Sawtell guided a group of men from Virginia City and Deer Lodge on a tour that covered the geyser basins, Yellowstone Lake, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Because of that trip, Sawtell is credited with being the first commercial Yellowstone guide.
A chronicler of that trip, Calvin Clause wrote that after having a meal at Sawtell’s, the party “unanimously voted that we christen it the Hotel de Sawtell.”
Beginning with the Washburn Expedition of 1870 and continuing for the next two decades many early travelers tell of spending several happy days at Sawtell’s. Although Sawtell was sometimes absent because of threats from nearby Bannack Indians, guests made themselves at home. One group of young men spent a frigid night sleeping on a layer of sawdust that covered blocks of ice in the icehouse, but people were generally comfortable in the snug buildings. They could borrow Sawtell’s boats to fish or hunt water birds on the 8-mile lake, or hunt big game in the nearby mountains.
While Sawtell was building a business at Henry’s Lake, another pioneer was doing the same near the north entrance to Yellowstone Park. In 1868 after the Fort Laramie Treaty forced the Crow Indians to cede their claims north and west of the Yellowstone River, Fred Bottler decided to settle in the Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone River north of the park.
When Bottler was unloading his plow near the mouth of Trail Creek, he saw a group of Crow braves practicing maneuvers across the Yellowstone River. He put the plow back on his wagon moved further south to a spot across the valley from where miners worked their claims in Emigrant Gulch. The miners not only deterred the Indians, they also provided a ready market for Bottler’s produce.
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PHOTO CREDITS >>
The story that might have been lost
Posted By Alanna on Nov 17, 2008
Work like this is so important, just as the small county museums preserve a history of place that would otherwise be lost. Who knew that so much was in place before the Hayden Expedition? That a crude capitalism was already in place in the 1860s? I always wonder what the Indians thought of these dirty stragglers with the powerful guns who killed a staggering amount of animals and fish. Mark gives us one-half of the story. The first footfalls of settlement before trains forever changed the West. I am grateful for the careful presentation and the images that tell a story we would not otherwise know. Well-done.