A Roundhouse Evolution?

Early on in my National Park Service career, I became enamored with the connective history of National Parks and railroads.  It began with my employment at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1986 when I learned that the principal visitor amenities of lodging and food service were made possible through the construction of those facilities by the Union Pacific Railroad. By the time I retired, I had worked at, and or visited, ten different parks with a railroad tie.

The purpose of a railroad “Roundhouse” (like the one pictured below) was to provide a mechanism to turn locomotives and other train equipment and stock around so it could travel in the opposite direction or divert it to another track.  In this train trivia section, I hope to illustrate how train travel to and through our national parks has evolved and where it may be headed. Have fun in trying to answer this trivia questionnaire as it reveals a few of the connections between railroads and the National Park Service (NPS). The pictures may help in providing clues to the answers.

Steamtown National Historical Park roundhouse

The notion of riding a train to, or through, a national park unit is not a new one.  Indeed, Americans have been fascinated by train travel and the romanticism linked to a period in time before the automobile and the Interstate Highway System.  

Few people realize railroads played a significant role in the establishment of several western national parks.  In 1872 Yellowstone, the first national park in the United States and the world, was created by Congress.  Its creation was by no means a simplistic act.

Earlier, the Northern Pacific Railroad financed survey parties to find an acceptable northern route to the Pacific Ocean.  The surveyors traveled the Yellowstone basin and explored the amazing resources.  Although the territory was not a good location to lay down railroad track, railroad employees realized that passengers might be lured to the fascinating sites and transported by rail to a nearby location that would provide access to the area.

1        At the same time in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, an evolution was also occurring. In 1870, Valley Railway began construction in what would later become the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA).  The Recreation Area was established to preserve the history (and other purposes) of the area.  The CVNRA 25th anniversary logo (in 1999) represents historic transportation modes. Which form of transportation did the railroad eventually replace?

a)  Canal

b)  Automobile

c)  Dirigible

d)  Foot

Answer: The seasonal Ohio & Erie Canal was no match for the year-round, relatively quick transport of goods and people by rail. The canal did function along with the railroad until the great flood of 1913 demolished the canal infrastructure and drained the canal era of any hope of recuperating from its glory days of the 1800’s. 

Author’s Notes: Parts of the canal are still functioning.  When I worked at the park from 1999 to 2002, I participated in demonstrating to visitors and school groups, how a canal lock works.  The restored, functional lock-in CVNP, is located by the Canal Visitor Center.

2        In 1899 westward expansion continued. One railroad which definitely was worthy of the nickname “Iron Horse,” was a very welcomed addition to the scene.  Which railroad, of what park unit, essentially replaced the “infamous” Golden Staircase as the main thoroughfare to transport supplies, equipment, speculators, dreamers, adventurers, and other stampeders to the land of the midnight sun?

a)   Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad of CVNRA

b)  The White Pass Railroad of Klondike Gold Rush NHP in Skagway, AK

c)   The Santa Fe Railroad of Petrified Forest National Park

d)  Amtrak’s Empire Builder in Glacier National Park

Answer:  A very hazardous and perilous journey to the gold fields of the Yukon and Alaska territories, became a lot easier when the White Pass Railroad was completed in 1899 eliminating the need to hike people, animals, and materials over either the treacherous Chilkoot Pass or White Pass, outside of Skagway and Dyea, Alaska. The White Pass was so treacherous, an estimated 3,000 horses perished as the desperate stampeders pushed their horses beyond their limits.

The White Pass Railroad in the early 1990’s

Author’s note: Early in the 1990’s I hiked the Chilkoot Trail to the “scales,” (roughly located in the large patch of snow in the photo above) which was a half-mile below the pass. During the gold rush, Canadian Royal Mounted Police were stationed at the pass and recorded the weight of supplies for each person entering Canada.  The Canadian government required each person to possess at least 2,000 pounds of supplies (estimated to last one person for a year) upon entry into their country.  The Chilkoot Trail attracts about 10,000 sightseers a year, nowadays.  Most visitors travel no more than a fraction of the 33-mile trail as a day hike.  The above photo is from my trip.  A few hikers can be discerned on the snowfield as they approach the barren Golden Staircase. Among a boulder field during my hike, I encountered a worn, wooden tombstone.  The park claims to be the world’s longest outdoor museum, as discarded and abandoned machinery and objects litter the corridor. Some of the reminders left an ominous tone and impression on me.

An old wood stove near the Canyon City campground

Gravesites at the Lindeman City cemetery in Canada

As railroads gained steam increasing their reach into the vast western wilderness, visitation to the parks was increasing. No longer did stagecoaches serve as the most viable form of transportation over long distances. Railroad Barons began to dominate the west in more than the transportation industry. Once the railroad delivered visitors to their destination, it was logical for the railroads to provide the accommodations, the only accommodations for miles around.

Several “Grand”, rustic hotels built with local materials were constructed near primary, park attractions during the early years of several national parks.  For instance, beginning as early as 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad underwrote the construction of a series of hotels in Yellowstone National Park.

3        Which “railroad” hotel is considered to be the world’s largest log cabin type construction?

  1. The El Tovar on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
  2. The Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  3. The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, California
  4. The Many Glacier Lodge in Glacier National Park, Montana

Answer: Standing nearly 9 stories high, the Old Faithful Inn, built in 1903, is considered by many to be the “Grandest” of the rustic national park lodges.  Unfortunately, many others have burned down or were replaced or removed because they were considered fire hazards.  The other three listed in the question above, are still with us, and stand as a testament to the earlier years of majestic, grandiose visitor facility construction in our national parks.

Author’s note: A lobby like no other, when I first stepped into the Inn in 1992, I was stunned by the immensity and beauty of the space, its architecture and construction. The structure was nearly lost during the Yellowstone fires of 1988, which burned half of the park’s two million acres. For more information about my experiences in fighting forest fires, check out this blog entry

4        In 1907, the Yosemite Valley Railroad started passenger rail service to Yosemite National Park.  The invention of the automobile allowed visitors more freedom in their travels and eventually the number of visitors arriving by automobile surpassed those arriving by train.  In what year did the number of automobile visitors exceed the number of train visitors?

  1. 1909
  2. 1916
  3. 1924
  4. 1932

Answer:  14,251 passengers were transported by train compared to 14,527 by automobile to Yosemite in 1916.  One year later the difference was larger, 8,612 by train compared to 22,456 by auto. That trend continued and eventually the rail line was removed from the park

The valley with Half Dome in the distance

El Portal train station 1923, at the west entrance to the park

Not all areas of the country were being affected by the rise of the automobile. One railroad in particular capitalized on the remoteness of the area.

5        What former railroad line took visitors, to what National Park, also known as America’s Switzerland?

  1. Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe RR – Yosemite NP
  2. Alaska Railroad – Denali NP & P
  3. Northern Pacific RR – Yellowstone NP
  4. Great Northern RR (Empire Builder) – Glacier NP

Grinnell Glacier is one of the 25 remaining glaciers left in the park

Goose Island in St. Mary’s Lake

Going to the Sun Road

Architectural features of Many Glacier Lodge embraced the style of construction seen in the Alps.

Bordering Glacier NP is Canada’s Waterton Lakes NP.  Built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway, the Prince of Wales Hotel also reflected the Swiss Alps architecture.

Author’s Note: What I perceive, as the most influential railroad company on a park’s early history, was the Great Northern Railway. Between 1910 and 1915, the Great Northern Railway spent $2.3 million dollars in visitor accommodations and facilities in the Glacier National Park area. Today, Amtrak provides the passenger service to Glacier NP, and has retained the route name of “Empire Builder.”  My blog chronicling the history of transportation in Glacier NP can be found in my first KCKPL travelogue at

So ingrained with Glacier NP’s natural resources, the Great Northern Railway adopted “Rocky” as a symbol of the company in 1921.  Mountain goats technically are not goats, instead they are a member of the antelope family

6        The reason for the creation of one national park unit was to eliminate the hunting of, and for the protection of, large game animals.  The hunting of the game animals was done, in part, to feed the railroad construction workers laying track through an area that would become a national park.  Ironically, the taking of large game for the railroad workers was a main reason why noted naturalist Charles Sheldon, sought protection of the area. The park was established in 1917 and for many years the railroad provided the only real avenue of transportation to the park.  Which one was it?

  1. Grand Canyon National Park
  2. Glacier National Park
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park
  4. Mt. McKinley National Park (Renamed Denali National Park & Preserve in 1980)

Answer: The large mammals of moose, caribou and North America’s only wild white sheep, the Dall Sheep, are found in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve.  These animals were a staple of the diets to the railroad workers and for the gold miners in the Kantishna Hills mining district 30 miles from Mt. McKinley.

Author’s note: I had the great pleasure to work at Denali NP&P during the summers of 1987, 88 and 90.  During that span, I did a round trip on the Alaska Railroad from Denali NP to Anchorage and back.  One interesting moment during my trip was when the train stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.  As it turned out, the stoppage was to pick-up passengers at the their “roadless” home.  That is, their house was not connected to a traditional road system and the occupants utilized “flagstop” train service for their transportation needs to get to town.  Later I learned that the community of Bettles, Alaska (population of 43 in 2000) which I visited in the early 90’s, also is not connected to the road system in the usual way.  During the winter, a portion of the old Hickel Highway does connect once the ground is frozen and produces an ice road.  Many homes and communities in Alaska rely on “non-traditional” forms of transportation.

7        On into the 1920’s, at parks insulated from the automobile travelers by great distances and few roads, one railroad company was still evolving and expanding their tourist services. Lodges at Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon were all built by the same railroad company.  Which one was it?

  1. Southern Pacific
  2. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway
  3. Union Pacific
  4. Northern Pacific

Answer: The Union Pacific underwrote construction at the three park sites listed in this question.  The lodge at the North Rim was reconstructed after a fire in 1928 destroyed the original structure.  The original lodge contained a tower with a giant searchlight used to light up the canyon in the evenings. It was replaced with a smaller facility, minus the searchlight tower.

From a 1986 brochure I collected while employed at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, are pictures of the lodge.  Shown from a canyon side perspective is the original lodge and (inset) the rebuilt version which opened in 1932.

North Rim lodge front entrance

North Rim lodge back veranda

Author’s note: The North Rim had a Kansas City connection when I worked there in the summer of 1986.  TW Recreational Services was the concessionaire at the time and was a subsidiary of the TW Corporation, as was Kansas City’s own Trans-World Airlines.  In 2019, I returned to the canyon to hike from the North Rim to the South Rim, and then hiked back three days later.  My blog on that adventure can be found at this link

Transportation of the 1930’s, 40’s and early 50’s changed steadily and so did the clientele at the national parks. During the peak of rail transportation, those that arrived by rail were typically more affluent. Their stays at the parks were normally for several days or weeks.

But with the advent of, and affordability of the automobile, national parks became more accessible to middle class citizens. Their stays averaged fewer days. As a result, guest facilities evolved. In the grand lodges, reading and game rooms were remodeled into gift or snack shops. Motels were “invented” and construction of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Glacier NP and a multitude of others were added to national park accommodations.

President Eisenhower’s administration in the late 50’s introduced and implemented the Interstate Highway system. This further increased the ease, speed and accessibility of American tourists by horseless carriages. As a result, train travel to national parks continued down the tracks to oblivion.

Although train engines became more efficient (and perhaps more competitive with autos) in the 1940’s with the manufacture and use of diesel locomotives, the railroads found it more profitable to haul freight, than passengers. But perhaps it was the loss of those belching, noisy, hissing steam engines that made Americans miss the good ole days.

The downward spiral of train travel to national parks slowed down in the 60’s. However, the momentum was about to shift.

8       Soon after the creation of a national park unit in 1974, visitors embarked on a train excursion for the first time in 12 years. Which National Park unit in the Buckeye State, would they have visitors riding the rails for the inaugural ride on June 26, 1975?

  1. Yosemite National Park
  2. Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
  3. Cuyahoga Valley NP (Formerly Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area – CVNRA)
  4. Zion National Park

Answer: Although locomotive #4070 is no longer in operation, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad plays an integral part of the visitor experience at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP).  Of the 400 plus park unit sites, CVNP is one of only 13 NPS units that has passenger/visitor rail transportation within, or at, its boundaries.

The other twelve units include: Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Denali NP&P, Glacier NP, Grand Canyon NP, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP), Indian Dunes NP, Klondike Gold Rush NHP, Mojave National Preserve, National Capital Parks, New River Gorge National River, Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP, and Steamtown National Historic Site (NHS)

9        Not long after the 4070 was fired up, 1989 saw the rebirth of a steam locomotive passenger train.  Not only as a sightseeing train but also to deliver visitors to a “Grand” Hotel.  Which park unit was it?

  1. Yellowstone National Park
  2. Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim
  3. Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area
  4. Crater Lake National Park

Answer:  Just down the hill from the famous El Tovar Hotel located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you will find the historic train depot pictured in the lower of the two photos immediately above.  Another historic tie to Kansas City, exists between the South Rim and KC.  In 1954 the Fred Harvey Company purchased the South Rim hotels from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad.  The Fred Harvey business empire was quite impressive operating hotels and “eating houses” (essentially chain hotels/restaurants serving train passengers of the AT&SF railroad lines).  Prior to 1954, Fred Harvey headquarters was in KC’s Union Station when it opened in 1914.  There were many shops and restaurants (all owned and operated by Fred Harvey) under the roof and it has been suggested that Union Station was our country’s first indoor shopping mall.  The shops closed in 1968 when the Amfac Corporation bought the Fred Harvey Company.

Kansas City Union Station in all its Glory!

10      For many, the nostalgia of steam engines and train travel must live on. Many persons in Congress and the rest of our nation agree. In 1986 what National Park Service unit was created to tell the story of steam railroading, and the people who made it possible?

  1. Steamtown NHS at Scranton, PA
  2. Klondike Gold Rush NHP in Skagway, AK
  3. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in KY
  4. National Capitol Parks in Washington, DC

Answer: Steamtown NHS.  Currently, Steamtown runs a scenic 26-mile round-trip passenger excursion train on weekends from Memorial Day through October from the Park’s boundaries in Scranton, to Moscow, PA

11      One area of the country was not affected by the national trend, perhaps because the state owned the railroad. Which state owns the rail line and provides passenger service to one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service? Name the state and the park.

  1. State of Ohio – Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  2. State of Pennsylvania – Steamtown National Historic Site
  3. State of Arizona – Grand Canyon National Park
  4. State of Alaska – Denali National Park & Preserve

Answer:  The successful Alaska Railroad Corporation does profit from ferrying passengers to Denali National Park & Preserve, however the majority of its income comes from hauling freight, not the seasonal visitors.  The railroad also profits from fees charged to the Princess and Holland-America cruise ship companies that possess their own railcars to carry tourists from Seward to Fairbanks, and points in between.

12      This unique railway is primarily a commuter route serving the “Windy City,” with ridership flowing from bedroom communities to downtown.  However, it does provide transport for city dwellers to visit a lakeside National Park.  What is the name of the rail way and the national park?

  1. Bay Area Rapid Transit – Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  2. Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad – Cuyahoga Valley NP
  3. Yosemite Valley Railroad – Yosemite NP
  4. South Shore Line – Indiana Dunes NP

This electrically powered railway is one of the last interurban commuter rail lines in the United States

Answer: In 1966 Congress established Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a park unit along the southern shores of Lake Michigan that is managed by the National Park Service.  Within its boundaries at its inception was the existence of the South Shore Line.  The 90 miles of rail line was built between 1901 and 1908. Indiana Dunes was redesignated as the nation’s 61st national park on February 15, 2019.

Authors note: At the turn of the century, my wife and I planned to visit Chicago (we were living near Cleveland, OH) for a few days.  My wife formerly worked at Indiana Dunes National Park and had used the South Shore on several occasions.  She showed me the ropes and we stayed at the Dunewood Campground and simply took a five minute walk to the Beverly Shores train station for our trip into Chicago.  It was a fantastic (and very inexpensive) way to visit the area.  It was early spring, and we basically had the campground to ourselves. Plus, the train ride was fun and could not have been more convenient.

Rail transportation continues to capture the imaginations of millions of people worldwide.  In the United States, we are fortunate to have national park units where riding the rails can be more than just a fantasy, but a reality. 

Grand Canyon National Park is one example where an ironic twist may take place.  In the park’s master plan, a light rail system is planned to replace the automobile as the main form of transportation on the south rim of the canyon.

The heritage of rail transportation in this country is an interesting one. One that appears to have a living reminder as we chug into the future. Perhaps your thoughts may be similar to the one below, quoted over a century ago. You may be surprised by the answer. I was.

13      The following quote (captured in Century Magazine, November 1902) belongs to what famous conservationist?

When I first heard of the Santa Fe trains running to the edge of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, I was troubled with thoughts of the disenchantment likely to follow.  But last winter, when I saw those trains crawling along through the pines of the Coconino Forest and close up to the brink of the chasm at Bright Angel, I was glad to discover that in the presence of such stupendous scenery they are nothing.  The locomotives and trains are mere beetles and caterpillars, and the noise they make is as little disturbing as the hooting of an owl in the lonely woods.

  1. John Muir
  2. Teddy Roosevelt
  3. Aldo Leopold
  4. Gifford Pinchot

Answer: Although Teddy Roosevelt was so enamored by the Grand Canyon that he signed a presidential executive order creating it as a National Monument in 1908, it was John Muir that made the statement.

By 1953 tourists bound for the Grand Canyon by rail had decreased significantly except for the occasional surge or special event.  The Boy Scouts of America Jamboree provided the glut of passenger cars pictured above in 1953.

Authors note: You may encounter during the summer, as I have, groups of scouts, using Amtrak to get to the Philmont Scout reservation in New Mexico.  Amtrak’s “Southwest Chief” leaves KC’s Union Station traveling through New Mexico, continuing on to Los Angeles, on a daily basis in the summer season.

To experience more realistically the Grand Canyon rails, click on the following linkGrand Canyon train in action

Our national passenger rail organization, Amtrak, has embraced the history of traveling by train to many of our national parks.  Although Amtrak’s National Parks trip packages are not exclusively by train, the many advantages of train travel persists.  Of course, one can put together their own itinerary and enjoy a vacation car free.

For additional discussions on the impacts railroads (and the people behind them) had on shaping our national parks, four books are worth noting which provide insightful commentary on the topic.

Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation and National Parks: The American Experience both by Alfred Runte

Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West by Stephen Fried

Great Lodges of the West by Christine Barnes

And from historian and award-winning film producer Ken Burns The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: An Illustrated History documentary DVD

Photo credits:

  1. Adobe Stock Image (ASI)
  2. National Park Service (NPS)
  3. NPS
  4. NPS
  5. Photo by author Steve Oakes
  6. Photo by author  
  7. NPS – S. Millard
  8. NPS – S. Millard
  9. NPS – Jim Peaco
  10. NPS – Jim Peaco
  11. NPS – Jim Peaco
  12. US Geological Survey
  13. NPS
  14. NPS
  15. ASI
  16. ASI
  17. ASI
  18. ASI
  19. NPS
  20. ASI
  21. ASI
  22. Scanned image taken from author Steve Oakes collection of Yosemite National Park brochure, circa 1915
  23. Scanned image from author Steve Oakes collection – NPS brochure
  24. NPS
  25. NPS
  26. NPS
  27. NPS
  28. NPS –Michael Quinn
  29. NPS –Michael Quinn
  30. ASI
  31. NPS
  32. Photo by author
  33. Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District
  34. Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District
  35. NPS
  36. NPS
  37. NPS

Scanned image taken from author Steve Oakes collection –

About the author – Main library associate Steve Oakes, is a former National Park Ranger at Denali, Carlsbad and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks.  Oakes and his wife enjoy hiking and backpacking in “wild” places and using trains as their main source of transport.

More information and photos will be provided during his National Parks and Trains program, hopefully later in 2021 at the Main Library.  Details forthcoming.

© Steve Oakes