"All Aboard!": The Role of the Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks

Johns, Joshua Scott , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

When Mark Twain viewed Albert Bierstadt's painting The Domes of the Yosemite in 1867, he declared it "altogether too gorgeous," adding that "as a picture, this work must please, but as a portrait, I do not think it will answer. Portraits should be accurate." Despite Twain's suspicion of the lack of verisimilitude in the painting, the New York audience was eager for images of the territory west of the Mississippi. Paintings and sketches of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone suggested that America possessed scenery more majestic than Europe's and that despite the chaos of the Civil War and its aftermath, America was still destined for greatness. The founding of the National Park idea in these two very different Wests was a process by which images of the West were inserted into the national imagination. Yellowstone and Yosemite were dedicated with the idea that wilderness formed an integral part of the American identity, but they were also places sponsored and promoted by the railroads to court investors and maximize profits. From the earliest days of discovery to the crucial National Park Act of 1916, the process of park development was shaped by needs of the railroads--from acquiring investors to selling mass-market tourism, they modified their advertising strategies to win the patronage of new passengers with the promise of fulfilling their expectations of the West in "America's playgrounds."

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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