When I think about nationally significant resources that are too rarely, for my taste, recognized as such, I think about West Yellowstone and its Union Pacific Railroad complex. It is not that the residents of West Yellowstone, Montana, do not identify these places as vitally significant to their history–few districts have better public
interpretation courtesy of the West Yellowstone Walking Tour, one of the best examples of local heritage tourism I have seen in the country, period. But still within the history of the western national parks the role of the Union Pacific, as it extended far north of its mainline to reach Yellowstone National Park, is seldom considered, much less appreciated.
Officially the property was designated as the West Yellowstone Oregon Short Line Terminus and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Several buildings and structures, including a bit of the railroad line are included in the district. Construction of the line occurred from 1906-1908 and the first passengers arriving in the latter year. The passenger depot now serves as a museum, not just about the railroad but about the
development of the park and the adjacent region. Completed in 1909 and designed by the railroad’s engineering office using rhyolite stone, the depot with its prominent brackets and arches reflect elements of the Arts and Crafts style popular at the time. When passenger traffic to the depot ended c. 1970, the railroad deeded the depot to the town of West Yellowstone and a private museum was installed c. 1972. The Yellowstone Historic Center leased the depot in 2000 and has installed much improved exhibits–again part of the general improvement in public interpretation at the district in the last 30 years.
The district’s architectural jewel, the Dining Room, dates almost a generation later to 1926. Architect Gilbert S. Underwood designed one of the late marvels of the Rustic style as defined in the northern Rockies. With its rugged stone exterior rising as it was a natural formation in the land, the dining room immediately told arriving visitors that an adventure awaited them, especially once they stepped inside and experienced the vast log interior spaces.
Other former Union Pacific buildings have been given adaptive reuse treatment by the town, with a baggage building becoming police headquarters and the former men’s dormitory has been converted into a local health clinic.
West Yellowstone is also an entrepreneurial landscape, with the early Madison Hotel, which is listed in the National Register, being just the beginning of a trend where local businesses began to serve visitors to the park, especially as the automobile replaced the train as the primary way to reach this gateway after World War II.
Thus, West Yellowstone is among Montana’s best examples of roadside architecture as distinctive 19502-1960w motels and a wide assortment of commercial types line both U.S. 191 but also the side arteries to the highway.