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Old railroad takes new form

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The old Yellowstone Special train cruises around Reas Pass. The Special ran daily throughout the summer season for the duration of passenger service to West Yellowstone. The Yellowstone Express was later added as a second passenger train to West Yellowstone to meet rising demands. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YELLOWSTONE HISTORIC CENTER

Bike trail to be built on former Union Pacific Railroad bed

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

WEST YELLOWSTONE – In 1883, just over a decade after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, a group of mustache-sporting cyclists became the first to pedal through Yellowstone. The brigade traveled by train from Laramie, Wyoming along the Union Pacific Railroad, offloading 85 miles from the park before embarking on an intrepid and sometimes arduous adventure.

Today, with the Union Pacific Railroad long since retired and the commercialization of the national park, locals of West Yellowstone sought to create an experience that would parallel the exploits of the railway’s past travelers, like those of the dapper cyclists that made history atop their bike saddles.

In 1883, a group of cyclists became the first to bike through Yellowstone National Park, riding penny-farthing bicycles. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AMERICAN HERITAGE CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING

The Yellowstone Short Line Trail, a project recently announced by its creators and fiscal sponsor the Yellowstone Historic Center, will be a 9-mile gravel trail stretching from the historic district of West Yellowstone to Reas Pass near the Montana-Idaho border, mostly on U.S. Forest Service land.

According to Ellen Butler, the historic center’s curator and fundraising assistant, the project’s organizers are excited to offer an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to base outdoor recreation in the region’s historical context. The 10-foot wide trail will feature a number of amenities, including benches, pavilions, bike maintenance stations and interpretive signs exploring the area’s cultural and natural history.

Butler said the historical center has been referring to the trail as an “outdoor museum.” They believe that the recreation and outdoor component will draw a larger audience of people that traditionally wouldn’t opt for an educational visit to a museum to explore the engaging past of the area.

A piece of the skeleton of the Oregon Short Line Railroad Yellowstone Branch serves as a reminder of one of West Yellowstone’s former primary sources of revenue. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YELLOWSTONE HISTORICAL CENTER

“Based on the response we’ve gotten so far, the community is really excited about it and we’ve been thrilled to see how many people outside of the community are excited, too. It sounds like a lot of people will travel here just to bike that trail,” Butler said.

West Yellowstone, once a town reliant on traffic from the Yellowstone Special and Yellowstone Express passenger train offered by Union Pacific’s Oregon Short Line Railroad, is now largely dependent on tourism from the neighboring national park to support the local economy. Butler said the hope is for the new trail to change that.

“Especially with recent events and the park being closed as late as it was this season, West Yellowstone has kind of seen just how reliant we are on the park, and for us it’s going to be great to be able to offer additional attractions outside of the park so that even in the times when the park is closed we can still offer tourists something when they come here,” she said.

After it struggled to gain momentum for years, Jason Brey from the Hebgen Lake Ranger District supported the project through to its 2019 Forest Service approval. Currently, the project is in its fundraising phase, striving for a goal of $1.25 million, the estimated need for the trail.

The project has already acquired a number of grants, including a grant from the Dumke Foundation, which will match donations 2-1, up to $375,000, tripling other donations. The project has already raised a quarter of a million dollars, excluding the matching grant.  

Members of the Dumke Foundation, which provided a substantial matching grant for the Yellowstone Short Line Trail project, take a tour of the route in the fall. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE YELLOWSTONE HISTORIC CENTER

Assuming the fundraising goal is met by this fall, trail construction will begin the spring of 2021, making the trail accessible by the end of summer 2021 and completed in 2022, according to the Forest Service.

The trail will also connect to the Greater Yellowstone Trail, another project in development that will reach from West Yellowstone through the Teton Valley, eventually arriving in Grand Teton National Park.

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