Family History Research

The Yellowstone Trail

yellowstone_trail_mapI haven’t posted a blog entry in a very long time! I was reminded today of a project I worked on a little over a year ago. I don’t only do genealogical research. In 2017, I was hired to research the history of the Yellowstone Trail in Carver County, Minnesota. I have to admit, it sounded familiar, but when I accepted the job I really didn’t know what the Yellowstone Trail was, and I certainly didn’t recognize its importance to the history of our state and of the country.

Until the early 1900s, railroads provided the main mode of transport for most Americans; road conditions throughout the country were generally very poor. Pioneer settlers had laid out roads as they were needed, often following trails used by Native Americans, fur traders and wagon transport between important points, following the landscape that made for easiest travel. Most routes were simply rutted dirt trails. Some followed the few early mail routes or military roads established by the federal government. Local residents were responsible for the upkeep of their portion of these road systems.

Bicycle tourism became popular in the late 1800s and riders were some of the earliest proponents of an organized road system. Then the automobile came along and changed everything! Of course, businesses wanted to promote tourism through their communities, so they banded together to form associations that printed maps to guide drivers of the new-fangled automobiles through a complex network of private trails that directed them through their communities, and to their service stations, restaurants and lodgings.

2017-11-22 mn hwy dept corresp registered trails (17)The Yellowstone Trail was the creation of a network of existing roads through fourteen states, conceived in 1912 through a grassroots effort of private citizens and businessmen and led by the visionary Joseph W. Parmley of Ipswich, South Dakota. He envisioned a highway system that would stretch from the East Coast all the way to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. There were many trail associations but only three were transcontinental: National Old Trails Road (1912), Yellowstone Trail (1912) and Lincoln Highway (1913). The Yellowstone Trail was one of the most prominent private trail organizations. At a time when federal and state governments were not obligated to support road construction or improvements, through the efforts of its 8,000 members the Yellowstone Trail Association persuaded counties to join together to create the first coast-to-coast intercontinental highway, “A good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound,” becoming its motto.

The Yellowstone Trail Association and its supporters, including those in Carver County, played a significant role in the Goods Road movement that ultimately led to the establishment of our state and national highway systems. It is ironic that in the end, progress led to extinction of the early Trail associations when modern, numbered highway systems replaced the patchwork of scenic and networked historic Trails.

2017-11-22 mn hwy dept state aid roads (1)There is a vast array of records relating to transportation, especially at the Minnesota History Center. This is an example of just one box of records I made my way through… I wondered if anyone had looked at it before.

If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to the full report I prepared for the Southwest Corridor Transportation Coalition, back in December 2017.


By Vicki Albu

Genealogist, historian, and writer.

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