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Trains Of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks

Author : Alfred Runte
Published : 2011-07-16

For years I've been searching for railroad memorabilia tied to the national parks: Posters, luggage stickers, calendars, even timetables from the Northern Pacific, Great Northern Railway, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific.

Well, a book that arrived the other day explains why I haven't been able to find any: Alfred Runte apparently has cornered the market.

Mr. Runte, of course, is a historian who also happens to be an expert and prolific writer on the subjects of national parks and, I now know, trains. While I've had his wonderful book on the history of the parks -- National Parks, The American Experience -- I didn't realize he authored one on parks and trains until Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks arrived in my mailbox.

For one who loves parks and trains, this was a welcome addition to my library. Through its 150+ pages Mr. Runte not only delves deeply into the trains that once, and in some cases still do, reach the parks, but also shares his vast personal collection of memorabilia. Among the 100 black-and-white and color photos that illustrate this book are:

* The 1915 cover of Titans of Chasms, Grand Canyon of Arizona that the Sante Fe Railway used in the early 1900s to lure tourists, via train, of course, to Grand Canyon National Park.

* A full color postcard of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, which stopped running in the 1940s, on an approach to Yosemite National Park through the Merced Canyon.

* Letter-sized "foldouts" featuring colorful sketches of Yellowstone National Park that the Union Pacific Railroad used beginning in 1923 and continuing until 1960 to gain the interest of travel agents.

* A Union Pacific poster depicting the view of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park from Flattop.

* And, something I would like hanging on my own walls, a 1913 Sante Fe Railway chromolithograph of the Grand Canyon that it commissioned Thomas Moran to paint.

And those are just some of the author's own posters and leaflets that illustrate the book. There are many others from other private collections, park collections, universities and museums.

But as rich as the photos and posters are, the text in this, the 5th edition of the book, is even more so if you're a train buff or national park lover. While the history of trains and parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon is fairly well known, this edition stretches pushes the history further to the east by adding sections on trains and Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Acadia National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, even Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Helping you navigate all these lines is a two-page map of the country on which the author locates "relevant units of the National Park System" and then connects them with red lines depicting historic rail lines that reached the parks and blue lines to show you the lines still in existence.

For instance, did you know that on Amtrak you can reach Crater Lake National Park via the Southern Pacific tracks, or Everglades National Park via the Atlantic Coast Line? Did you know the Maine Central and Bangor & Aroostook once carried folks to Acadia, or that the Southern Railway once served Great Smoky?

An entire chapter is devoted to what Mr. Runte calls "The Great Railroad Fair," more formally known as the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. This event gave the railroads ample opportunity to promote the wonders of visiting parks by train in the face of the opening the year before of the Panama Canal, which was viewed as something of a threat to the railroads.

Now a reality, the canal offered serious competition to the railroads ... The challenge was how to engage the public (at the 1915 exposition) without appearing to demean the canal. The solution came in the railroads' focus on the grandeur of the national parks. Why should Americans still believe in railroads? Because the railroads believed in what the Panama Canal could never do, namely, showcasing the American Land.

... No doubt, the Panama Canal had revolutionized world trade, more than halving the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Regardless, North America belonged to the railroads. The products of its mines, mills, and factories would always depend on them. People crisscrossing the continent would always need good trains. "One prime objective," the Union Pacific Railroad admitted, announcing its display in San Francisco, "is to show in comprehensive form to the tourist from other sections exactly what the great American West has to offer."

  To help promote its trains to Yellowstone, the UP assembled a 4.5-acre "model of Yellowstone," one that included a working model of Old Faithful.

In shaping his story, Mr. Runte explains why previous editions of the book ignored the east.

... there were no major national parks east of the Mississippi until fifty years after Yellowstone was established. By then the car was a chief competitor with railroads. In the East, the push for national parks came with that difference: railroads had grown cautious about developing parks in the face of the automobile. Obviously, the early railroad monopolies in the West would not be repeated, and even the western lines were having second thoughts about the future of the passenger train.

The author also raises interesting questions that long have dangled about the parks and automobiles: Is there a better way to get people to the parks without the congestion of automobiles?

To this question Mr. Runte offers the example of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland, that country's Yosemite. Here, he writes, "mountain railroads invite all visitors to leave their cars behind. Might a similar emphasis on public transportation better preserve our national parks and natural areas?"

Between the covers you'll also find separate chapters on the Yellowstone Park Line, the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and trains to the Grand Canyon. Chapter 7, the final chapter, explores "Discovery Today" by train. In it Mr. Runte raises an intriguing issue: Americans' fleeting fascination with long vacations.

We are obsessed with saving time. We are more likely to fly than take a train, finding the continent still in our way. Even when driving we see practically nothing of the real America lying just beyond the interstate. As our children grow bored, automakers seem to think we should keep them quiet by playing a DVD. The latest cars even come with built-in monitors. In the end, no one watches the passing countryside, even if it is only to count the billboards.

To combat that affliction and encourage train travel, he points out national parks and historic sites where you can still enjoy a train ride: Steamtown National Historic Site, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Denali National Park and Preserve, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Harpers Ferry and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Parks, and New River Gorge National River.

If you go on any of these rides, be sure to take Mr. Runte's book along to serve as a guide.


My husband Dave has worked for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe
Railway for almost 30 years. He joined back in 1982 when it was still
the Burlington Northern.The BNSF has sponsored the photo exhibit at Many
Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park that shows the changes over the
years to the glaciers. A "now and then" example of how the glaciers are
When Dave was a child and living in Seattle his family took the
Great Northern's Empire Builder back to Michigan to visit family on a
regular basis, it's one of his favorite memories. Needless to say, being
married to a "Railroader" our family has done a lot of train rides in
the west. Our next, The Grand Canyon Railway next month on vacation.
are as much a part of American history as the cowboy. Train travel
diminished once airplane travel became much more commonplace. Traveling
by train is so much more leisurely and relaxed, I thoroughly enjoy it!
Connie Hopkins

Go Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought $34,000,000,000 Value in Burlington Northern: Moves more freight and passengers on less Fossil Fuel than diesel big trucks.

When Mr Buffett's B/H acquired us, our retirement funds (our stock options) perked up quite a bit so needless to say, we were/are happy campers! The railroad has been very good to us!

Connie, My husband and I and another couple traveled on the Grand Canyon Railway September of last year and it was WONDERFUL.  We upgraded to the next highest level (can't remember the name) fron the base fare and it was well worth it.  The food they provide is fresh and there is plenty of it for breakfast on the way to the Grand Canyon and cheese, crackers and fruit on the way back and all the bottled water you want...they urge you to take them with you when you get off at the Grand Canyon.  It was included in the price and we were very happy with this trip. The hotel there is very nice too...don't miss the wild west show before the train ride! This September we are traveling on the Heber Valley Railway in Utah which will drop us off for the new Zip-Line Adventure...can't wait...we love trains too and have a house full of model trains and layouts.  Enjoy...and let me know about other trips you've taken and how you like the Grand Canyon Railway.  Whoooowhoooo! 

Hey Winky!
This will be my first time on the GCR, my husband did it for his team members 3 years ago when he planned their annual staff meeting. We are driving from Dallas to AlbQ and spending the night there and then finishing the drive into Williams the next day, staying at their hotel that night. We'll ride in on the train and I'll definitely look for the Wild West Show, I vaguely remember my husband mentioning it when he went. We'll actually come back out on the train but go back in using our own car. We're stayng at El Tovar 2 nights and then off to the North Rim. After our time at Grand Canyon, we'll head back to Bryce and then Arches.
We spend a lot of time at Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Banff, Jasper as well as these SW Parks.
Train rides we've done:
Georgetown Loop
Cumbres & Toltec
Durango Silverton
Leadville, Colorado and Southern
The Heber Valley sounds like a lot of fun!! Whoooowhoooin deed! :- )
Royal Gorge

I spent two summers in the '50s working at Glacier Park Lodge for the Great Northern as a passenger agent. A nice job for a college student. The Great Northern line, now BNSF is the only rail line serving a National Park directly. And Amtrak has its problems dealing with the freight-only lines. The BNSF delayed Amtrak one day this past summer nearly 18 hours! Glacier Park passengers had been moved off the train and onto buses somewhere up the line from the east. The Great Northern, by the way, was the only railroad that laid its tracks from one end to the other with very little federal government help. Louis Hill bought the right-of-way and all adjacent land with his own checkbook. He also bought the Northern Pacific, and 49% of the Burlington...hence the nickname of the those lines, "The Hill Lines" or "The Hill Roads." In the '50s the GN would run two or three extra old heavyweight sleeper  cars for tours. Today few people get off the Empire Builder. On the day I was there this past summer no one got off...having been brought in on those emergency buses. Hard to imagine that when I worked there the platform was jammed. These days almost now passenger traffic. Too bad...Going To The Sun Road, across the Divide was so slow we had to stop several time because of traffic jams!

The Empire Builder does not go to Michigan - never did. I suspect the writer means they took the Builder back to Chicago where they changed trains.

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