How Yellowstone Became the World’s First National Park

Tourism

TIME

There is an origin story about Yellowstone National Park that involves weary explorers sitting around a campfire, extolling the beauty of the land they’ve just seen and vowing to ensure it becomes a public park for all to enjoy. It’s a vision of altruism and environmentalism that suits the founding of the world’s first national park—only it’s not entirely true.

The members of the 1870 Washburn-Doane Expedition did likely gather for campfires as they explored the region’s geysers and rivers and waterfalls, and they did likely discuss the best use of the land they were exploring. But, as with so much of American history, there were significant corporate interests at play. Yellowstone might never have become the public parkland it is today if not for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.

Before the explorers set out on their expedition, Northern Pacific was strategizing to expand across the Montana Territory. An influx…

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