The Yellowstone Trail
Five pillars of sandstone mark the progress of a century-old vision across the southwestern corner of North Dakota. This was the Yellowstone Trail, a national highway in the days before there were national highways, when promoters dreamed them up and gave them grandiose names instead of uninspiring numbers. The Yellowstone Trail, they called it–Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound, its name intended to capitalize on a burgeoning tourist traffic to Yellowstone Park.
The vision for the Yellowstone Trail came from a real estate promoter named J. W. Parmley, of Ipswich, South Dakota. Like others of his day, and especially others in the gumbo-cursed West River country, Parmley bemoaned the inadequacy of roads left to the maintenance of local farmers working out their road taxes. The dawning automotive age offered opportunity to those who would solve the problems of improvement of highways and navigation across the country.
Parmley seized the opportunity of a local good-roads meeting in Ipswich in 1912 to outline a scheme for what he called “a great transcontinental highway from ocean to ocean.” The plan was to pull together road promoters from communities across the country, each to improve and mark its own stretch of road, and then promote the whole enterprise for the convenience of the traveling public. The road would be graded, but not surfaced.
Perhaps most important, the Yellowstone Trail would be clearly marked. “You don’t need a log book,” one brochure said. “Follow the Marks.” The standard logo emblazoned on buildings and posts was a yellow circle around a directional arrow. Local collaborators, though, sometimes got creative.
The published history of Slope County details the arrival of the promoter Parmlee in North Dakota. ” In 1913 a man by the name of James W. Parmley from Ipswitch, South Dakota, came through part of Slope County with two mules and a wagon marking the proposed Yellowstone Trail for autos. He was painting sandstone rocks, fence posts, arrows around telephone poles, and other protrusions yellow to mark the trail. He would have one mule ride in the wagon while the other pulled, changing off while one mule rested.”
The 1914 yearbook of the Yellowstone Trail Association depicts “Trail Day,” designated as May 22, at Hettinger and Marmarth. As elsewhere across the country, farmers and businessmen turned out with teams, traction engines, picks, shovels, discs, graders, and improvised drags to transform boggy trails into a highway consisting of, the promotional literature optimistically said, “hardened earth.” Parties of local ladies delivered picnic lunches.
At about this time a party of fellows from White Butte, just across the line in South Dakota, quarried some limestone posts from a ridge on the North Dakota side and planted them along the trail as markers. I believe I know the exact site where they quarried the stone. For sure I know the current locations of five of these sandstone pillars that once guided travel on the Yellowstone Trail. Three are two Hettinger: one along Highway 12, another on Main Street; one in Bowman alongside the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum. One is on Main Street of Gascoyne.
And the final Yellowstone Trail marker stands in its original location in the city park of Haynes. We spotted the yellow-painted post as we drove south along Main Street, as from the opposite direction came a little kid on a Hot Wheels bike. As we piled out of the truck with cameras and equipment, he took one look at us, made the turn left as directed by the trail marker, and spun gravel west and home to mama, down the Old Yellowstone Trail.