JACKSON LAKE LODGE

If you have ever stood at Jenny Lake and looked across to Cascade Canyon weaving its way towards the summit of the Tetons, you will know the joy of being in a sacred place, designed by God to be protected forever.

                            —Horace Albright (Duncan and Burns, 229)

             As we drove the short distance to the south end of Yellowstone, we couldn’t help reminiscing back to our earliest visit to the park in the 1960s, when cars would be stopped for miles as stupid people like us fed panhandling bears from our cars.  Naturally, there were incidents—some of them gory, when bears took the arm as well as the proffered food.

            We also noted that, 32 years after the devastating fires of 1988, the park is greening up again.  It is difficult, though, to know when you’re leaving one park and entering the other, as Rockefeller purchased, then gave, a 23,777 acre corridor between the two parks to the American people.  Today it’s called the “John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.”

View from Jackson Lake Lodge

            Even though it was too early to check in, we stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge to make dinner reservations for the Mural Dining Room.  Since neither Bob nor Lucy had ever been inside the hotel before, Connie and I watched for that magical moment when someone walks up the wide terrazzo stairway into the Grand Lounge.  That view!  I know of only one comparable view in North America: Grand Canyon at sunset from the North Rim lodge’s dining room.  We were not disappointed: in the faces of Bob and Lucy was that look, as they internalized for the first time, in one I-MAX-size frame, 12,605-foot Mount Moran dead center, bookended to the south by Mount Woodring and to the north by Bivouac Peak.  Concentrated in this 40-mile-long range are seventeen white-crowned peaks ranging from 10,000 to almost 14,000 feet in elevation, with close to 7,000 feet of vertical thrust straight up without foothills.  Needless to say, seen for the first time, this once-in-a-lifetime view, in short, staggers.

            And how terribly hard it has been to preserve it!

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROCKEFELLER!

            Mountain men were the first non-Native Americans to discover this great watering hole.  In fact, not only is the valley named for a fur trader named Davey Jackson, Leigh Lake and iconic Jenny Lake are named for a fur-trading couple: Dick and Jenny Leigh.

            General Phil Sheridan, early on (with his cavalry) the savior of Yellowstone, argued in 1882 that Yellowstone needed to be expanded to include the Tetons and their lowlands in order to protect the natural grazing range of the world’s largest surviving elk herd.  But politicians in Washington turned a deaf ear to his argument.

            Down through the years time and time again, just when it seemed the Tetons would be preserved for future generations,Wyoming special interest groups would sabotage those efforts.  On one of their first inspection trips of the national parks, Park founding fathers Stephen Mather and Horace Albright first set eyes on Jackson Hole: “Mather and I were both flabbergasted,” Albright wrote.  “I had never beheld such scenery.” (Duncan and Burns, 228).

            Both men pushed the idea of adding the Teton basin to Yellowstone, but no matter what forward momentum they achieved, ranchers, farmers, sportsmen, and the U.S. Forest Service (often jealous of the national parks) together made it impossible to get a bill through Congress.

            One never-to-be-forgotten day in our nation’s history, Albright learned that the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wife Abby, and their three children (John, Nelson, and Laurance), were traveling incognito in Yellowstone National Park.  Since Rockefeller had already put up the money to make Acadia National Park possible, Albright extended every courtesy to them.  But it was on their second visit, in 1926, as Albright was driving the Rockefellers through the Tetons, that the great moment came: When John D. and Abby expressed dismay at what was happening as developers ruthlessly destroyed what nature had taken ages to create, Albright leaped at the opening and shared his dream with them.  Four months later, John D. informed Albright that he’d decided to embark on a long—and perhaps fruitless—quest to help save the Tetons.  Though the U. S. Forest Service oversaw 2,000,000 acres of forest land in the area, in the past their directors had proven all too willing to permit special interests to take what they wanted.  But, Rockefeller warned Albright, secrecy was essential for if word leaked out that he was buying up land in the area, the asking prices would skyrocket.

            Two years later, Congress finally redesignated some national forest land to create a small Grand Teton National Park—both Rockefeller and Albright were dismayed at how little had been preserved.  Meanwhile, all through the Depression years, Rockefeller secretly continued to buy.  Again and again, Rockefeller offered his holdings as a gift to the American people—and was turned down each time.

Grand Tetons

            Finally, on March 15, 1943, Rockefeller had had enough: he wrote FDR a letter informing him that since the nation refused to accept his gift, he was going to sell it off for whatever it would bring.  That certainly got the President’s attention.  Despairing of getting Congress to buck special interests in this case, he and his Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes concluded their only hope was to use the Antiquities Act as a vehicle for creating a national monument with this land.  On March 15, 1943, the President signed an executive order establishing Jackson National Monument, placing 221,610 acres of public land on the eastern borders of Grand Teton National Park under national park control.

            Wyoming promptly declared war, even trying to ram through a bill to abolish the national monument.  FDR vetoed it.  When Roosevelt died in 1945, the battle was still raging.  Five years later, President Truman brokered a compromise wherein all parties gave and took.  Result: Jackson Hole National Monument became part of an enlarged Grand Teton National Park (included was Rockefeller’s 32,000 acres), bringing the park’s total acreage to 309,994 acres. 

And so ended what has been called “the greatest conservation project of its kind ever undertaken.”  It had taken Rockefeller a quarter of a century to give the land to the American people!  Well might we all shudder just to think of what the Grand Teton country would look like today had there never been a John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to champion its cause. (This section: Duncan and Burns, 229-33, 311-12).

UNDERWOOD UNDERSTATES

Joe at Jenny Lake

            Not long after World War II drew to a close, the American people, so long repressed (1929-1945) because of the twin holocausts of the Great Depression and Second World War, gradually came alive to the realization that life was good, everything was looking up, and that it was high time they checked up on their national parks.

            In fact it was this sudden invasion of American tourists that caused the Rockefellers to re-evaluate their role as leading hospitality provider in the Tetons.  Clearly, more accommodations were needed—perhaps most needed of all was a great hotel that would enhance the stature of their fledgling Grand Teton National Park.  The Rockefellers, one memorable day, climbed up to the top of a knoll that was incredibly dear to them—for it was here, from which point they could look out at one of the grandest views on the planet, that the dream for the park had been born.  Now, one dream realized, they determined to build a great park hotel at the bottom of their beloved knoll.  Next time you’re in the Tetons, take a few minutes to climb that knoll and read the plaque on the modest monument to the Rockefellers there.

Front of Jackson Lake Lodge

            John D. never thought small.  Once the decision was made, he requested the services of the nation’s top architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, catapulted to fame by his already legendary 1926 creation, Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel; building upon that reputation with Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, Bryce and Zion Lodges in Utah, and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Now Underwood basked in the impressive title of, Supervising Architect for the United States. Underwood accepted the offer, realizing that, because of infirmities of age, this might well turn out to be his life’s capstone.  It would take five long years to build.

            But times and architectural styles had dramatically changed since the rustic parkitecture of Ahwahnee.  Now steel, concrete, and plate-glass windows were the vogue.  As to the crucial question of the exterior of this new hotel, Rockefeller and Underwood were of one mind: the hotel must not be permitted to upstage one of perhaps the five greatest views in the world.  Thus it would not be an Ahwahnee or Old Faithful, self-standing icons in their own right.  But rather the exterior must be so understated if would seamlessly blend into the landscape.  But inside—ah!  That would be the challenge: to focus 100% of the visitors’ attention on one thing only—the view in the west.  It is said that John D. had scaffolding put up so he and his son Laurance could climb up to the same height and position where the massive window would be positioned in the Grand Lounge.  Only then were they convinced they’d be guaranteed the same sense of awe one gets walking into Old Faithful Inn or down into the Grand Canyon Lodge of the North Rim’s dining room.

            But neither did they desire a massive hotel; instead Underwood sketched out what turned out to be 385 rooms, only 37 of which would be in the main lodge—all the rest would be cottages.  For the first few decades after they were built, one might have questioned such a decision.  But not today, now that all the trees planted then have reached maturity and softened the cottages’ visual imprint.

* * * * *

            After making our dinner reservations, we climbed back into the faithful Lincoln, and drove down to Jenny Lake.  At her loveliest, Jenny Lake, with her magnificent setting, almost takes your breath away.  But not today—in fact, with clouds obscuring the sun, she seemed a tad dowdy.  But that was because Connie and I had seen her in show-stopping attire.  I told Bob and Lucy about one never-to-be-forgotten day 44 years before when I’d taken our little son Greg on the longest hike of his young life: around Jenny Lake and seven more miles up to Lake Solitude and back.  Looking back at my life, I considered that hike up Cascade Canyon to be perhaps the most—even though I’ve exhausted the adjectives in my thesaurus, not even the word “glorious” is adequate to the challenge of describing the sensual impact of that one day on us.

View from the Chapel of Transfiguration

            Then, after first taking in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and the now world-famous Church of the Transfiguration, we returned to Jackson Lake Lodge and checked into our cottage. Wisely, even though the lodge is modern (dedicated in 1955), there are no TVs in the rooms.  Consequently, we quickly drifted back to that mesmerizing grand lounge, with its two fireplaces with hammered steel hoods and moose-head andirons; the Eagle’s Nest and Crow’s Nest getaways for those who wish more solitude, the Pioneer Grill with its “world’s longest lunch counter,” the Blue Heron Lounge, and the Mural Dining Room.

            After having to pry Lucy and Connie from the outside deck (they were fascinated by the wildlife-watching taking place in the meadow—a grizzly sneaking up on its intended prey, moose, deer, elk, etc).  Finally, we were ushered to our window seat in the Mural Dining Room, where few bothered to look at Carl Roter’s great wood-carving reproduction of Alfred Jacob Miller’s sketches of the Jackson Hole Valley.  Instead, our eyes were riveted on the continually changing vision out the windows.  The dinner proved equal to holding its own, but not equaling its competition.  We stayed there in order to watch the sunset.  Silence . . . the only possible response.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Tune in next week for Glacier National Park.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [a splendid chapter on Jackson Lake Lodge].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2002). [Invaluable source of information on the long struggle for Teton parkhood].

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

OLD FAITHFUL INN

            After leaving Grand Coulee Dam, we drove south along shimmering blue Banks Lake (a Grand Coulee reservoir) to Coulee City, then turned east on hwy 2, taking us to Spokane and Interstate 90.  We stayed at a Best Western in Coeur d’Alene that night.  Next morning we continued along I-90.  Now, the scenery became more mountainous and scenic—well, as scenic as interstates ever get.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we made few stops en route to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed at the Hampton.

            Already the differences between the world of the old national park lodges and the world of chain lodges was beginning to be more and more marked in our minds: small bedrooms and large lobbies compared to small lobbies and large bedrooms; serenity compared to electronic noise; camaraderie compared to isolation; deep thoughts about life compared to electronic stifling of thought—not coincidentally, TVs everywhere to no TVs at all.

Historic North Entrance gate to Yellowstone National Park

            Next day, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the famous Gardiner Gate at the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Virginia Cascade, en route to Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK       

            Before 1872, there was not in the entire world such a thing as a “national park.”  For almost three quarters of a century, reports of its wonders had occasionally trickled out, but no one believed them.  Not until 1870, when Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson not only saw those wonders but returned with proof: Moran’s stunning panoramic paintings and Jackson’s memorable and convincing photographs.   On the premise that it was useless to developers, the bill for its preservation passed almost unanimously.  It was signed into law by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

            But creating a national park and protecting it proved to be two different things.  Gradually, conditions deteriorated to the point where the park’s very survival was at risk.  At this critical point, George Bird Grinnell (influential editor of Forest and Stream and close friend of young Teddy Roosevelt) and General Phil Sheridan (hero of the great Civil War poem, “Sheridan’s Ride”) joined forces; since the government refused to protect the park, Sheridan sent his cavalry in—thirty years later, they were still there.

            Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883, John Muir in 1888, Rudyard Kipling in 1889.  By then most everyone was calling the park “Wonderland.”  On April 24, 1903, Roosevelt, on a transcontinental 14,000-mile speaking tour, spent two weeks in Yellowstone.  Dedicating the new entrance arch in Gardiner, Montana, TR said,

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world. . . .  Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved.

                                                                        —(Duncan and Burns, 92).

Old Faithful Geyser

            Yellowstone’s iconic symbol is Old Faithful Geyser—most appropriate since, with over 10,000 hydrothermal features, the park offers the largest concentration of geysers (over 300) and geothermal activity on earth.  1,700-foot-deep Yellowstone Canyon is by itself one of the greatest natural wonders on earth; and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet.  But Yellowstone is also perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife sanctuary, with grizzlies, black bears, elk, moose, wolves, bison, and so much more.

            In short, 2,200,000 acre Yellowstone is the parent stock for all the national parks around the world that have come into being during the last 138 years. 

THE STORY OF OLD FAITHFUL

            Have you ever noticed that it is the best-known, most famous, subjects that prove the hardest to get your arms around?  Just so, it is for Old Faithful Inn, without question the best known hotel in national park history.  Strangely enough it is just as much an international icon as Old Faithful Geyser itself.

            Over 3,000,000 tourists from all over the world swarm Yellowstone each year, almost all during the short summer season—so they come at the rate of almost a million a month.  And it appears that no one dares to come here without worshiping at the shrine of both Old Faithfuls.  Who’d believe they’d been to Yellowstone without photographic proof that they’d actually stood there in front of those two semi-immortal entities?

            So how did the lodge get here in the first place?

            Well, in the early days they could get by with just tents.  But all that changed in 1883 when railroad tracks reached the North Entrance in Gardiner.  Park administration continued to complain about the failure of tourists to stay long enough to see much; but the reason was obvious: they had to find lodging somewhere by nightfall.

            The breakthrough came in 1901 when Northern Pacific Railroad sold its controlling stock in Yellowstone Park Association to the Yellowstone Transportation Company; Harry Child was named president.  Up till then, the park had lacked a focal center, a final authority.  Child would rule supreme in Yellowstone for the rest of his life.  Almost immediately, he set about searching for an architect he could count on, not just for a building or two, but for the long haul.  He found that in the person in a self-taught architect by the name of Robert Reamer.

            Reamer journeyed to Yellowstone in 1903 via a career trajectory beginning in Ohio, and continuing through Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and California.  When Child first heard of him, Reamer was making a name for himself in San Diego, especially in terms of his projects for the already legendary del Coronado Hotel (first opened in 1888).  It proved to be a perfect fit: Child and Reamer worked together for the rest of Reamer’s life.

            Old Faithful not only was Reamer’s first major project, it would remain his life’s greatest achievement.  Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1903 visit to the park, upon seeing Reamer’s designs for park hotels, expressed his delight.  Northern Pacific Railroad came up with $100,000 to construct it.

Interior of Old Faithful Inn

            Reamer designed the iconic core of the hotel in 1903, the East Wing in 1913-14, and the Y-shaped West Wing in 1927; eventually providing 327 rooms for guests.  The seven-story stair-stepped-inn is striking enough from the outside, but Reamer’s biographer, Ruth Quinn, maintains that the píece de résistance has to be the lobby:

                        For most visitors the lobby stands as the structure’s distinguishing feature.  From its polished maple floor to the peak of its log paneled ceiling, it measures more than 76 feet in height.  The lobby of Old Faithful Inn is a maze of twisted branches, inviting staircases, and welcoming balconies described by one historian as rusticity gone berserk!  Upon viewing the lobby, many are drawn beyond, to experience it—to touch its enormous stone chimney, to stroke a beautifully polished log, to inhale the scent of the wood, to listen to the creak of the stairs and the chatter of admirers.  This is a building to delight the senses.  It is a public space with a strong sense of place where many feel at home.  All eyes are carried upward, one gapes and wonders, Who could have imagined this? (Quinn, 1).

            Old Faithful Inn would become the template, the inspiration, for other great park hotels such as El Tovar, East Glacier, Many Glacier, Prince of Wales; Crater Lake, and Ahwahnee.  It would be reproduced life-size for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and is the inspiration behind Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

            Though it has been loved to death from the start, almost we lost it during the 1970s.  Barnes notes that “Rotting logs, worn shingle siding, and a deteriorating roof were the obvious problem. . . .  There were joints coming apart, the roof was collapsing in sections, logs were falling off the building.”  The NPS seriously considered demolishing it, but the public was outraged at the very thought! (Barnes, 24).

            It took ten years and over $7,000,000 to fix the problems and shore it up for the next half century.  Periodic earthquakes are always a problem since Yellowstone itself is the world’s most active volcano.

            The entire world watched with bated breath, however, in 1988, when it appeared certain Old Faithful Inn was doomed.  In that terrible forest fire, when almost a third of the park burned over, only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the lodge for posterity.

* * * * *

Exterior of Old Faithful Inn

            Over the years we’d been to Old Faithful Geyser and Inn many times, but had never stayed here.  Since it’s booked a year in advance, it was not easy to get rooms in the Inn itself.  Turns out we didn’t spend much time in our bedrooms, because the hotel itself is so fascinating.  Especially the people-watching.  The clock everyone watches is the one that tells everyone when Old Faithful Geyser is due to erupt (the intervals used to be about an hour long, but since the last big earthquake, it has extended to about an hour and a half).  About fifteen minutes before it’s due, the tide goes out; five minutes before, the inn is all but deserted.  When it’s over, the tide surges in again—but in one long sustained tsunami.  And the cycle is faithfully repeated night and day.  The poor Inn never sleeps.  One clerk told me, “I get here at 6 a.m., and chances are the lobby will be jammed already!”

            What’s most fun is to sit on the second floor mezzanine and watch the faces of people young and old as they stream in—especially the moment of shock when they freeze in motion and stare up and up in awe, jaws dropping.  It never fails.

            Since dinner reservations are so difficult to secure, our travel agent made ours over half a year ahead of time.  Eating in Reamer’s great dining room was a feast for the senses as well as for the food itself.

            Next morning, Bob and I took a tour of the Inn.  Our guide, in period costume, really made the old hotel live, telling us behind-the-scenes anecdotes and secrets most people would never know.  We learned that the last major quake stopped the great fourteen-foot clock and messed up the chimney in the huge fireplace—no one knows when they’ll be up and running again.

            But unlike sister park lodges, because of the continual tidal surges there is little serenity here—though, later in the evening, we came fairly close when a pianist played old standards and brought about the first lessening of the decibels since we’d arrived.  And breakfast was considerably quieter than dinner was.

            So we weren’t sorry to go.  Wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  But once was enough.  Perhaps Reamer’s next hotel would be quieter.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Robert Reamer’s Yellowstone Lake Lodge.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Splendid chapter on the hotel].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009). [The most definitive history of Yellowstone Park I’ve ever read].

                        The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable biography of the builder of Old Faithful Inn].

Scofield, Susan C, and Jeremy C. Schmidt, The Inn at Old Faithful (no p.: Crowsnest Associates, 1979).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Graphic Society, 2009). [Helpful].