Yellowstone National Park, with its spectacular array of geothermal features, scenic vistas and abundant wildlife, has been a national treasure for well over a century. In this article we will review some of the history of the park, and will recount an automobile trip made to the park by a pair of Norcross adventurers, Sallie McElroy and her son Lewel, in 1923, a few years after the park was first opened to tourists in motor vehicles.
Yellowstone has been the site of volcanic activity for millions of years, but its modern history started, in some sense, in 1803, when the United States paid 3 million dollars to the French government to purchase their claim to a huge swath of land in the center of the North American continent west of the Mississippi River. This land stretched from New Orleans to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Little was known about this vast territory at that point, but the hope was that a quick water route from eastern North America to the Pacific Ocean would be found, facilitating trade with markets in the Far East.
President Thomas Jefferson dispatched an expedition to explore the territory, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The goals set for their “Corps of Discovery” were to reach the Pacific Ocean, learn about the land along the way, and return with a detailed report. The Corps left St. Louis and headed up the Missouri River by boat in May, 1804, crossing the Rocky Mountains and reaching the Pacific a year and a half later. They spent the winter of 1805-1806 on the coast of what is now Oregon, near where the Columbia River flows into the ocean, and made it back to St. Louis in September, 1806.
Their expedition did not visit the area where Yellowstone National Park is located today (they traveled to its north, through present-day Montana) but members heard tales of unusual features from the native tribes as they passed nearby. On the Corps’ return trip one of the members of the party, John Colter, decided to leave the group and try his luck at fur trapping on the eastern slope of the Rockies. In his travels during the winter of 1807–1808 he saw thermal activity in what is now western Wyoming, perhaps visiting the area where Yellowstone Park is located today. When he returned to the east his tales of boiling pools, spouting geysers and bubbling mud pots were met with great skepticism. But by the late 1860s numerous accounts of the geological wonders in the area were in circulation, and several expeditions were dispatched to visit and report on the Yellowstone region specifically.
The geysers and other features that were found in the area were so unusual and striking that within a few years a move was made in Congress to preserve this land forever by declaring it a National Park. This was accomplished when President Ulysses S Grant signed legislation on March 1, 1872, and Yellowstone became our first national park. Railroads like the Union Pacific were being built through the western USA in the late 1800s but their main lines were remote from the park, and as a result visitors headed to Yellowstone in its early years as a park had to travel long distances by stage coach or on horseback over rudimentary roads. In the late 1800s Yellowstone was administered by the United States Army, accommodations inside the park were minimal, and visitors were few.
But as word spread of the park’s features, and transportation into the area improved, more and more visitors came. By the beginning of the 20th century railroad branch lines were built to towns on the edges of the park, including Gardiner and West Yellowstone MT, and Cody WY, making access easier. Most railroad passengers who visited the park in those days traveled within the park as part of a tour group. The map below shows road lines in that area of Wyoming and adjacent states circa 1916.
In 1916 Congress created the National Park Service, which took over responsibility for operating Yellowstone and the few other parks in existence at that time. Steven Mather was appointed the first director of the NPS, and he was an active proponent of publicizing the parks and attracting visitors. Mather visited Yellowstone in 1923, and the photo below shows him feeding a bear as a busload of tourists look on.
In 1916 the horse-drawn stage coaches that had been used to transport visitors inside Yellowstone were replaced by motorized coaches. Private vehicles were encouraged to visit the park as well, with the gates officially opening for cars on August 1, 1916. The photo below shows cars traveling through the park that day.
However, the operation of motor cars inside Yellowstone Park was strictly regulated in the early days. According to the Wyoming Tales and Trails website the rules for drivers post-1916 included:
The machines were not permitted to exceed 12 miles per hour ascending hills and 10 miles per hour descending. On straight-aways with no teams of horses within 200 yards, the machines were permitted to be operated up to 20 miles per hour. On curves the speed limit was 8 miles per hour. Motorists were warned that due to the elevation of the park, power of the machines was sharply reduced and about 50 per cent more gasoline was likely to be used and that caution should be exercised in not over-heating one's engine.
It seems that Mather’s promotional efforts, along with reports of improving roads across the country, reached even small towns like Norcross, since in 1923 Sallie McElroy and her son Lewel decided to take off in their car to see Yellowstone for themselves!
Sallie and her husband John Ebenezer McElroy (he was known as “Eb”) lived in Norcross for over 40 years, in the house that has since become the Carlyle House event facility on South Peachtree Street. He was a successful businessman, working with his brother S T McElroy in furniture manufacturing, milling and retail sales. Sallie was very active in major social organizations for women of the day, serving as the head of the Georgia branches of both the Order of the Eastern Star (associated with the Masons) and the Woman’s Clubs. Sallie is shown in the photo below.
The McElroys had two children who lived to adulthood, son Llewellyn (born 1886, known as “Lewel”) and daughter Sarah (born 1893). Lewel played in the Norcross Concert Band as a young man, and served in the United States Army during World War I. By the time he was in his 20s he was working for the Southern Railway. He devoted his summer vacation in 1923 to the Yellowstone road trip. A photo of the concert band during his time in the organization is shown below – he is in the middle row, third from the left.
How is it that we know about the trip that Sallie and Lewel took? In the 1920s Eb wrote a regular column of news from Norcross for the Gwinnett Journal newspaper of Lawrenceville, and his column appearing in the August 18, 1923 edition includes extended excerpts of a letter that he had received from Sallie written while she and Lewel were in the park. Her comments on the park and trip include:
The mountains and scenery:
We are simply overwhelmed by the many strange and wonderful sights we have seen and I have been scared most to death at the enormous heights we were compelled to take in sightseeing in the park.
These mountains and canyons just simply get my goat. You can’t imagine just such altitudes as we and thousands of others are climbing every day and they are so very dangerous and exciting but I thought of a worthy saying of Shakespeare ‘what fools these mortals be’ when we were on some very dangerous mountain pass.
In going through some sections of the park bears are as plentiful as blackberries and are perfectly tame and will climb up on the running board of your car begging for something to eat although it is forbidden to feed them. I’ve seen deer, coon, beaver, just out in the open.
Her plans for the return home:
Lewel has decided as I have too that we have seen enough mountains to last us for our lifetime and so we are now on the last legs of the park and we will leave here tomorrow or next day for a fishing trip up in Montana somewhere. I am very glad that we are turning for home.
Long distance communications challenges a century ago:
I got your documents here at Yellowstone last night and was very glad to hear even that. I got other mail besides at the same time.
You write for me at Sioux City Iowa we will call for mail there on the way home. We will visit Custer’s battle field and if I am urgently needed just send it care of the Custer battlefield manager and I will have Lewel call at his home and at the General Delivery at the Sioux City P. O.
The weather in the park (in July / August!):
I have been in nearly all day Sunday, as it is raining and just a little cold. I slept three nights ago with very near all my clothes on, a pair of wool stockings and a pair of Lewel’s wool socks over the stockings, my winter wool underwear and feather comfort and that heavy sheepskin lined coat spread over me. I say this is some country.
We will go out [of the park] at Gardiner and a heavy snow fell on a mountain we will have to pass on our exit.
Lewel’s prowess as a fisherman:
Lewel is catching some fish with flies … he caught some very fine salmon trout in Yellowstone Lake and river and some mountain trout in Tower Fall river … I eat all I can and then I give away the others.
Fellow travelers met along the way:
It looks like the whole world is on a camp, rich man poor man, beggar thief. We camped between two millionaires in Cedar Rapids, a newly made oil king from Oklahoma and a cattle king and banker from Chicago, and they both seem to be having the time of their lives but the banker’s wife and daughter were bored to death. Of course, it takes all sorts of people to make a world.
I meet some very nice people and I simply won’t meet the others.
Requests for her husband:
Please save some of the cornfield beans for seed for I have not a single one as you know left over so we are obliged to save seed this year or lose seed entirely. They can’t be bought as they are not even listed in any seed catalogue.
Sallie and Lewel made it back to Georgia safely after their trek through the western mountains, having been among the 91,000+ people who visited Yellowstone by motor car during the 1923 season. (The season that year was from June 20 to September 20 - the park was closed to visitors for the rest of the year due to hazardous weather and road conditions.)
Sallie lived another six years in Norcross, passing away in 1929. Lewel moved to Florida and died there in 1956. Both must have had some great memories to savor, and fascinating stories to tell!
Many thanks to the Gwinnett Historical Society for the use of their archives in researching this story. Thanks also to the National Park Service, the Order of the Eastern Star and Nancy Johnson for photographs that they provided, and to Betty Spruill for her helpful comments.
Note: for other first-hand accounts of travel by car to Yellowstone in 1923, here are two articles I found during my research. Links:
Alternatively you can search via Google for ‘Edgar “Ned” Wilcox’ and ‘Ella Dale Yellowstone’