A Postal History of Yellowstone National Park – by Ken Hamlin
Hundreds of millions of postcards of Yellowstone National Park were produced from 1898 to the present. The Haynes family alone produced about 55 million and there were many other postcard publishers and many amateur photographers with their Kodak cameras produced real photo postcards to send friends. Official business by the Park administration also used the U. S. Postal system to send letters and reports. Perhaps more mail has been sent from Yellowstone National Park and the immediately surrounding communities than for any other relatively isolated area. A few publications contain parts of the Yellowstone mail story, but here, I try to bring a more complete, but not exhaustive, story together.
Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office
There have been only two official U. S. post offices within Yellowstone National Park, however, there have been additional post office stations. If you guessed Mammoth Hot Springs for the first post office in Yellowstone National Park, you are correct. But it is not the office you probably imagine. The first official post office for the Park (1875-77) is somewhat problematic. Three references on Montana postal history list a Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office (January 6, 1875 - February 13, 1877 in Gallatin County Montana. What is Park county Montana now was in Gallatin county Montana territory until 1884. However, Mammoth Hot Springs was definitely within the boundaries of Wyoming territory at the time. The Postmaster for the first Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office was James McCartney. For those of you familiar with Yellowstone National Park history, this name will explain much of what is to come. The Helena weekly herald of July 22, 1875, page 7 also verified the establishment of a post office at Mammoth Hot Springs, National Park.
In 1871, before Yellowstone National Park was established, James McCartney and Harry Horr staked homestead claims at Mammoth Hot Springs and built cabins which included what they claimed as a hotel to solicit and cater to those seeking health benefits from soaking in the hot springs. They also catered to the early sight-seeing interest and considerable liquor demands of the few "year-rounders" in the area and some tourists. On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park was established. McCartney almost immediately began petitioning for his homestead to be exempted from inclusion in the Park and for it to remain private property.
Bozeman avant courier September 19, 1872
Bozeman avant courier April 25, 1873
Bozeman avant courier August 7, 1874
Bozeman avant courier September 3, 1875
McCartney continued to advertise "his" hotel and hot springs from 1872 through 1875 and some of his "cronies" were managers of his facilities.
Nathaniel Langford, the first Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park was unpaid, had no budget, and seldom visited the Park though he strongly advocated for a budget and road building to increase visitation. In the summer of 1874, he appointed McCartney and Henry Horr, the most prominent year-round residents, as custodians of the Park. In 1877, he appointed McCartney as his assistant. McCartney pretty much ran Yellowstone National Park until the appointment of the second Superintendent, Philetus W. Norris in 1877. Although Norris appointed McCartney as his assistant until he arrived in June, administration of YNP and the role of James McCartney began to change once Norris arrived. Norris did not not receive a budget until 1878 ($10,000) but he was a "go-getter", building roads and trails, and usually resided at Mammoth from June until September or October. During that residence, he assessed the character of McCartney and disliked his substantial sale of liquor within the Park.
Philetus W. Norris
McCartney lost the Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office on February 13, 1877. The Postmaster-General discontinued the post office "because the postmaster has failed to make out his returns". Thus, ends the first post office in Yellowstone National Park, which would have been located in one of McCartney's cabins.
There is some question whether McCartney ever really operated the post office. I have never seen a cancel (likely a hand-written manuscript cancel) for Mammoth Hot Springs during the 1875-1877 period. It would be a great rarity if found. McCartney's personal address and post office box was in Bozeman during the period. During his frequent trips to Bozeman, he likely carried some mail to be canceled there. Also, at various times, a number of Stagecoach and Express Companies and individuals carried mail between Bozeman and Mammoth Hot Springs. Most companies did not last long because expenses were high, post office payment on mail contracts on routes with little mail was low, and passenger service to Mammoth had a short season, providing little year-round income. Mail service most often was by private carrier to Bozeman, where it was canceled and entered the official mail stream. Norris in his 1881 annual report states: "when George Arnhold, as for the past three years (1878 - 1880), made his weekly visits with the mails and supplies"...
Zack Root's Express only operated in 1874 and 1875.
The first official survey of the northern boundary of YNP occurred during 1879. Clearly, McCartney's claim lay within the boundaries of the Park. With the official survey Norris and the government began the process of evicting McCartney from the Park and taking over his buildings. McCartney moved to what became Gardiner in 1879 and rented his buildings at Mammoth to friends. Despite his failure to turn in records for the 1875 -1877 post office, he was appointed the first Postmaster of Gardiner in 1880. McCartney was officially evicted from the Park in 1881 and the government used some of his cabins and took possession of all of them in 1883.
A post office was reestablished at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming on March 2, 1880 with Clarence M. Stephens (Superintendent Norris' assistant) as Postmaster. Because McCartney had not yet been evicted, it may be likely that this post office was in the office room of Norris' new headquarters on Capitol Hill through 1881.
Yellowstone National Park headquarters late 1879.
Floor plan of headquarters.
At this time, postmaster compensation was based on the sales of stamps, stamped postal stationary envelopes, and government postal cards. Compensation was 100% of the first $50.00 sold, 60% of the next $100.00 sold, 50% of the next $100.00 sold, and 40% on sales above $350.00. Mammoth Hot Springs had the second lowest postmaster compensation in Wyoming for 1880 - 1881. Clarence Stephens received $11.05 compensation for October 1880 through June 1881, or an average of $1.23 per month. At three cents per stamp or postal stationary envelope and one cent for government postal cards, this amounted to 40 - 60 items per month unless some required the higher registration cost. This, however, was a considerable amount of mail for such an isolated location.
It is possible that the post office was moved to one of the McCartney cabins by sometime in 1881. The post office was definitely in one of the McCartney cabins near the foot of Capitol Hill (near where the Haynes Picture Shop would later be) by late 1882 when Norris was replaced as Superintendent of the Park and his assistant Stephens left also. The George Henderson family operated the Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office in one of the McCartney cabins in 1882 and except for a brief period in about 1888, when a Mrs. Baronett operated the post office, a member of the Henderson family was Postmaster/Postmistress for many years after. Henderson's daughter Jennie was Postmistress in 1882 and with a combined store was Postmistress through several location and married name changes (Dewing, Ash) until 1905. From 1905 until 1913, the post office was operated by Jennie's married (Lyall) sister and brother Walter Henderson. George Whittaker bought the store and post office in 1913 and operated it until 1922 when Chester Lindsey, long-time YNP official became postmaster and the post office was moved to the old Bachelor Officers' Quarters (now Horace Albright Visitors Center and Museum). In 1936, a new post office (the current post office) was constructed just to the north.
A rare August 11, 1883 Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming cancel on a Registration Receipt card. This card would have been canceled by Jennie Henderson. F. J. Haynes was sending something valuable to his business headquarters in Fargo, Dakota territory. Jack and Susan Davis collection, Yellowstone Archives.
Mammoth Hot Springs Post Office about 1922 located in the old Bachelor Officers' Quarters.
A number of stage and mail lines operated to Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City over the years other than Zack Root's Express already mentioned, I will mention only a few others as this is not an article about Stagecoach Companies. George Wakefield's company was one of the longest lasting, operating in the early- mid-1880s. With the booming of the Cooke (City) mines in 1882, he received the mail contract through to Cooke City. His stage line used a cabin at Soda Creek as an overnight stop. F. J. Haynes briefly held an interest in this stage line in 1886. By 1886, James Clark had the mail contract from Mammoth to Cooke City.
There is a log cabin remaining at Mammoth called the "Mail carrier's cabin". This was likely built during the 1890s and was not a post office but served as the residence for a mail carrier who skied or snowshoed to Cooke City and back with mail during winter when snow was too deep for stage travel.
There may have been a few mail collection boxes scattered about Mammoth. This Haynes postcard shows Isabell Haynes near center in a yellow dress handing or receiving a mail sack to/from a postal employee on a motorcycle with sidecar. The mail sack likely contained only Haynes mail. However, behind the motorcycle to the right of the card is what appears to be a mail drop off box on a post that could be used by the public. The automobile at left is the Haynes personal automobile.
Firehole Post Office
George Marshall briefly had a government mail contract to carry mail from Virginia City, Montana to Mammoth Hot Springs in 1879. This contract may have been sublet from Gilmer & Salisbury. The route was through the western entry and the Firehole basin. He lost his contract in 1880, but with partner John Goff formed the Marshall and Goff Stage Company to bring tourists to the western geyser basins. They built an extremely rough hotel near the confluence of the Firehole River and Nez Perce Creek. The second and last main post office in Yellowstone National Park was the Firehole Post Office in the Marshall "hotel", established September 13, 1880 with Sarah Marshall as Postmistress. Marshall also established a "mail station" to the west at Riverside in 1880, which was within YNP, but just into Montana territory. In 1881, he built a mail station at Norris. These mail stations were overnight stops for the stagecoaches or carriers. The Firehole Post Office was discontinued on December 5, 1882. During April - June 1881, it was the post office with the least business in Wyoming. Sarah Marshall received $1.40 in compensation during those three months. This would be equivalent to about 40 first class letters and 20 postal cards mailed at the station during the three months. Although the Postmistress compensation was low, this was still a lot of mail from such an isolated location.
Newspaper articles cheered the opening of the Virginia City to Firehole stage route, largely constructed by Gilman Sawtelle of Henry's Lake. On August 19, 1880, a correspondent to the Helena weekly herald writing from the lower Firehole basin stated: "Marshall & Goff's daily stages, carrying daily mails, will commence running from Virginia City to this place about the 25th instant. Fare: round trip, $40; one way, $25, Time about twenty-four hours. Distance 100 miles. Lay-over permits are given at Henry's Lake for parties wishing to fish." On September 23, 1880, the Madison County Commissioners proposed constructing a bridge over the Madison River about where the one is now at the junction of U. S. 287 and U. S. 87. The correspondent stated: "which (Marshall & Goff's stage line) will do away with the Pony Express now used." I do not think stages ever ran daily on this route as the correspondent advertised.
Marshall's early hotel received both undue praise and unjust criticism for conditions that were primitive. The first passengers on the Marshall & Goff stage to Firehole and then to Mammoth Hot Springs and back were Robert and Carrie Strahorn. Robert was a traveler and promoter for the Union Pacific railroad, interested in promoting railroad traffic to Yellowstone National Park on the western route. Carrie Strahorn's book provides an interesting view of the Marshall & Goff stage line and early travel in the Park. They left Virginia City on October 1, 1880 and returned to Virginia City from Marshall's hotel on October 9 after travelling as far as Mammoth Hot Springs. The "road" from the Firehole to Mammoth was unfit for a stage, so Marshall and the Strahorns set out from Firehole with a wagon which still could not travel the road, so they rode horseback to Mammoth, Lake, the Falls, and back to Marshall's Firehole hotel.
Stagecoach waybill for the return trip of Robert and Carrie Strahorn from Firehole, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, to Virginia City, Montana. It appears that Marshall's Virginia City agent filled out the waybill upon return of the stagecoach to Virginia City. Marshall drove the stagecoach and brought his wife back with him for the winter. There was one passenger in addition to the Strahorns and Marshalls. A package was delivered to Gilman Sawtelle at Henry's Lake on the return and he was charged 25 cents. Marshall carried a box of his own and the Strahorns were not charged for one package which may have contained the souvenirs that YNP Superintendent Norris helped them collect.
The travel guide of Herman Haupt, Jr. published in 1883 makes the following statement about the Firehole Hotel and Post Office as of 1881. "On the west bank of the Firehole River, near the intersection of the roads, is a hotel and post-office, where the tourist may send letters or receive the same, though it is a little inconvenient to get letters there because of the circuitous route they must take to reach this point; but they may be mailed to the ""States"" at this place, and in due time they will be received by absent friends." Samuel P. Eagle, former postmaster at West Yellowstone, reported that the Firehole Post Office reopened on June 17, 1886 with John Clark as Postmaster and on May 22, 1891, the Firehole Post Office was closed for good. I have found no envelopes or postal cards canceled with the Firehole cancel for either time period of operation.
Map from Haupt showing hotels, Mammoth Hot Springs and Firehole Post Offices, Riverside and Norris mail stations, and features of Yellowstone National Park about 1882 (copyright 1883).
Beginning in the 1920s, Yellowstone National Park has also had post office stations scattered throughout the Park. Tourists and Park employees could send mail at these stations and it was transported to the main post office at Mammoth. These stations had individual postmarks and included Old Faithful, Fishing Bridge, Canyon, Lake, and Grant Village. These stations and a variety of Yellowstone National Park postal cancellations will be discussed in more detail in a following article on "Collecting the Postal History of Yellowstone National Park".
Blevins, Bruce H. 2001. Wyoming-Montana Border: They Followed the 45th, 1879 - 1880. WIM Marketing.
Bozeman avant courier. September 19, 1872, p.4; April 25, 1873, p.3; June 20, 1873, p. 2; August 7, 1874, p. 3; September 4, 1874, p.2; April 30, 1875, p.3; July 9,1875, p.2; September 3, 1875, p.2; June 7, 1877, p.2.
Culpin, Mary Shivers. 1994. The History of the Construction of the Road System in Yellowstone National Park, 1872 - 1966: Historic Resource Study, Volume I. nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/yell_roads/hrst.htm.
Culpin, Mary Shivers. 2003. "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People": A History of Concession Development in Yellowstone National Park, 1872 - 1966. National Park Service, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, YCR- CR-2003-01.
Davis, Susan and Jack. 2022. Postals From Wonderland - Yellowstone Postcard Messages. iVintage Images. Bozeman, Montana.
Eagle, Sam and Ed. 1978. West Yellowstone's 70th Anniversary, 1908 - 1978. Eagle Company, Inc. West Yellowstone, Montana.
Haupt, Herman, Jr. 1883. The Yellowstone National Park. A Complete Guide to and Description of the Wondrous Yellowstone Region of Wyoming and Montana Territories of the United States of America, Illustrated..J. M. Stoddart, New York and Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Helbock, Richard W. 1989. A Checklist of Wyoming Post Offices 1850 - 1988. LaPosta Publications. Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Helbock, Richard W. 1996. A Checklist of Montana Post Offices 1864 - 1994. LaPosta Publications. Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Helena weekly herald. July 4, 1872, p.7; October 31, 1872, p.8; July 22, 1875, p.7; February 24, 1876, p.2; March 8, 1877, p.8; August 26, 1880, p.7; September 23, 1880, p.3.
Joyner, Newell F. 1929. A History of the Improvements in Yellowstone National Park. pp. 183- 206 in: Ranger Naturalists Manual of Yellowstone National Park. Vol. 3.
Lutz, Dennis J. and Montana Chapter No. 1, National Association of Postmasters of the United States. 1986. Montana Post Offices & Postmasters. Johnson Printing Company. Rochester, Minnesota.
Norris, P. W. 1881. Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior for the year 1880. Washington, Government Printing Office.
Shellen, Wesley N. and Francis Dunn. 2003. Montana Territorial Postmarks. James E. Lee Publishing. Wheeling, Illinois.
Strahorn, Carrie Adell. 1988 (reprint). Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. Volume 1: 1877 - 1880. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London.
Voss, Robert V. various. geyserbob.com.
Voss, Robert V. 2005. Yellowstone's First General Store - A Legacy of Jennie Henderson and Her Family. pp. 16-28 in: Yellowstone Science 13(2), Spring 2005.
Official Register of the United States containing a list of Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service on the First of July, 1881. Volume II - The Post Office Department and the Postal Service. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1881.
Sixth Report of the United States Civil Service Commission. July 1, 1888 to June 30, 1889. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1889.