The History of Now
It was unusually hot in Yellowstone National Park's early June, with temperatures reaching the 70s. A weekend storm quickly intensified, dropping more than a month worth of precipitation in a matter of days. Already the rivers and creeks were running high from melting snow due to a higher-than-average snowpack. The Gardner River, whose headwaters lie on the west side, in the Gallatin Mountain, was a muddy, rushing torrent by Monday.
The river swept down the Gardner Canyon, below Mammoth Hot Springs. It also took large sections of the nearby roadway with it. The floodwaters, choked with debris, joined the Yellowstone River at its foot. It pushed more than 50 miles north, flooding Yankee Jim Canyon, Paradise Valley, and Livingston.
The park was experiencing similar conditions. Creeks and waterways rose at record levels to cover roads and sweep away bridges. Cam Sholly, Yellowstone's superintendent announced Monday that all five Yellowstone inbound entrances were closed and that most tourists had been evacuated from the area.
The current conditions at Yellowstone's North Entrance Road in the Gardner Canyon, between Gardiner, Montana and Mammoth Hot Springs. More info: https://t.co/mymnqGvcVB pic.twitter.com/S5ysi4wf8a
Gardiner, Montana was badly affected by the extreme weather. It is located at the confluence between the Yellowstone and Gardner rivers. The floodwaters took nearly 900 Gardiner residents out of Livingston and Mammoth Hot Springs, causing them to be without power and water for several days.
"The road I took from Yellowstone Park [Gardiner]], I drove along it probably 10:30 p.m. Sunday evening," Dawson Killen, a Texas tourist who was stranded in Gardiner told ABC FOX Montana. "The road was gone by the time I woke [Monday]".
The Gardiner's early summer flood was just one of a number of events that has shaped Gardiner in the last two centuries. It shows how even the conditions that make gateway towns successful and thriving are vulnerable to being destroyed. These communities are those located outside of historic sites and national parks.
The town of Gardiner is located between the Gallatin-Absaroka mountain ranges. The two rivers that flow down from Yellowstone caldera into this valley have been drawing bison, elk, and wolves for thousands of years.
Johnson Gardner, an American Fur Company trapper and beaver catcher, was the first white man to settle at the confluence. The area became known as Gardner's Hole, in part due to legendary guide Jim Bridger, who used the name when he brought the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition to Yellowstone in 1870. In the accounts of the expedition, the name of the campsite was mispelled, as was the name of the river. This was also the case in the official government report by Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist who brought the first federally-funded scientific team to Yellowstone in 1870.
Hayden's survey resulted in the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act being passed in 1872. This law preserved more than one million acres of Yellowstone Basin land and created the first national park worldwide. Entrepreneurs built a tollroad from Bozeman (Montana) to Gardiner, and all the way to Mammoth Hot Springs within a year. The settlement included a bakery, post office and schoolhouse. The area was difficult to access; in the next ten year, only a handful of tourists made it through Gardiner to see Yellowstone.
The Northern Pacific Railroad reached Livingston in 1882. Hundreds of tourists were soon joined by thousands of others who disembarked at Livingston before taking stagecoaches to Gardiner or the park. The completion of a Northern Pacific spur track, a short extension of the track running from Livingston to the park’s northern entrance, in 1902 secured Gardiner's position as the park’s first gateway town.
Gardiner Wonderland's May 1902 issue declared that "This town is the source point for the surrounding country and headquarters for most team work and freighting within and around the park."
Officials had already established Mammoth Hot Springs as the park's headquarters, making it one of Yellowstone’s most popular attractions. Visitors wanted to see Old Faithful, the other geyser wonders, and the Grand Canyon's lower and upper falls.
Two loop roads were constructed by park personnel to connect these two sites with several new entrances. These links connected the park to additional gateway towns, including Jackson Hole (south), Cody (east), West Yellowstone (west), and Cooke City in Montana (northeast). The park's western entrance became very popular. Jackson Hole and Gardiner vied to be the second entrance after the construction of the southern one was complete in 1902.
In 1903, Gardiner was promoted as the first gateway. To provide visitors to Yellowstone with an unforgettable experience, the arch was built by local leaders and US Army officials. The cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt while he was in Yellowstone that spring. He also gave a brief speech.
Roosevelt declared, "The Yellowstone Park in the World is Something Absolutely Unique" to a cheering crowd. "Nowhere else is such a tract in civilized countries is it possible to find such a veritable wonderland that is accessible to all visitors."
Gardiner played an important role in the opening of the park, adapting to the changing transportation landscapes and meeting increasing numbers of visitors over the 120-year period since its dedication. Officials allowed automobiles to enter the park in 1915. Stables, barns, and liveries were quickly replaced by gas stations, garages, and auto repair shops. The commercial corridor grew and the streets were widened.
The decline in train ticket sales due to America's embrace of the automobile led to the Northern Pacific Railroad ending passenger rail service to Gardiner in 1948. Yellowstone visitor numbers reached one million in 1948. An estimated 18 to 20% of those travelers made their way through Gardiner that year.
Gardiner, like many Yellowstone's gateway towns, is a great example of this. It has a long history of tourism growth and economic growth due to its close relationship with famous American landscapes. However, it is the only place that Yellowstone National Park has much of its "official" infrastructure. The park created a Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, which houses manuscript, book, and object collections that relate to Yellowstone's past. It was built due to Gardiner being close to Mammoth Hot Spring, the park's headquarters. Yellowstone Forever is the park's official non-profit partner and supports education and fundraising. It also has a base in Gardiner.
These attractions draw people to the town as well. Gardiner's position at the end the idyllic Paradise Valley and its charming main street perched high over the Yellowstone River make it "nature's favourite entrance". This gives business leaders an advantage when attracting visitors in the shoulder seasons.
All of these are benefits for Gardiner's residents. Gateway communities balance on the most sharp segment of a two-edged sword. While they rely on tourism almost exclusively for their existence, too much tourism could lead to their demise.
To prepare for the National Park Service's centennial celebrations in 2016, Gardiner was the beneficiary of infrastructure improvements by federal, state, and local agencies. According to a University of Montana survey, while the program brought about improvements in lighting, sidewalks and tax revenue, many residents were unhappy with the increase in tourist traffic. Although the town was flourishing it was also less peaceful and more crowded.
These problems were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Quarantine orders in spring 2020 cut off tourist flow to Yellowstone. This threw Gardiner, and other park gateway communities into economic chaos. In the summer 2020 and 2021, a surge in tourists to the region caused a major labor shortage and stress on restaurants and hotels, as well hospitals that had to deal with Covid-infected travelers. A large number of new transplants arrived in the region due to the pandemic. Most of these were white-collar workers and could log into their jobs anywhere there was Wi-Fi.
This tourism boom caused housing prices to skyrocket and a growing number of Gardiner houses and apartments were converted into Airbnbs and other short term rentals. It was difficult for those who wanted to work in the park or its related businesses to find a place where they could live. This has caused friction between visitors and locals.
Like every aspect of Gardiner’s history, these demographic shifts are both positive and negative for Gardiner's prospects. Gardiner's position as a gateway town is a key reason for its success, but it also exposes the town to wider changes in government policy and technological innovation. Gardiner's vulnerability to climate change is also evident in the flooding this weekend.
A study of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem revealed that although the average rainfall in the region hasn't changed much since 1950, temperatures have been steadily rising, which means more rain (rather snow) at higher elevations during the spring. Although the flooding that occurred recently was unusual, it is likely to become more common. This is due to accelerated snowmelt and spring storms that bring too much rain to Yellowstone's rivers and creeks. Even if Montana residents and Wyoming take steps to reduce climate change over the next few years the report's authors warn that temperatures will continue rising and more extreme weather events are likely to occur.
The town is not looking good after the destruction that the Gardner River caused to the canyon road to Mammoth. At the earliest, the road to the park will be closed. Tourists won't be able to access Yellowstone without being able to drive all the way to Gardiner to whitewater raft or hike. In the short-term, this will cause a serious economic impact on the area. There will be changes in the park itself. Without the Gardiner entrance, visitors will not be able to enter the northern part of Yellowstone. Rangers and other staff will have to deal with overcrowding as well as traffic jams throughout the rest.
Recovery will face many challenges. The National Park Service and Gardiner's residents cannot ignore the effects of recent demographic shifts, or the likelihood of a volatile climate in the near future. However, Gardiner's history shows that the floods of this weekend are just one in a series. This gateway town must adapt to the dramatic changes taking place at the borders of America's first national parks in order to remain Yellowstone's "nature's favourite entrance".