The Model T Ford, built for 20 years between 1907 and 1927, has been called as much an instrument of conquest of the West as were Colt revolvers, Springfield rifles and rock drills.
When Henry Ford introduced the Model T to Americans, the automobile became affordable enough that the average American could own one. America’s middle class began touring the country by automobile in large numbers.
In 1917, just before America became involved in World War I, advertisements for automobiles and accessories began appearing in local newspapers. That same year the Wyoming Legislature enacted a more comprehensive vehicle registration law and passed legislation so Wyoming could participate in federal highway programs.
Everyone wanted good roads: the Forest Service to make it easier to fight wildfires, loggers to make it easier to harvest timber, stockmen to make it easier to care for their livestock, and local businessmen to make it easier to conduct trade.
Local communities began forming highway associations and automobile clubs, also known as “good roads clubs” to capitalize on the area’s tourism potential. Local communities competed with each other to build and promote access to the national forest and attractions to the west.
The Sheridan-Lovell-Yellowstone Park Highway Association promoted a route across the Bighorns from Dayton. The Custer Battlefield Highway Association proposed a road from Omaha through Sioux City and Sioux Falls across South Dakota into Wyoming. The Black and Yellow Trail Association was by far the most successful.
Established in 1912, the 1,432-mile Black and Yellow Trail’s route led from the Midwest, Chicago generally, through the Black Hills, past Devils Tower, over the Bighorn Mountains, and on to Yellowstone National Park. Signs being few and far between, black and yellow stripes marked the route to keep travelers from getting lost.
Being located halfway between the Black Hills and Yellowstone, Buffalo was the obvious choice for the Black and Yellow Trail. It offered a stopping point where travelers could rest, resupply and take care of maintenance issues on their Model Ts. The route was also desirable because of its more direct line to points west and its gentler slopes, messages today’s travelers will see on signs along Interstates 25 and 90.
Though promoted as one of the best-improved highways in the western United States, travel in the early days could be fraught with hazards. In Edgar F. Marbourg’s account of a 1916 journey on the Black and Yellow Trail, he states that axes and dynamite were among the supplies he carried. Clearly, people needed to de-stress and resupply along the way.
For the automobile tourists in the early 20th century, a trip from Buffalo to Yellowstone could take several days. A need for places where tourists could stop outside the borders of surrounding towns was soon realized. The creation of mountain lodges was the answer. Not only would they be convenient stopping points, they would become destinations in themselves for people who wanted to enjoy the Bighorns’ recreational opportunities.
The South Fork Inn became the first lodge along the Black and Yellow Trail in the Bighorns. Established in 1917, the Inn catered to the new automobile tourists and became a gathering place for people in local communities. By 1918, the inn was offering horseback riding and fishing and hunting excursions. In 1923, new owners offered free bus service to transport area residents to weekly Saturday night dances.
When named roads became numbered roads, the Black and Yellow Trail became U.S. Highways 14 and 16 across northern Wyoming.
Better roads meant ranchers could drive to town once a week instead of once a month. The work done on roads across the Bighorns and the connecting highways on both sides meant a vast improvement from wagon-rutted pioneer trails. The development of affordable automobiles and improved roads brought not only economic gains to the communities surrounding the Bighorns, it also brought formerly isolated communities closer together and laid the groundwork for expansion of the area’s tourist trade.
Susan Douglas is a public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest.