Railroad shaped beginning of Zion National Park

Railroads have always been involved with the national park system in the United States, from the founding of the first national park, Yellowstone.
1920's Union Pacific Railroad

Tinted photo postcard depicting the dining car on the Union Pacific Railroad's Columbine train which traveled the Chicago - Denver route. The train went into service in the 1920s.

Railroads have always been involved with the national park system in the United States, from the founding of the first national park, Yellowstone.

The reason was simple: railroads could make money on tourism

Northern Pacific Railroad was a key player in getting the Yellowstone region protected. Indeed, Jay Cooke, the promoter and financier of the Northern Pacific Railroad, financed expeditions to the Yellowstone area. Cooke sent artist Thomas Moran to Yellowstone to paint The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, a picture that helped inspire Congress to pass the bill creating Yellowstone National Park.

Northern Pacific built lodges for wealthy tourists to stay at in Yellowstone. Soon other railroads rushed into the high-end tourism business. Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied for the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, while Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad built a lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

A direct request from NPS Director Stephen T. Mather led the Union Pacific Railroad, during the 1920s, to develop tourism to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and several other Utah parks. A Union Pacific subsidiary, the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, constructed a 35-mile branch line from Lund to Cedar City, Utah, where its forty eleven-passenger auto-stages collected and hauled tourists to the North Rim, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, and Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Another Union Pacific subsidiary, the Utah Parks Company, built the Hotel El Escalante in Cedar City for $265,000. A lodge and forty-six cabins were constructed at Zion, and an associated water system. National advertising expenses for 1923 to 1924 were $100,000 for ads in the Saturday Evening Post, Literary Digest, and other national magazines, periodicals, and newspapers, and for the publication of an elaborately illustrated booklet on Zion.

Curiously, the Union Pacific refused to promote Zion National Park in the California market, out of fear that more motorists would drive to the park, rather than take the train. This bias against motorists extended into whether reservations for lodging or meals could reliably be made outside the railroad's tourism business.

Railroad Done In By Cars

Relations between the railroad and the NPS became strained, and by 1960, automobile traffic to Zion eclipsed the number of visitors that arrived by train. Union Pacific ultimately withdrew as the park concessionaire in 1972.

Gilbert Stanley Underwood was hired as the architect for the Zion construction program. He developed an architectural style that became know as "NPS Rustic," exemplified by the original Zion Lodge, but also seen in the park's cabins, women's dorm, swimming pool and bath house, bakery shop and cafeteria.

Tour buses at Zion Lodge in 1929

Tour buses at Zion Lodge in 1929. Wikimedia Public Domain

Underwood used over-sized blocks of sandstone with wide mortar joints and over-scaled sawn timbers. As he continued work in other national parks, you can see the refinement of his style develop in Bryce Canyon and Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee Lodge.

The Zion Lodge burned down and was hastily rebuilt in 1966. A 1992 renovation brought the lodge closer to Underwood's original intent.

(For more details, see "The National Park Service Architecture Sourcebook" by Harvey Kaiser. Styles differed across the country and among the prominent architects hired by the NPS.)


Hoodoos at sunrise in Bryce Canyon National Park

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature's most spectacular locales from Acadia to Zion -- The National Parks: America's Best Idea really does express one of our best ideas ever.