Wonder and spectacle in the world's first national park : railroad imagery of Yellowstone National Park
Much has been written about Yellowstone National Park, but little of it considers images as representations of the Park. In this study, I examine the imagery of two series of railroad advertisements for Yellowstone: the Northern Pacific Railroad's Wonderland campaign (1883-1910) and the Union Pacific Railroad's bear campaign (1923-1960). Despite the axiom "you can't judge a book by its cover," clearly the creators of these brochures think otherwise; they intend these images to convey the essence of Yellowstone. Both sets of railroad imagery refer to Yellowstone as an unusual place, a wonder, a curiosity, even a freak show. The Northern Pacific Wonderland series emphasizes the geothermal and geological features, while the Union Pacific series features bears. The Northern Pacific brochures are in and of themselves a collection of fragmented pieces of Yellowstone, like a cabinet of curiosities, a pre-modern collection kept by European social elites. By focusing on the unique and the singular, they question the laws of nature. They co-opt the metaphors of gender and race in order to portray Yellowstone as an island untouched by humans that resisted the march of Progress and Civilization. This idea of Yellowstone's separateness is what gives it commercial value and situates it squarely within American commercial culture. The Union Pacific bear images feature a theme of performance and entertainment. The Park and its bears and geysers are now tamed and serve to entertain tourists; Yellowstone is now a mass spectacle. The bears are entertainers, clowns, and freaks; they question the boundary between human and animal and thus cause anxiety. But traditional gender roles are upheld, and issues of class are largely avoided, which serve to calm the anxiety that was raised. In both railroad representations, Yellowstone National Park serves as a foil, a place modern tourists can visit to define themselves. These representations of Yellowstone chart a shift from elitism to consumer democracy; clearly ideas about Yellowstone National Park, and representations of it, have changed and continue to change with the times.