'Come brother, let us ramble o'er the Black and Yellow Trail…'
By Robert and Elizabeth Rosenberg
(Editors’ note: The Rosenbergs are authors of “Let Us Ramble: Exploring the Black and Yellow Trail in Wyoming,” recently published on WyoHistory.org.)
For almost 40 years, we have made our living as historical consultants in Wyoming. Because the state is rich in trail history, we have recorded many segments of routes from the earliest emigrant roads to the first auto roads. Historic trails generally bring to mind prairie schooners bound for Oregon and California; in addition to the famous Oregon Trail, emigrants crossed the state by way of the Overland Trail, the Bozeman Trail and the Bridger Trail. Today, one can still find remnants of these trails -- wagon ruts, rock inscriptions, and emigrant graves.
The earliest interstate roads also crossed Wyoming: the Lincoln Highway (the first east-west interstate highway), the Yellowstone Highway (connecting Denver to Yellowstone and other National Parks) and the lesser known Black and Yellow Trail. This road was developed in the 1910s so that tourists could jump in their new cars and follow a good road from Chicago to Yellowstone National Park, enjoying the Black Hills, Devils Tower and the Bighorn Mountains along the way. The name of the new road reflected the major attractions as well as the black and yellow-banded posts that would mark the route.
Once autos became affordable, tourists were no longer tethered to railway tracks and were free to explore their country. But outside of town, they found a patchwork of substandard county roads, impassable in bad weather. Auto tourists required reliable roads, gas stations, cafes and groceries, and safe places to spend the night. Although Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, few Americans had the opportunity to experience its natural wonders unless they took a train. In 1916, Yellowstone opened its East Entrance to cars for the first time, adding to the urgency for good roads to the Park.
Throughout the 1910s, counties contributed to the planning and piecemeal construction of the original Black and Yellow Trail, but the successful completion of the Trail in Wyoming was largely due to the Wyoming State Highway Department, created in 1917. State highway departments could accept federal aid on a matching basis under the Federal Aid Act of 1916. The Black and Yellow Trail, as well as the Lincoln Highway and Yellowstone Highway, benefited from this aid. Offiials then made a concerted effort to build first class highways across Wyoming. Every town between Chicago and Yellowstone sought to be on the projected route of the Black and Yellow Trail, envisioning the economic benefits of servicing auto tourists.
Today, traffic patterns have changed, and Interstate 90 channels most of the auto traffic between the Wyoming-South Dakota state line west to Buffalo, Wyo. Today’s U.S. Routes 14 and 16 split at Ucross -- U.S. Route 16 generally maintains the original route of the Trail over the Bighorn Mountains while U.S. Route 14 continues northwest to Sheridan, Wyo., then crosses the Bighorn Range via Burgess Junction to the Bighorn Basin. Both routes ultimately access the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
In spite of continual highway maintenance, reroutes and modern interstates, one can still see and/or drive many portions of the Trail in northern Wyoming. Some sections, generally from the 1920-1930s era, were abandoned when reroutes were constructed in the 1940s. These early segments often retain traces of crowned and ditched roadways, concrete culverts and road markers. Drivable sections usually represent the 1940s alignments and retain the narrow, two-lane, paved shoulderless roadways that characterize that era. Creeks are crossed by 1940s-era wide-flanged steel-girder bridges, and at least one steel truss bridge crosses a 1930s alignment. Due to the wide-open and undeveloped nature of the Wyoming landscape, the adventurous can still find and explore remnants of this historic road across the hills and prairies – so Go Ramble!