Alice Morris: Mapping Yellowstone's Trails
Mrs. Robert C. Morris of New York is an authority on Western fishing. ... In the Winter she lives on Fifth Avenue, and goes to the opera, and rides in her limousine, and does the other things that city women do; in the Summer she is off to the Rockies to fish, ride the mountain trails, camp, and fish again (New York Times, May 12, 1918).
A wealthy New York socialite seemed an unlikely candidate to spearhead one of the earliest efforts to establish a standard trail system in Yellowstone National Park. But Alice Morris was no stranger to the park. By 1917, she had come to the Yellowstone country each summer for many years, camping, fishing and riding horses.
From Army to Park Service
When Morris came to Yellowstone – “America’s Wonderland” – the park was struggling through a difficult transition. In 1883, the U.S. Army took over management of the park, which was suffering from vandalism, poaching and poor administration. The Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Cavalry managed the park until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act. The last soldiers left Fort Yellowstone in October, turning over management to the National Park Service. The first Park rangers were 22 discharged Army men.
The transition did not go smoothly. Local communities wanted the Army back, and politicians blocked funding for the civilian force. Army management made a temporary return, but when the United States entered World War I, troops were needed in Europe. Congress reluctantly provided non-military funding for the park in July 1918.
The original road system was built by the competent Army Corps of Engineers. One of the earliest park superintendents, Philetus W. Norris, devised a system of circular loop roads to connect the natural wonders. During his tenure from 1877-1882, workers completed about 104 miles of today’s 140-mile Grand Loop Road.
The Army then took over administration. Lieutenant Dan C. Kingman concentrated on improving the hastily built roads, set park road standards, and built several substantial bridges. Norris and other pre-Army superintendents also began laying out a system of foot and horseback trails to access the park’s attractions and to patrol the backcountry. These early trails often followed existing American Indian routes, game trails, or, simply, paths of least resistance.
The military, charged with controlling poaching and wildfires, established regular patrols that used existing roads and trails. Gradually new trails were added to the park system. Starting in about 1890, the Army built patrol cabins for shelter during the winter months. These so-called snowshoe cabins were strategically located throughout the park and were eventually connected by trails.
Fire control was a major concern after the Great Fire of 1910 (“the Big Blowup”), which burned over 3 million acres of forest in Washington, Idaho and Montana, and killed at least 85 people. The Army began building new trails that served a dual purpose—tourism and fire prevention. Many of the trails were designated as “firelanes.”
By 1917, about 400 hundred miles of trails were in common use, including 280 miles classified as firelanes. Milton P. Skinner, a geologist intimately familiar with the park, suggested an additional 521 miles of new trails. In 1916, cars began streaming into the park, and it became imperative to separate horseback travel from auto traffic.
“I had long known the Park”
Although Alice Morris was a world traveler and could afford to visit any destination, she chose Yellowstone National Park. For several summers she stayed on a homestead claimed in 1913 by G. Milton Ames along Slough Creek just north of the park. “Lady Morris,” as she was known, first stayed in a tent, later a log cabin accompanied by her cook, Estelle. Morris kept five ponies and a colt on the homestead and often traveled into the park.
Usually, she left her husband in New York. Robert Clark Morris was born into a prominent New England family. He graduated with a law degree from Yale. In 1890, he married Alice Parmelee, age 17, and soon established a law practice in New York City. He and Alice were active in civic, social and political affairs. In 1896 they sailed to Japan, where they visited Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. She subsequently wrote an illustrated book, Dragons and Cherry Blossoms, about the adventure. This thin volume displayed her writing skills, which she would one day put to good use in her reports on the Yellowstone trails.
Alice must have been a notable sight during her visits to Yellowstone, exploring the park on horseback. In 1917, at age 44, she was invited by the Park Service to undertake a study of the trails. That summer, she covered 1,500 miles on horseback, mapping and blazing a system of trails.
She described her adventures to a reporter in a New York Times article that ran February 10, 1918. She related her daily regimen of waking at 5 AM, riding all day working out a route across a variety of terrains, sometimes through deep snow, and swimming the horses through rivers. She concluded her long days around a campfire, making notes of the day’s journey. “Work? Of course it was work,” she said. “But it was the most stimulating kind of work you can imagine.”
As a result of that summer’s explorations, she compiled two official reports. The first, “Notes on Trail Study in Yellowstone Park” (1917), provided park officials with specific recommendations, including suggestions for trail connections and complete marking of the trails. Her subsequent report, “Map and Description of the Trails in and about Yellowstone Park” (1918) was an eloquent essay on the beauty and wildness Yellowstone offered tourists willing to travel the back country. Her observations included colorful descriptions of wildlife, flora and geysers.
Her 1917 report recommended three circular trails. One, she urged, should connect the principal hotels; the second would be a series of trails radiating like spokes from the hotels for short trips; her third recommendation proposed an outer loop through the wilderness to the borders of the park, based on existing firelanes. The report listed all the trails she rode and her recommendations for specific improvements, shortcuts or new trails.
She advised that trail specifications be followed and used as a basis for construction and inspection of new trails:
Trails should be cut 6 ft. wide through timber, and graded 3 ft. wide on all side hills, and through rough ground. Also that overhanging branches be removed from trees. Small stumps and snags should be cut below the level of the ground, if possible, and the trail should be reasonably free from sharp turns, sudden declivities and loose stones. All trails to be constructed should be run out with a hypsometer [an instrument for measuring height or altitude] or some such simple instrument and staked, in order to establish an even grade. Recommended that the maximum grade on any trail constructed be 10 per cent, very few grades being over 8 per cent.
…It is suggested that on this trail work there be appointed a Trail Master, whose business it should be to plan and superintend work on all trails in order that the system of trails may present a uniform appearance. The existing trails give an unpleasant impression of dissimilarity of method of construction.
Appreciative of her summer’s labors, Superintendent Lindsley graciously wrote Alice: “The manner in which you have handled this important problem of our National Park, and the completeness and charm of expression of your reports and notes, is a joy. And best of all, to my mind, you have made the whole scheme perfectly a practicable one, and I hope that you can be the one to see it carried eventually to completion, and enjoyed and appreciated by the public.”
“The fishing – Oh, the fishing!”
The unusual combination of socialite and explorer had begun to catch the public’s eye. Morris was interviewed by a New York Times reporter for an article that appeared on May 12, 1918. Answering his questions about fly fishing, she scoffed at any fisherman who would sink to using worms. “The keenest joy in fishing,” she observed, “was luring a trout that you’ve never been able to catch…But when you get him, you are satisfied… It has been a battle of wits, a tussle of strategy, and you’ve won! That’s fishing!”
Fishing remained one of Alice Morris’s greatest passions. She exclaimed in the Times article, “The fishing—Oh, the fishing in the Yellowstone!—is such fishing as the passionate angler dreams of….The day’s ride along the trails finds always a jewel-like lake in the mountains, or a crystal sparkling stream, at the edge of which to make camp when evening falls.”
“This unique splendor”
Alice Morris expected that her longer, more impressionistic 1918 report, along with 32 photos, would be published by the National Park Service. However, this author was unable to locate any record of an officially published version. The 1918 report survives in the Yellowstone National Park archives. This second report provides the basis of this article and will be quoted at length. She began by explaining the urgent necessity of her explorations. The introduction of the automobile had made travel much easier, she wrote, but many feared a loss of the park’s “primitive charm” would result.
To…make public the information that would establish the Yellowstone National Park more firmly than it ever had been before as the people’s wonderland – a unique and marvelous thing to see, a safe and simple place to visit, a delightful, picturesque, magnificent country to ride through and camp in and enjoy – the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior asked me to map the trails and bridle paths…The motor cars travel over a small part of the park’s great area. Into all the magnificence of the wilderness, otherwise inaccessible, go the trails.
Of course, Alice Morris lived in a world far removed from today’s. Present-day park management of some 4 million visitors per year would have been beyond her imagination.
“Harmless, good-natured” bears
Though Alice Morris was an experienced backcountry traveler, her attitudes towards safety on pack trips seem naïve today:
It is safe in spite of black bears and mountain elk, of precipitous canyons and rushing rivers. It is so safe that women and children may set out with a pack-train. The pack-train is of course accompanied by a guide, and all the Yellowstone guides are well-known and experienced men…As for the wild animals that roam the hills…they simply pay no attention to him at all. Now and then a great black bear will come lumbering out of the forest and cross the bridle-path. His big clumsy body may halt its swinging gait as he hears the pack-train’s approach; his wistful, humourous [sic] face may turn gravely for a moment toward the intruders in his domain; but after all he is used to them; they are harmless; they are not worth more than an instant’s attention; he ambles on. And the horses, by no means disturbed, keep on their way. … The grizzly bears are made of different stuff. They seek no compromise in their ancient enmity. They have their homes – the few that are in the Park – in remote fastnesses high up in the hills. Man almost never meets them; he never wants to.
Morris did not record any incidents involving bears during her horseback rides through the park that summer of 1917. Only the summer before, however, a large grizzly attacked and killed a teamster, Frank Welch, who was sleeping under his wagon. His was the first documented death from grizzly attack in Yellowstone National Park.
The “bear problem” started after two large hotels opened in the park in 1891 and developed large waste dumps. Emboldened by these dumps, bears gradually lost their fear of humans and started begging from tourists along the park roads. Visitors tended to underestimate the risk, approaching the bears to feed or photograph them.
From 1931 to 1969, an average of 46 people per year were injured by black bears. Only 8 people have been killed by grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park during its 146-year history. Eventually, the dangerous combination of garbage dumps and tourists became evident. By 1973, the dumps were permanently closed, and many problem bears were transplanted to remote areas.
“The whole park is a flower garden”
Alice observed that “the flowers grow, wild and luxuriant, as they grow in primeval lands,” and singled out a few as objects of her particular affection. Lupine, pale lavender to deep purple and blue, was the dominant flower growing in masses on the hillsides; the gentian was “…a clear blue fringed flower that…remains characteristically the Yellowstone’s own.” She was especially charmed by columbine and Indian paintbrush, which changed to a large, gracefully formed flower of deep magenta or crimson in the high peaks.
Morris admitted that the auto tourist could now visit most of the “spectacular wonders” of the park, but only those who traveled the trails by pack-train could linger in their own favorite places for as long as they chose, even all summer if they liked. “Everyone knows that there are geysers there,” she wrote; “almost everyone knows that there are petrified forests; few Americans, I think, understand the untouched natural beauty and interest even in little things that lie in this American wonderland.”
Despite the fact that Alice Morris considered the geysers an obvious Yellowstone attraction, she devoted several pages of her report to their description. Although geologists classified and explained the geyser phenomena in great detail, Morris related to the simple “wonder and delight” of the tourist in seeing them. “These great bursts of silver beauty from the earth are so mysterious, so splendid, so curiously varied.” Many of the names she used are still in use today:
Here is Black Warrior, whose fountain play never ceases, and the indolent lovely majestic Giantess that rests from five to forty days! The explosive Minute Man sends his silver shower into the air for fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds, and then stops. The Giant plays for precisely one hour at a time. And there is the exquisite little Jewel, whose magic fountain is never more than twenty feet high, whereas the Giant, the highest stream of all, sends forth a gleaming misted tower with a minimum of 200 and a maximum of 250 feet. The Fan is unlike most of the other geysers in that it throws its water at an angle instead of vertically. Castle Geyser, with a gush of seventy-five feet or so, has built itself an impressive crater from which it takes its name. The Beehive is a creation of simple artistry – a slender column of water that rises to a height of 200 feet from a small beehive mound. The Great Fountain’s basin is strangely and pleasingly ornamented, and its volume of water is extraordinarily large.
In her 1918 report, Alice Morris called the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone “one of the great natural wonders of the world”:
It is a place not only of beauty and majesty of line, but of magnificent color – so magnificent, so varied, that it is as if a single artist has spilled his gorgeous tint upon the rocks. Leaving its quiet valley, the river tumbles first over the Upper Falls and then on to the Lower Falls, where it is truly a queen in its flowing robes of silver as it dashes in glory down what is perhaps the most beautiful waterfall in the world.
“Into all the magnificence of the wilderness, otherwise inaccessible, go the trails”
The nuts and bolts of Alice’s 1918 report were the trail-by-trail descriptions. Portions of this segment of her 1918 trail study were printed in the “Yellowstone National Park: Rules and Regulations” issued in 1920. However, as stated earlier, it does not appear that her 1918 report was ever printed in its entirety as an official park pamphlet.
Correspondence between Alice Morris and Superintendent Lindsley in February and March 1918 indicate how seriously he took her recommendations concerning the park trail system. In regard to her 1917 report, Lindsley stated that “I only wish there were room for all of it in our little booklet on park information which is distributed by the thousands each summer. I have already recommended that your Trail Notes be added to that circular, and trust it may not be too late to have it done for the season of 1918.”
In a letter dated February 15, Lindsley stressed the necessity of cutting out and marking the north boundary line of the park and the west line of the park from the northwest corner, “as this is a favorite hunting country in the fall and there is some doubt as to the location of the line on the part of hunters.” He also recommended heavy rock work on the trail north of the Yellowstone River.
Lindsley requested a map from Morris, as well as cost estimates for conducting the work, based on three (possibly four) crews of four men each and four pack horses in the field; a map and cost figures were attached to his letter in park files, indicating her response. Her agenda for trail work was much more ambitious than Lindsley mentioned in his letter. She also calculated the number of days needed for each project to be completed.
She attached two appendices, one of which provided for improvement of Uncle Tom’s Trail from the canyon rim to the shore of the river. “Many people persist in using this trail in its present dangerous condition in spite of sign at its head and warnings duly given. Steps can be cut in rock, iron hand-rails provided, and earth part widened, relocated, and re-graded.”
Many of Alice’s recommendations were later incorporated by the Park Service as funding and other priorities allowed. One of her suggestions for a new trail has become today’s Trail Creek Trail, which follows the north and east sides of Heart Lake, then continues east along the south shores of the South and Southeast Arms of Yellowstone Lake to connect with the Thorofare Trail. Milton P. Skinner also recommended this route in his 1917 report. He stated that “a fair game trail covers most of the route.” Superintendent Albright agreed with them both and recommended that it be added to the trail system in his 1919 and 1920 “Report of the Superintendent.” The trail was finally constructed during the years 1934-1936.
In the same area, she recommended constructing what has become today’s Snake River or Snake River Cutoff Trail. She also suggested the construction of the Elephant’s Back Trail at the north end of Lake Yellowstone, which was subsequently built in 1928, as well as what is today’s Buffalo Fork Trail at the north end of the park. This trail was finally designated on park maps in 1937.
Down the rabbit hole
As for the rest of Alice’s life, after her 1917 summer of trail-breaking and subsequent articles, little is known about her. The Slough Creek homestead, her summer home for many years, was sold in 1918 and became a part of the Silver Tip Ranch, a guest ranch with a rustic lodge and polo field. Alice Morris ceased her summer visits to the homestead, and her name is not mentioned in a history of the Silver Tip Ranch from 1922-1947, written by A. Conger Goodyear.
No evidence has been found of any further association between Alice Morris and Yellowstone National Park. After G. Milton Ames sold his property in 1918, Alice Morris stayed with Mrs. Joe B. Duret, wife of “Frenchy” Duret, on a nearby homestead. Her visit in June 1921 was mentioned in a local newspaper: “Mrs. Duret looks after the comforts of a number of tourists every year at her place on Slough Creek on the Cooke City Road, where she will entertain this year, Mrs. Robert Morris, wife of a prominent New York lawyer, who arrived in Livingston Wednesday from the east.”
The remainder of Alice Morris’s life is a mystery. In the 1920s, she and Robert C. Morris were divorced. The couple never had any children. After the divorce, her name vanished from the society pages of the New York Times. Robert C. Morris remarried, but his second wife died only 17 months later. He passed away in 1938, leaving one-quarter of his estate to Alice. At that time, Alice had not remarried, and she resided in Palm Springs, California.
Did Alice Morris ever return to Yellowstone National Park after committing so much time and energy to the development of its trail system? Further research may cast new light on her later life, but for now this dynamic woman from New York City deserves recognition for her contributions to Yellowstone’s backcountry trails. In her report, she added:
I had long known the Park… and had literally chosen it as in all the world the most interesting, enjoyable goal for summer journeyings. Certainly, too, the earth knows no place more beautiful, just as it knows no place that is at all like the Yellowstone National Park.
- Anderson, George S. Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior, 1892. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892.
- Anderson, George S. Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior, 1895. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1895.
- Hale, Elaine Skinner. “A Brief History of the Slough Creek Wagon Road,” typewritten 13-page manuscript dated 19 June 2006. On file at Branch of Cultural Resources, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park.
- National Park Service. Yellowstone National Park: Rules and Regulations, 1920. “Trails in and About Yellowstone National Park”, by Mrs. Robert C. Morris. Accessed Nov. 1, 2016 at https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/brochures/1920/yell/sec4.htm.
- Yellowstone National Park Archives, Pre-National Park Service Collection, Letter Box 72, Item No. 113: Roads and Trails, 1912-1918; letter report dated November 15, 1916, from Chester A. Lindsley, Acting Supervisor to the Superintendent of National Parks, Washington, D.C. concerning statistics for roads and trails in Yellowstone National Park.
- Yellowstone National Park Archives, Pre-National Park Service Collection, Item No. 113: Roads & Trails, 1912-1918, “June 1917, Suggested Addition to System of Trails in Yellowstone National Park with Advantages of the Trails Mentioned, Present Condition of Trails where Old Trails Exist, and Estimated Cost of Necessary Work” by Milton P. Skinner, Geologist, 13 pages.
- Yellowstone National Park Archives, Pre-National Park Service Collection, Item No. 113: Roads & Trails, 1912-1918. Folder 342, five page letter dated November 20, 1917, from Major John W.H. Schulz, District Engineer, Corps of Engineers, to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C. concerning trails in Yellowstone National Park.
- Yellowstone National Park Archives, Pre-National Park Service Collection, Letter Box 72, Folder: Notes on Trail Study in Yellowstone Park, 1917, by Alice P. Morris, File No. 332.4; Yellowstone Trails by Alice P. Morris, 1918.
- Yellowstone National Park Archives, Pre-National Park Service Collection, Letter Box 72, File No. 332.4; letters dated February 15 and March 14, 1918, from C.A. Lindsley, Superintendent Yellowstone National Park, to Alice Morris, concerning Yellowstone National Park trails and suggested improvements.
- “Yellowstone Trails Blazed by New York Woman.” The New York Times Magazine, 10 February 1918, p. 7.
- “From Fifth Avenue She Turns to Fly-Fishing.” The New York Times, 12 May 1918.
- Mrs. Robert C. Morris of New York at her camp, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.” Photograph and caption, The New York Times, 16 August 1914.
- “Local News.” The Park County News, Livingston, Montana, 28 June 1921. Reference to Mrs. Joe B. Duret and summer visit of Mrs. Robert Morris.
- “Bear Killed and Ate Mont. Trapper.” The Cody Enterprise, Cody, Wyoming, 28 June 1922, p. 1.
- U.S. Forest Service. “The 1910 Fires.” U.S. Forest Service History. Forest History Society 2012. Accessed Nov. 1, 2016 at http://www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Policy/Fire/FamousFires/1910Fires.aspx.
- Culpin, Mary Shivers. The History of the Construction of the Road System in Yellowstone National Park, 1872-1966. Historic Resource Study, Vol. 1, No. 5. Denver: National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Region, 1994.
- Egan, Timothy. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009.
- Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story, Volumes 1 and 2. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1996.
- No Author. “Robert Clark Morris, 1869-1938.” The New York Community Trust, New York, NY. http://www.nycommunitytrust.org/Portals/0/…/BioBrochures/Robert%20Clark%20Morris.pdf.
- Whithorn, Doris. Twice Told on the Upper Yellowstone, Volume 2. Published by Doris Whithorn, Livingston, Montana, 1994.
- Whittlesey, Lee H. Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. Second Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 2014.
For further browsing and research
- Diary of a 1908 wagon trip from Boulder, Wyo., south of Pinedale, to Yellowstone Park: https://diaryfile.com/yellowstone-diary/. Special thanks to Matt McKnight, editor, DiaryFile.com.
- The photos of Alice Morris on her horse, the cabin on Slough Creek and the cook, Estelle, are from the Yellowstone Gateway Museum of Park County, Livingston, Montana, all now in the authors’ collection as well. Used with thanks.
- The map of Yellowstone trails that Alice Morris prepared for her 1918 report to the Department of the Interior is from the Pre-National Park Service Collection, Yellowstone National Park Archives, now in the authors’ collection. The photos the Trail Creek Trail bridge, tourists riding the Howard Eaton Trail and the tourist above the Yellowstone River, are all from Box L-8, 1934 Fire Trails, Yellowstone National Park Archives and are now in the authors’ collection as well. Used with thanks.
- The photos of the steps to the foot of the Lower Yellowstone Falls and the waterfall itself are by the authors, 2009. The photo of the Blue Sapphire Pool is from 2016, also by the authors. Used with thanks.