Yellowstone National Park seems to have forgotten Howard Eaton, a man the institution once honored.
Scattered markers refer to the Howard Eaton Trail, but it is no longer maintained. A log-framed sign erected when the trail was dedicated on July 19, 1923, with a photo of Eaton on his favorite mount, Danger, and information about his ties to the park, was eventually removed and not replaced.
The sign was planted close to Sheepeater Cliff, near the headwaters of the Gardner River, one of Eaton’s favorite camping spots in the park’s northwest corner.
Who was Howard Eaton, and why has he been forgotten in a place he helped introduce to the public?
Original dude rancher
Eaton was a multifaceted man who had a wide range of experiences. He is credited by some with creating the first dude ranch with his brothers in what is now North Dakota in 1882. There he met Theodore Roosevelt, who became a lifelong friend. Eventually, he pulled up stakes and moved his family’s ranch to Wyoming, where it still exists. In his later years, Eaton was named to a special commission to save bison.
One year after his death in the spring of 1922, the 157-mile-long trail that circles the center of Yellowstone National Park was dedicated in his memory, along with the biographical plaque honoring him.
Leslie Quinn, who works in Yellowstone and has hiked much of the Eaton trail, said the impetus behind the dedication likely came from Sam Woodring, the park’s chief ranger at the time.
Easterner goes West
Howard Eaton was born in Pittsburgh in 1851 and traveled West as a young man. In 1879 he squatted on land near what is now Medora, N.D. (Portions of the rugged badlands of the Little Missouri River are now part of another park, named for Theodore Roosevelt.) With the help of his brothers, Alden and Willis, who followed Howard later, the Eatons combined their separate holdings in 1883 and built up the ranching business five miles south of Medora on both sides of the Little Missouri. They eventually began playing host to guests from the East who visited the West to hunt, camp and roam the still-wild country.
The ranch was established only three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. To honor the battle’s best-known casualty, Lt. Col. George Custer, who had camped nearby, the Eatons named their ranch the Custer Trail Ranch.
The ranch’s transition to a dude operation may have begun when a letter written by Eaton to a friend was published in a New York newspaper. In the article, Eaton extolled the virtues of the West. The letter is believed to have prompted Roosevelt’s visit to the Dakotas the next year, 1883. Counts and marquis followed, with the Eatons housing, feeding and providing stock for the men as they hunted bison.
“Although the practice was contrary to the code of ranching hospitality, the Eatons did take their first paying guest in 1882, Bert Rumsey of Buffalo, New York,” wrote Lawrence R. Borne in his book, “Dude Ranching, A Complete History.” The going rate back then was $10 a week.
In 1883, Eaton led the first of what would be many pack trips into Yellowstone National Park, which had been established by Congress in 1872. The trip was possible because the Northern Pacific Railroad had finally reached Cinnabar, just north of Gardiner at the park’s North Entrance. That allowed Eaton to ferry his guests, wranglers and pack stock to the park’s border.
In 1898, Eaton launched his first large pack trip into Yellowstone. The group included “40 guests (all men); he took lots of saddle and pack horses, tents, a wagon, a cook, horse wrangler, teamster, guides and other workers. From this time on the Eatons’ ranch had a pack trip to Yellowstone Park every year,” Borne wrote.
Guests were coddled with “girls” making the guests’ beds and serving them food while wranglers took care of the horses and set up the tents. The annual park trips were long by today’s standard. Eaton would spend 20 or more days in Yellowstone, and 15 days touring Glacier.
Creating a niche
“The brothers had no comprehensive scheme yet but had decided to take advantage of the extraordinary surroundings to found a place where ‘easterners of the better and more influential classes, more particularly of the younger generation’ could build themselves up mentally and physically through association with nature,” Borne wrote.
The pack trips involved rough terrain and unpredictable weather, but guests were well cared for.
The best example of what an Eaton trip may have been like can be found in the book “Through Glacier Park, Seeing America First With Howard Eaton,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart, published in 1916. Rinehart was better known at the time for her mystery novels, but she loved the outdoors.
“She was one of the wildest women to go on outdoor adventures,” Borne told The Gazette. Quinn, the Yellowstone worker, calls her book one of the best resources on early pack trips.
Rinehart’s trip with Eaton to Glacier was no small affair. She notes the party included 42 people, two wagons and the crossing of six passes.
“One rises early with Howard Eaton’s party. No matter how late the story-tellers have held the crowd the night before around the camp-fire. Somewhere around five o’clock, Howard — he is either Howard or Uncle Howard to everybody — comes calling among the tepees.
“‘Time to get up!’ he calls. ‘Five o’clock and a fine morning. Up with you.’”
Among the storytellers was Charles M. Russell, noted Montana artist.
Rinehart goes on to describe long tables set out next to the cook tent “laden with bacon, ham, fried eggs, flapjacks, round tins of butter, enameled cups of hot coffee, condensed milk, sometimes fried fish.”
“Howard Eaton always made the coffee. It was good coffee ... strong coffee, as hot as possible...”
Insight into the man
In her book, Rinehart gives an extensive description of Eaton.
“Howard Eaton is extremely young. He was born quite a number of years ago, but what is that? He is a boy, and he takes an annual frolic. And, because it means a cracking good time, he takes people with him and puts horses under them and the fear of God in their hearts, and bacon and many other things, including beans, in their stomachs.
“He has taken foreign princes and many of the great people of the earth to the tops of the mountains, and shown them grizzly bears, and their own insignificance, at one and the same time. He is a hunter, a sportsman, and a splendid gentleman.
“He has hunted along the Rockies from Alaska to Mexico. He probably knows Montana, Wyoming and Idaho as well as any man in the country.”
Rinehart goes on to praise him as “a hunter who puts the greenest tenderfoot at ease and teaches him without apparently teaching at all; a host whose first thought is always for his guests; a calm-faced man with twinkling blue eyes, who is proud of his ‘boys’ and his friends all over the world — that is Howard Eaton as nearly as he can be put on paper.”
Move to Wyoming
By the time Rinehart rode with Eaton, he and his brothers had sold their Dakota ranch for cash after the deadly winter of 1887-88. The wicked winter helped motivate the Eatons to eventually move farther west, to the base of the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
“One of the crazy things that happened is they told the guests they were going to be closed for a year when they moved and the guests showed up anyway,” Borne said. “That shows you how different tourists are today compared to back then.”
That was in 1903, and in 14 years they built the ranch along Wolf Creek up to 7,000 acres, 500 horses, hundreds of cattle and accommodations for 125 guests — the largest dude ranch in the country, Borne wrote.
“The success of Eatons’ and other early ranches led to a rapid expansion of the industry in Wyoming,” Borne wrote.
He credited Rinehart above all others for the publicity she gave dude ranching. It’s no wonder she was taken with the trips. They were unusual affairs. In 1916, she and her family made another trip with Eaton into Glacier that included two wooden boats carried by wagon. They then floated the North Fork of the Flathead River from the Canadian border 100 miles south — probably the first guided fishing trip on the stream.
Not content to explore the Northern Rockies, by 1916 the brothers were also branching out to provide a month-long trip to the Grand Canyon and Indian villages in the Southwest. It was supposedly after one such ride to the Grand Canyon that artist Charley Russell crafted a painting as a thank-you to Eaton for allowing him to ride along. (Eaton never charged Russell since he entertained the guests with his stories.) The painting shows two hunters returning to camp to find two skunks raiding their food. The oil on canvas is titled “Man’s Weapons are Useless When Nature Goes Armed [Weapons of the Weak; Two of a Kind Win]”
Known as a great hunter and guide, Eaton was also concerned with the conservation of game animals. His friend, George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream and a strong advocate for protecting species, may have helped to focus that concern for preservation of wildlife in places like Yellowstone National Park.
Borne wrote that “as early as 1882, (Eaton) was involved with plans to try to save the buffalo (bison) from extinction,” working with people such as Michael Pablo, who was instrumental in keeping herds safe in the Flathead Valley. Borne also noted that Eaton had a herd of 40 bison, some of which he sold to zoos.
Roosevelt later appointed Eaton to the National Park Commission to help prevent the extinction of buffalo. Borne wrote that Eaton “made regular trips to capture game animals and then shipped them to zoos and parks; he sent as many as 50 elk east at a time and sometimes rode along in the freight car to see that the animals arrived uninjured.”
It was Eaton’s concern for wildlife that prompted him to travel to Jackson Hole in the winter to help feed starving elk. By then, he was 71 years old. When he returned from the trying trip, Eaton suffered an appendicitis attack. He was operated on but died of infection weeks later on April 5, 1922. The following year, the Howard Eaton Trail was dedicated in his memory.
“It was the trail system he used for almost 40 years,” said Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone National Park historian. “Today, unfortunately, the trail is no longer maintained.”
With the advent of car travel in Yellowstone in 1915, transportation in the park was forever changed. Eventually, large parties no longer traveled by horseback. The Eaton Trail, which closely followed what is now the “Grand Loop” figure-eight road around the interior of the park, was abandoned in the 1970s.
“There’s no question that he was one of the most important people getting dude ranching under way,” Borne said, adding that the business meant a lot to Yellowstone in its early years. “They were responsible for bringing a lot of people to the park.”