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The Golden Age of Rail Travel

by Patricia LaBounty & Renée Hurley
Vintage photo of a group of people standing out front of a lodge and look at a departing bus
Employees at Bryce Canyon Lodge sing away visitors departing Bryce Canyon National Park via Utah Parks Company tour buses
Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum

During the golden age of rail travel, railroads were one of the only ways for vacationers to experience the wonder of the new national parks in the west. In what was then considered the vanishing frontier, national parks offered a place of awe and astonishment. As people rushed to visit America’s national parks, many railroads, including Union Pacific Railroad, advocated for the formation of the National Park Service to preserve that landscape for their passengers.

Illustrated front cover of 1958 Union Pacific brochure
Front cover of 1958 Union Pacific brochure "Summer's Top Vacations" (Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the transformative nature of railroads was something that could be both beneficial and detrimental depending on the community to which you belong. For settlers, the railroad was a lifeline, bringing supplies and providing increased communication and connection to the rest of the country. For Native Americans living in the path of the construction, the railroad represented the end of a way of life. For 19th century immigrants to the U.S., the railroads provided much needed employment and mobility offering a standard of living better than they could expect in crowded urban centers. Later, the railroads provided increased connection for Tribal nations living on reservations and were eventually a source of employment for these isolated communities. It’s this power of transformation that Union Pacific’s Patricia LaBounty says makes studying railroad history so important and fascinating.

Hear more from Union Pacific’s Patricia LaBounty in this Q&A feature.

With so much shared history between railroads and national parks, we’re taking a look back at what travel to national parks was like 100 years ago and the role railroads played in the formation of national parks.

Establishing the Tracks of Partnership

Collage of vintage photos: Upper left: Workers take a load of poles to construction site. Upper right: Two workers take poles on tramway to construction site. Lower image: North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge under construction in 1927
Upper left: Workers take a load of poles to construction site for Grand Canyon Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park, circa 1928. Upper right: Two workers take poles on tramway to construction site for Grand Canyon Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park, circa 1928. Lower image: North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park under initial construction in 1927 (Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

In the early 20th century, Union Pacific Railroad provided access to remote national park destinations like Zion National Park, the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and Death Valley National Park. Union Pacific worked hand-in-hand with the National Park Service, managing concessions and visitor-related infrastructure in several national parks, forming a foundational relationship that lasted more than half a century.

Destination Travel

Front cover of a Union Pacific booklet:
Front cover of Union Pacific booklet "See America's Scenic Sensation" (Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

Railroads quickly realized the beautiful scenery along their passenger routes could be used as a selling point. Destination travel became a key marketing strategy in a country where riding the train was more than just a route from point A to point B. Union Pacific, among other railroads, began to encourage its passengers to enjoy the landscape outside their windows in the late 1890s, marketing itself as the "World's Pictorial Line." In 1903, Union Pacific began advertising trips to Yellowstone National Park and extended its Oregon Short Line right up to the western Yellowstone entrance in 1908.

Sing-Aways and Sing-Alongs

Collage of vintage photos of employees singing to visitors outside national park lodges
Upper left: group poses with banjo player on porch of Zion Lodge at Zion National Park; upper right: employees of Zion Lodge sing departure song to guests leaving Zion National Park via Utah Parks Company buses; lower left: large group of employees pictured after sing-away in front of Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim Grand Canyon National Park; lower right: employees gather to sing-away guests departing Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim Grand Canyon National Park (Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

In the early days of the National Park System, lodge staff would often sing to the guest as they departed from their trips or host group sing-alongs. Managed by Union Pacific through the Utah Parks Company, employees offered the best experience possible for travelers.

A vintage photograph of a group of employees singing to Governor Raymond E. Baldwin
Governor Raymond E. Baldwin joins employees of Grand Canyon Lodge in singing departure song as the governor and his tour group leave via tour bus in August 1939 (Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

The sing-along, a uniquely American experience, was part of that full-service visitor focused experience designed to set this trip apart from others. The campfire sing-alongs evoked the popular concept of the cowboy culture and similar ideas that were quickly becoming nostalgic in the late 1950s. Employees at some parks even offered talent and other variety shows to entertain guests. Visitor experiences were carefully crafted with every aspect of the visitor’s day planned. This was more like a modern cruise ship experience than the more a la carte experiences visitors choose from today.

Today, Union Pacific Railroad continues to play a key role in connecting people to America's national parks. Through support of the Find Your Park / Encuentra Tu Parque public awareness campaign and youth programs like Junior Ranger Railroad Explorer and Open OutDoors for Kids, Union Pacific remains committed to sharing the wonders of our nation with the next generation of park-goers through its partnership with the National Park Foundation.