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Dornans

Early Roads in Grand Teton National Park:

Observations via early postcards and maps.

Buffalo River Bridge

I bought this old postcard at an antique store quite a few years ago. It’s funny how one innocent $5 purchase can send someone like me off on a quest for information.

Today’s park visitors travel through much of the park on asphalt roads and highways. The original park was established in 1929 and the rest of the land on the east side of the valley floor was added in 1950. By that time, valley residents built roads criss-crossing much of the valley floor. Over the years, the Park Serviced closed or blocked many of them. Vehicle travel in the valley was dicey at best for many years. Some of the well traveled roads of the day were actually on two track dirt roads.

Whenever I can, I try to travel or walk some of the old roads. Additionally, I’ve purchased a lot of early maps, booklets, and pamphlets. It can be both fun and rewarding—especially for a photographer.

Dornans

The original road into Grand Teton National Park ran much the same route it does now. The route went north out of Jackson to Moose and along the base of the mountains on its way to Signal Mountain and the dam area, and finally into Yellowstone. However, the main road used to go right through the Dornan’s area, then across a steel bridge.  From Dornan’s, the road headed West alongside the Chapel of the Transfiguration then up the hill to Windy Point of today. Of course, before the park was established and the bridges were built, pioneers and valley residents had to use Menor’s Ferry.

Chapel of theTransfiguration

The Highway from Moose to Moran Junction was not built until 1957 or 1958. I’ll get back to this topic in a minute.

1942 Map GTNP

1942 GTNPand Surrounding Area Map: Click to enlarge

The small town of Grovant was located along what we now know as Mormon Row. The historical information sign at the bed and breakfast says Grovant was established in 1896. This spelling differs from the name applied to the Gros Ventre River. Early residents had a couple of options getting to Grovant from the town of Jackson. A road split off the main road north of town that follows the Gros Ventre river— essentially along the same route it follows now. The road continued onwards to the Kelly area which was originally identified as the Nelson Ranch on one of my maps. Residents could also leave East Jackson and travel through what is now the National Elk Refuge, through “Long Hollow” and into Kelly. That old two track road is closed to the public.

The road going through Grovant (Mormon Row) was the best and most used road on the east side of the valley. It went essentially straight north for a few miles. The section of the road north of the Murphy Barn is currently closed to all unauthorized human activity—so we can’t walk it now. Out in the sage flats, the road veered diagonally Northeast towards what is now Lost Creek Ranch.  (On early maps, it was identified as the Block S Ranch.) North of Lost Creek Ranch, the old road ran through a rough little canyon and came out alongside Triangle X Ranch.  These sections of the old east side road are still in existence, though quite rough. The road continued towards Cunningham Cabin, then North to the small town of Elk, WY.

Moose Head Ranch

Elk, WY was part of Moose Head Ranch which is on private property now. From Elk, the road turned north again for a couple of miles before it cut to the Northeast by Wolf Ranch, then North to Elk Ranch. These roads are still available for travel during much of the summer, but a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle would be recommended. From the old dude ranch at Elk Ranch, the road traveled north where it crossed the Buffalo Fork River, roughly a mile east of the current concrete bridge.

GTNP 1949

1949 GTNP and JH National Monument: Click to enlarge

The area just to the Northeast of the Jackson Lake Dam was originally the town of Moran. There are lots of historic photos of the once thriving town, but about all that’s left now are a few foundations. The road heading East out of Moran followed about the same path of the current road between Jackson Lake Junction and Moran Junction, then onward to the Buffalo Valley and eventually over Togwotee Pass and Dubois.

A connecting road left Moose Junction and headed a couple of miles north where it turned to the East and connected to Mormon Row—essentially Antelope Flats road of today. Another connecting road, Meadow Road, cut East on the south end of Blacktail Butte and essentially in a straight line to Kelly. That road has been closed a long time, but much of the old road bed is still there.

The Old Jackson Hole Road

This is a Harrison Crandall painted postcard showing the Old Jackson Hole Road. The caption on the back reads, “The Old Jackson Hole Road” which follows the east border of the Valley. Fences of the “buck and pole” type such as these are remnants of early days and are still a distinctive feature.” I believe this was taken a few miles north of the current Lost Creek Ranch after exiting the ravine from Triangle X Ranch.

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Again, the Highway between Moose Junction and Moran Junction wasn’t completed until sometime in 1957 and showed up for the first time on state highway maps in 1958. It’s hard to imagine that road not being there all along. Right?

Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River

Ansel Adams took his iconic image at Snake River Overlook in 1942, but he would have had to get to the spot on some miserable roads or on horseback. It’d be another 16 years before anyone could just drive up to the overlook.

Buffalo River Bridge

Back to my mystery postcard…It clearly showed a silver steel bridge crossing a river with the Tetons in the distance. A paved highway ran alongside north of it. When I saw it originally, I thought it had to be somewhere near Deadman’s Bar or close to Triangle X, crossing the Snake River. As it turned out, the bridge was crossing the Buffalo Fork River, but it certainly had me baffled. I took the postcard into the Visitor’s Center at Moose and asked there. No one could identify the location. I left my name and contact info with them. A few months later, I received a note from Ann Mattson, a historian at the Park Service, with a note about the bridge.  She scanned a paragraph from an obscure book.

“A Community of Scalawags, Renegades, Dischaged Soldiers, and Predetined Stinkers” by Kenneth L and Lenore L. Diem. 1998, Published by Grand Teton Natural History Association

With the construction of the second permanent Jackson Lake Dam, a passage across on the dam provided a lasting solution to that Moran area Snake River Crossing.

In the meantime, a bridge was constructed across the Buffalo Fork River by Noble Gregory and Captain Smith around 1901. This bridge was located about where the current power lines cross the river, about 1 mile east of the present Moran Entrance to Grand Teton National Park. Shortly thereafter, Gregory bought out Smith. During the high water Sam Gregory (Noble Gregory, Sr’s father) would camp in a tent set up next to the bridge and would charge a toll for travelers wishing to use his bridge. Under pressure from the Teton National Forest, the bridge was eventually turned over to the forest about 1906. As such, it became a public bridge and repaired and improved by the Teton National Forest.

After finding out where the old bridge was located, I walked along the old road bed from Elk Ranch right up to the gravel river bottom. The bridge and footings are all gone now. Footings on the north side are also gone. At least the mystery was solved.

Triangle X Area With Overlays

When the 1958 highway was built, it gave tourists the overlook pullouts along the Snake River and access to Schwabacher Landing and Dead Man’s Bar. Triangle X added their new ranch entrances and road to the ranch from the new highway. The new highway crossed the old road at the Cunningham Cabin pull out and again just to the south of Elk Flats. Click the map above to view a much larger version.

1939 Shell Map

I probably have a dozen or more maps from the 1940s and 1950s, plus a few more books and pamphlets with maps in them. The cartographers of the day were darned loose in their depiction of the early roads for the maps—especially when compared to satellite images of today for the same areas. I included two of them near the top of the page for comparison. The section of the map above is from 1939.  It shows the most complete set of roads in the Kelly area, including the couple of routes going through the National Elk Refuge and the East/West roads between the East Boundary Road and Mormon Row. Meadow Road is just south of Blacktail Butte. This map also shows the town of Zenith. I did a Google search for it, with minimal success, other than gauging stations for the Gros Ventre River and a reference to the birthplace of Governor Cliff Hansen. Interestingly, there is a Zenith Drive just to the west of the mailboxes on Spring Gulch Road.

Quaint GTNP Road

Most of the emphasis of this post is directed towards roads on the East side of the valley floor.  This Harrison Crandall postcard shows a quaint little road and bridge on the West side. I’m fairly sure the bridge is going over the small stream feeding into Cottonwood Creek at what is now the Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area. This road would have predated any kind of paved road in that area. I included it here to give a better idea of what the early park might have looked like.  For reference, Harrison Crandall moved into the valley in 1922 and the park was formed in 1929.

Sincere thanks to Ann Mattson at GTNP for assistance and additional maps.

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Comments (5)

  1. Very interesting and entertaining historical perspective. Thanks!

  2. Lowell Schechter

    I really enjoyed seeing the history of Grand Teton National Park. Its amazing how they did the roads through the park to get to the places people are seeing now. Thanks for hard work in putting this together

  3. If you read between the lines, they built that silver steel bridge to service a rough dirt road on the east side of the valley. The paved road passed by the bridge and went to what is now the Dam, then south to Moose and eventually into the town of Jackson. I’ve driven over much of it (where it is legal) and the road is no picnic! MJ

  4. Lowell, this post has been about three years in the making. I just didn’t know it’d be a blog post when I began the quest for information!

  5. Thanks Mike for a most informative read! Really enjoyed it…SEF

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