Cover Image: Saving Yellowstone

Saving Yellowstone

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Member Reviews

I'm fascinated by the national parks, so I was looking forward to this book. It takes a very wide lens view of the history of Yellowstone, which made the book drag a bit for me. The author also went into side topics that did not particularly relate to Yellowstone, and all of the different storylines became confusing. Overall this book disappointed me and I did not finish it.
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This is the story of how Yellowstone became a National Park.  Yellowstone was the first EVER national park in the world.  Few people know the story of how and why this National Park came to be.  This is the fascinating story of the geologic survey that first brought this area into the public knowledge.  When geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led his team into the narrow canyon, it was unmapped and mostly unexplored.  I learned so much about that time and the fight to make it a National Park, this is definitely a book to read if you are at all interested in the park or that time period.
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I loved the portions about yellowstone but didn't really see the narrative thread weaving throughout. Especially the mentions of reconstruction and the KKK which only seemed to occur simultaneously and not have any direct relationship. But the story of the worlds first national park was well sourced a d well told
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This book attempts a big picture view of several topics which have all been the subject of more narrowly focused books—the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the building of the Northern Pacific railway and westward expansion, the devastation of the people in the way of that invasion, and Reconstruction and racism in the South. It does this in part by following the lives of three men: Ferdinand Hayden, Sitting Bull, and Jay Cooke. 

As someone who worked and lived in Yellowstone for a few years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the Hayden expedition reaching for the first time locations which I know well. Sitting Bull’s fruitless attempts to keep the invaders out of his homeland are heartbreaking. Although there is both a statue of Jay Cooke and a state park named after him within a few miles of me, I found the material about him and his financial support of the railroad less interesting. 

All of those people and events did have major effects on the creation and early days of the national park. I’m less convinced that Reconstruction was relevant other than happening at the same time, showing the hypocrisy of helping one group of people while destroying another, and being another reminder of how Democrats and Republicans have largely switched their positions since the parties first formed. 

The book does have a great punchline (final sentence) which returns us to the present day.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the advance copy.
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At the heart of Nelson's narrative is a geological expedition to Yellowstone in 1871 led by Francis Hayden, which took the area's natural wonders from the tall tales of trappers into the realm of science and art.

But as she did in her award-winning book, <i>The Three-Cornered War</i> Nelson offers a breadth of perspective that places this modest expidition in the context of a nation recovering from the Civil War while bracing for two more: the subjugation of western Native Americans and the violence in the South that brought on the end of Reconstruction and a new era of oppression of African-Americans.

While Hayden is the man credited with 'saving' Yellowstone and promoting it as America's first national park, Nelson brings two other historic figures into her narrative: the Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, whose homeland north and east of Yellowstone came under attack in these years from gold miners, the US cavalry, and Jay Cooke's Great Northern Railroad, a project that would connect Minneapolis with Seattle near the US-Canada border, and whose bankruptcy would trigger a panic that would lead to the end of Reconstruction.

There are so many threads woven into this narrative. We see President Grant trying to balance a very humane policy toward African-Americans in the South with an aggressive stance towards Native Americans. Hyper-capitalist Jay Cooke frantically tries to find buyers for his railroad bonds. 

And tucked away in serene Yellowstone, Thomas Moran sketches the breathtaking painting, <i>Canon of the Yellowstone</i> that taught the country to embrace the park. The next year his painting and Hayden's writing would convinced Congress to set aside the park before the miners and travel-entrepreneurs could get their hands on it.

This history was wider-ranging than I expected, and those looking for a more specific history of the park may be disappointed. But I think that Nelson really puts Yellowstone's founding into a specific place & time--and connects it to our present day:

"[Yellowstone's] geysers and mudpots revealed the reality of this strange country: the United STates is both beautiful and terrible. It is both fragile and powerful. And...what lies beneath the surface in this nation is always threatening to explode."

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me an advanced copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.
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The main title of the book is a little misleading as portions of the book deal with Jay Gould and the building of the Northern Pacific railroad and with the demise of reconstruction in the South. The main focus of the book is the surveying and preservation of Yellowstone as a national park and the efforts that it took to accomplish. Removing American Indians from their land and fighting off politicians and speculators who wanted to develop the land and turn into a commercial venture. It also incorporated Jay Gould’s hope that the park would save the building of his railroad and prevent bankruptcy on his part. Going on at the same time, but unrelated to these events was the phasing out of reconstruction in the south and setting voting and civil rights back a century. This is a very good narrative that written in a style that is easy to read and follow. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the early history of Yellowstone.

I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook and my nonfiction book review blog.
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5 stars
What an utterly fascinating look at Yellowstone. I learned so much. Thank you so much for the ARC.
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