In 1889 when British author Rudyard Kipling visited Yellowstone, a spur of the Northern Pacific carried passengers from Livingston, Montana, to the edge of the Park. But Kipling heeded advice from a fellow passenger and stopped to visit Yankee Jim George, the legendary operator of a toll road than ran through the canyon that still bears his name.
Yankee Jim was a garrulous man who must have met thousands of tourists after he began collecting tolls in 1873. In 1883 the railroad took over Yankee Jim’s road bed, although they did build a bypass for him. Even after the county took over the road 1887, travelers continued to stop by Yankee Jim’s.
Dozens of travelers’ diaries describe a stop at his cabin, note his courtly treatment of ladies and recount his tall tales. Kipling was no exception. Here’s his story.
From Livingston the National Park train follows the Yellowstone River through the gate of the mountains and over arid volcanic country. A stranger in the cars saw me look at the ideal trout-stream below the windows and murmured softly: “Lie off at Yankee Jim’s if you want good fishing.”
They halted the train at the head of a narrow valley, and I leaped literally into the arms of Yankee Jim, sole owner of a log hut, an indefinite amount of hay-ground, and constructor of twenty-seven miles of wagon-road over which he held toll right. There was the hut—the river fifty yards away, and the polished line of metals that disappeared round a bluff. That was all. The railway added the finishing touch to the already complete loneliness of the place.
Yankee Jim was a picturesque old man with a talent for yarns that Ananias might have envied. It seemed to me, presumptuous in my ignorance, that I might hold my own with the old-timer if I judiciously painted up a few lies gathered in the course of my wanderings. Yankee Jim saw every one of my tales and went fifty better on the spot.
He dealt in bears and Indians—never less than twenty of each; had known the Yellowstone country for years, and bore upon his body marks of Indian arrows; and his eyes had seen a squaw of the Crow Indians burned alive at the stake. He said she screamed considerable.
In one point did he speak the truth—as regarded the merits of that particular reach of the Yellowstone. He said it was alive with trout. It was. I fished it from noon till twilight, and the fish bit at the brown hook as though never a fat trout-fly had fallen on the water. From pebbly beaches, quivering in the heat-haze where the foot caught on stumps cut foursquare by the chisel-tooth of the beaver; past the fringe of the water-willow crowded with the breeding trout-fly and alive with toads and water-snakes; over the drifted timber to the grateful shadow of big trees that darkened the holes where the fattest fish lay, I worked for seven hours.
The mountain flanks on either side of the valley gave back the heat as the desert gives it, and the dry sand by the railway track, where I found a rattlesnake, was hot-iron to the touch. But the trout did not care for the heat. They breasted the boiling river for my fly and they got it. I simply dare not give my bag. At the fortieth trout I gave up counting, and I had reached the fortieth in less than two hours. They were small fish—not one over two pounds—but they fought like small tigers, and I lost three flies before I could understand their methods of escape. Ye gods! That was fishing.
— Excerpt from From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel, Volume Two, Rudyard Kipling, 1899. (Page 203−205).
— Photo, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.
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