researchers unearth Cinnabar
The future must have looked rosy indeed to residents of Cinnabar, Mont.,
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
After all, the town had grown and prospered since 1883, when the Northern
Pacific Railroad established a depot there as the official train stop
for tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park. To accommodate the burgeoning
tourist industry, several stagecoach companies quickly emerged in Cinnabar
to transport visitors into the park and on to the grand National Hotel
in Mammoth, Wyo.
The spacious Cinnabar Hotel welcomed travelers eager to see the natural
splendors of the nation’s first national park. In 1902 a “temporary
White House” was set up there for President Theodore Roosevelt when
he visited Yellowstone.
And yet, only a little more than 100 years later, the town has vanished,
virtually without a trace.
In 1903 the Northern Pacific extended the rail line to Gardiner, three
miles to the southeast, near the current park entrance. Cinnabar was removed
as a station stop and, almost immediately, the town was abandoned. Many
of the buildings were moved to Gardiner and other sites.
Time and the harsh weather of Yellowstone obliterated almost all other
evidence of Cinnabar. Knowledge of its exact location gradually was lost,
even among longtime area residents, and had become the subject of local
Last summer, a team of researchers from UM’s new archeology field
school, in collaboration with Yellowstone National Park, rediscovered
the lost town and train station. And their work has qualified the site
for eligibility in the National Register of Historic Places.
Doug MacDonald, an assistant professor in UM’s Department of Anthropology,
formed the archeology field school last year and directed the Montana-Yellowstone
Archeology Project at Cinnabar.
The project team consisted of 11 undergraduate students from UM and other
colleges, two UM graduate students – Brenda Covington, who served
as project field director, and Lester Maas, a research intern –
as well as MacDonald.
Yellowstone Park archeologists Ann Johnson and Elaine Hale pointed the
research crew to several shallow depressions and an inconspicuous row
of river rocks in sagebrush-covered terrain that was the suspected site
of Cinnabar. In addition, the archeologists were guided by historic photos
of the town provided by the family that eventually sold the land to the park.
Much to the team’s surprise and excitement, excavation revealed
that the line of river rocks was the top of a 5-foot-deep mortared wall,
the basement foundation of a substantial building.
Researchers determined, says MacDonald, that the find probably was the
remains of “the biggest building we know existed there – the
Cinnabar Hotel – where important people like Teddy Roosevelt would
have stayed in Yellowstone Park.
“We didn’t realize the wall would be that big,” he says,
“because on the surface, it was only a few river cobbles. It was
all pretty exciting to see how substantial the foundation was for a building
that was only there 20 years. It tells you a lot about how they didn’t
expect they were only going to be there 20 years. I think the people living
there envisioned living there quite a while and that it would end up being
a small city.
“So I think,” adds MacDonald, “that it was disappointing
for the Cinnabar residents when Northern Pacific moved the station down
In addition to that major discovery, the archeologists uncovered a variety
of historical artifacts from Cinnabar, including newspaper clippings,
a Northern Pacific railroad sign, revolver bullets, dishes and the sole
of a cowboy boot.
After achieving the project’s major goal of confirming the town’s
location, the team’s other main objective was to evaluate the site’s
eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, according
“We collected information to see if it was important enough,”
he says. “And we found it was.”
The 700-acre study area assigned to the Montana-Yellowstone Archeological
Project last summer included not only the Cinnabar site, but also 10 previously
identified prehistoric Native and historic sites, which were of special
interest and concern to park officials.
During the five-week field school, the UM team discovered another four
prehistoric sites and excavated and salvaged one of those, finding ancient
fire pits and related artifacts, which according to MacDonald, likely
were used by people of the 2,000-year-old Pelican Lake culture that lived
along the Yellowstone River during the Late Archaic Period.
The site that was preserved by the team was rapidly eroding out of the
riverbank, and park officials feared it was in jeopardy of disappearing
“We discovered lots of bones of medium-sized animals like deer,
elk and pronghorn,” MacDonald says, “and lots of charcoal
within the fire pits that showed they were cooking those. We found pinyon
tree nuts that they ate and stone artifacts, including a stone projectile
– probably a dart for an atlatl (a spear-throwing device), which
was in use just before the onset of the bow and arrow.”
Funding for the project, about $8,000 – primarily for food and vehicle
use last summer – was provided through the National Park Service
from the Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Unit, which facilitates
cooperative research among universities and federal agencies at reduced
cost. UM provided additional funding.
Yellowstone Park officials were delighted with the work completed by the
UM team last summer, says MacDonald.
“Ann Johnson said she was really excited about how much archeology
was coming from the site,” he says.
The experience also provided invaluable training for students involved
in the project, according to MacDonald. And it was fun, too.
“It was a wonderful experience, it really was,” he says. “We
camped at a beautiful spot in the Indian Creek Campground, in a special
portion reserved for the park superintendent. It was a rustic camp. We
lived in tents and used Porta Potties. But it was beautiful weather, a
hot, dry summer. We had a grizzly run through the camp. And we had a bison
that came through and occasionally it would sleep with us at night.”
UM anthropology students usually wind up working in one of two fields,
MacDonald says, either as teachers, or, more likely, in cultural resource
Federal and state laws protect cultural resources – such as archeological
sites and historic buildings – just as they do natural resources,
“Most students attending UM in anthropology will probably work in
that capacity,” he says. “The Yellowstone project was originally
organized to train students to be well-equipped for getting a job.
“Any time a project is federally funded, or has a federal permit,
or is on federal land,” he adds, “those responsible agencies
must take into account the effects of their actions on cultural resources.”
Students trained in cultural resource management at UM can use their expertise
in careers with state, federal and tribal agencies dealing with those
regulations, or as consultants for private companies that work on related
In the case of last summer’s Montana-Yellowstone Archeological Project,
MacDonald says, the project area was heavily farmed before being purchased
by the park. Park officials have proposed reseeding the area to remove
non-native plants and restore the area to a natural state. The proposal
required the park to take a look at its effects on cultural resources
UM student Covington says the experience will help prepare her for a career
“My gosh,” she says, “it was amazing to work in Yellowstone
for a month, and to work with the park staff. The two park archeologists
were a great resource to learn from.”
MacDonald says the UM field school will resume the Montana-Yellowstone
Archeological Project next summer.
“We’re talking about future projects with the park,”
he adds. “And it looks like there will be more down the road. My
ultimate goal is to make this a long-term project, where we learn a lot
about that part of Montana and northern Wyoming.”
By Daryl Gadbow
Anthropology Assistant Professor Doug MacDonald examines an ancient
dart point found in Yellowstone National Park.
close-up of the foundation discovered at Cinnabar