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Minnesota artists bringing back Yellowstone Trail markers

Olga Nichols (left) and Jess Gorman (right) made it their project to paint the Yellowstone Trail marker on the former railroad depot in Watson, Minn., earlier this month. (submitted photo)1 / 3
Olga Nichols, shown above, and Jess Gorman painted a 10-foot by 10-foot Yellowstone Trail marker on the former railroad depot in Watson, Minn., earlier this month. (submitted photo)2 / 3
Jess Gorman, shown above, and Olga Nichols painted a 10-foot by 10-foot Yellowstone Trail marker on the former railroad depot in Watson, Minn., earlier this month. (submitted photo)3 / 3

WATSON, Minn.—A century before MapQuest or Google Maps were invented, motorists using one of the country's first coast-to-coast highways followed the "Yellowstone Trail" by watching for chrome yellow markers with an arrow pointing the way to Yellowstone National Park.

Two artists are looking to bring those markers back. They started in the small town of Watson, in Chippewa County, with hopes that someday a new rendition of these markers will return to a route that originally ran from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.

"This is our Route 66," said Olga Nichols. She and Jess Gorman painted a 10-foot by 10-foot Yellowstone Trail marker on the former railroad depot in Watson earlier this month. Their rendition has a two-way arrow in place of the single-arrowed signs that were once found on barns, houses and other buildings along the transcontinental trail.

The two-way arrow speaks to the point that the communities are connected and working together to promote tourism and economic development, explained Gorman. While no single town along the route may necessarily offer the attractions to be a tourism destination of its own, as a group they certainly do.

As a photographer and former city administrator in Renville, Gorman spent time driving U.S. Highway 212 and state Highway 7 visiting friends in communities from Buffalo Lake to Ortonville. It inspired her to put together a photographic exhibit of what these communities offer.

"I didn't realize the route I was traveling was called the Yellowstone Trail,'' said Gorman.

When she found out, she looked into its history. She discovered the pride that the original trail towns shared, and how they succeeded by working together.

Those are among the very reasons why earlier this year, residents of eight communities from Buffalo Lake to Ortonville created the Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota. Gorman and Nichols are members.

Their hoped-for project of painting the new Yellowstone Trail markers, and possibly murals as well, is their own. Gorman turned to Nichols for help, well aware of her friend's experience as a visual artist, collaborator with artists and as someone who has helped create public murals, most recently in her role with the Bird Island Cultural Center.

Nichols said she was more than happy to work with Gorman on the project, even if it put the two of them out under a hot, summer sun for about five days. People in Watson proved to be very friendly, she said. It wasn't unusual for motorists to drop by and ask what they were doing. "It was so much fun, I can't wait for our next project,'' said Nichols.

Gorman had spotted the vacant depot in Watson while doing her photographic work. She said it struck her as the perfect starting point for this project. She contacted its owner, Dennis Larson of Montevideo, who readily agreed and even helped prep the boards for the painting project. Passenger rail service to the depot ended in 1938, and in more recent years, the building has been used mainly for storage.

Larson said he purchased the depot several years ago. He said he's offered to donate it to the City of Watson if there is support in the community to help shingle and fix it up, and maintain it. Community residents are being asked their thoughts on the idea with a survey included in their recent utility bills.

Gorman and Nichols are now working to find grant monies and other financial support in hopes of painting their Yellowstone Trail markers in other communities on the route. They want to start along the Minnesota portion. The Trail, with a history from 1912 to 1930, followed largely along what today are Highways 212 and 7.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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