Montana State University

MSU students look to past for new ideas for Old Faithful

February 3, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

MSU architecture students consult drawings and a model they built of the Old Faithful area to demonstrate to officials from Yellowstone National Park. the fine points of their proposed light rail system that would transport visitors to the area. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Architecture students from Montana State University have gone back to the past to come up with an idea for the landmark's future.

Four MSU School of Architecture graduate students who studied the Old Faithful area as part of a long-range planning exercise suggested park officials consider a train to transport visitors to and from an old road to Old Faithful Geyser. Most early visitors to the park came by train to the park entrances, the students pointed out.

The proposed train, which students recommended to be placed along the bed of the old road in the Upper Geyser Basin to Old Faithful, is a long way from reality. But the idea did intrigue several Yellowstone National Park officials who attended a recent design charrette, or architectural presentation, held at MSU. The charrette was conducted in cooperation with JLF & Associates architectural firm of Bozeman, who partnered with MSU in the project.

The environmentally friendly train would eliminate at least portions of the current parking areas at Old Faithful and would reframe the current parking and staging areas.

The plan would provide parking at Biscuit Basin and an additional parking area at the north end and Kepler Cascades at the south end prior to boarding an electric train for several miles along a track from which Old Faithful and other geysers in the basin are in full view. The student team said they foresee rangers or interpreters providing commentary to visitors who ride the train. There would also be pathways for visitors who would like to walk from parking through the geyser basin.

"The existing pathway and parking system is very confusing," said Mike Engel, a graduate student from Roseville, Minn. He explained that because of the current layout, visitors can't see whether the famous geyser has erupted until they have walked from the parking area to the viewing area, causing an experience that is stressful and rushed.

"With a train, the Yellowstone experience would be very worthwhile," said team member Becky Patton of Butte. They added that another benefit is that the train would be "a heck of a scenic ride."

"Trains are very sustainable technology and would reduce a lot of the impact on the park," Patton said.

The student team of Patton and Engel, as well as Brian Emnett, of Rosemount, Minn., and Tyler Fullerton, from Bigfork, estimate that such a system of several trains could cost as much as $27 million to implement. They pointed out that with three million annual visitors to Old Faithful, the rail system could pay for itself relatively quickly. And, because the plan calls for green technology, grants could be obtained.

"An electric train would also nearly eliminate exhaust from visitor cars and trucks in the park," Fullerton said.

Park officials who attended the presentation included Chris Lehnertz, deputy superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and Eleanor Clark, chief of Comprehensive Planning and Design for YNP.

"Circulation is certainly a concern in the Old Faithful area," said Clark, who said the students demonstrated potential as professional architects throughout the class and the presentation."The MSU students had many innovative ideas presented during the charrette. We appreciated their enthusiasm and efforts."

"(Their proposal) is a real, sensible and forward-thinking solution that has tremendous benefits to users of the park and seeks to preserve, protect and enhance one of the most important cultural and environmental assets in the country," said John Brittingham, MSU professor of architecture and interim co-director of the school, who worked with the students.

Brittingham developed the curriculum for a design studio for graduate students who could do the preliminary research and develop a book that could be used in a future professional charrette. Christa Gertiser of JLF co-instructed with Brittingham as part of the partnership.

"This time the students not only gathered information and created the book that will be used during the charrette, but they also built a model of the area, "Gertiser said."And, since this was a design class, they had the opportunity to propose their own solutions."

Gertiser calls the team's proposal "well-thought out and thorough. It was a practical, very sustainable approach."

Patton said she hopes that she can attend a future professional charrette, although she graduates in May and is looking for a job. The experience of working on the park project will be a big boost to her in that effort, she believes.

"First of all, having had the park as a real client helped with how it will be in the real world," Patton said. "And, it was great being able to work with a firm, especially one as prestigious as JLF. I definitely now feel more prepared to go out and find a job."


To read other articles about MSU's School of Architecture, go to:

Bridge competition:

Hawaiian project:

Khumbu Climbing School

Architecture students' humanitarian project breaks Guinness record:

Retro master's degree

University master plan

Students create table from felled trees

John Brittingham (406) 994-3832,