THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND
A Novel of Old Montana and the Creation of Yellowstone Park
“Midway through Robert Bartsch’s The Devil’s Playground, Sam Hauser—Helena banker and future member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition into Yellowstone—meets banker Jay Cooke in 1876 to lobby for the Northern Pacific Railroad to pass along the Yellowstone River into the mining areas of Montana Territory. Hauser hazards an exaggerated estimate of territory population. Though more than double the true number of residents, the answer helps sustain Cooke’s interest in the territory. So too, is one’s interest in Bartsch’s historical novel sustained because of characters like these. The Devil’s Playground is a story of the movers and shakers, the explorers, the business people, the soldiers, the scientists, the bureaucrats and the occasional devils who brought life to the territory—the establishment, if you will. Indian culture and history stay in the background, yet this is a nicely told story of white settlement fueled by gold-seekers from the California gold rush.
The book features a series of vignettes about figures that include a prospector and settlement founder, a Montana renaissance man, road agents who burglarize the gold fields, Montana vigilantes and hangman’s “justice,” explorers on the Yellowstone expedition and many others. This approach makes for pleasurable reading about the braided streams of history. With the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870, many readers will be in familiar territory. The group was the first to help make the discovery of Yellowstone’s previously discounted ‘curiosities’ believable. This critical achievement resulted in the Hayden scientific expedition the following year and the passage of the Yellowstone Park Act in 1872.
Bartsch focuses on this achievement and places Cooke at the center of the lobbying effort for national park status. This a bit of acknowledged literary license but it is within the broader argument for establishment of the park. In the end, Yellowstone and its idea could only be created out of a community of settlers. It took a growing civilization of pioneers, explorers and their families to encourage the intellectual freedom to even conjure a public land set-aside. In The Devil’s Playground, Bartsch reveals the broader bonds among the many people of Old Montana that led to the Montana Territory and to the creation of the world’s first park for the ‘benefit and enjoyment’ of all the people.”
—Tony Sisto, Ranger magazine, Association of National Park Rangers