How West Yellowstone was born.
The streets of West Yellowstone are lined with businesses that celebrate the outdoors—indeed, the town wouldn’t exist if not for Yellowstone National Park and the plethora of outdoor opportunity in the surrounding area. But the town as we know it also wouldn’t be there, if not for a pair of entrepreneurial families, who built some of the most enduring businesses—and wildlife legends—in West Yellowstone history.
In 1908, a plot of land near the new train station at the west entrance to Yellowstone Park became what is today West Yellowstone. It was simply a forested lot at the end of the rails, but Sam Eagle and his business partner Alex Stuart built a general store that would later become known as the Eagle’s Store—a landmark that survives to this day and has served millions of park visitors—named for the family and not the bird.
One morning in August 1909, Sam Eagle waited anxiously for the 6:45am train. Upon arrival, he jumped on and asked if there was a doctor aboard. It was his lucky day, as it turned out; the train was filled with doctors headed to a convention at Old Faithful Inn. Walter Stuart was born the next day: the first child born in West Yellowstone.
As their numbers grew, the two families recognized that the single store was not enough to support both clans. The Stuarts purchased the Yellowstone Store (built by another family at the same time as the Eagle’s) in 1910. This store was as close to the Park as possible—it sits on the corner of today’s Yellowstone Ave. and Boundary St.
During this time, the Stuarts acquired a special pet named Pete—a bear. Every day Pete scratched the Stuarts’ back door when he was ready for breakfast, and the Stuarts became famous for taking Pete on walks around town, furthering a Wild West mystique that endures to this day. Marguerite Stuart, who passed away at age 106 in April of 2014, often said the Park was their backyard, so a pet bear seemed only appropriate.
In 1916 the Stuarts opened an automobile garage—reflecting a changing Yellowstone. They watched the Yellowstone Store burn to the ground in 1921, rebuilt it, and then built the Twin Bear Gift Shop in 1938. Marguerite managed the store until 2005, when she was 98 years old.
Walt Stuart developed the area’s first snowplane in 1935—a precursor to the snowmobile that would forever change winter recreation, and create an entire wintertime economy for West Yellowstone. The snowplane was an enclosed cabin on metal skis, with a rear-mounted airplane engine and propeller that sent the machine flying over the snow at up to 65 miles per hour.
While no Stuarts survive to tell their stories today, their contributions to the town and recreation of West Yellowstone remain. Marguerite’s wooden childhood skis still hang prominently on a West Yellowstone store wall, and the family legacy lives on, with every visitor who passes through town to experience Yellowstone National Park.
Flight of the Eagles
The Eagle family has catered to Yellowstone visitors for over 100 years. When Samuel Eagle built a general store near a new train station, he couldn’t possibly have known what it would become. Today this landmark in West Yellowstone is known as the Eagle’s Store, and the family has its own rich history.
Samuel and Ida Eagle met while working in the Park at the Fountain Hotel, where the pair later acted as winter caretakers. They married and had ten children over a period of 19 years—three girls and seven boys. Each of the children worked in the family store and subsequent generations have been actively involved in the store’s operation.
Like many Montana families, the Eagles loved to ski. Sam often skied to Monida—a two-day trip—to retrieve mail; their son Wally was a member of the first sanctioned ski team at Montana State College. This passion is still alive in the pioneers’ great-grandchild: two-time Olympic freestyle moguls skier Heather McPhie. To learn more about the store and family, check out eagles-store.com.