"The place where Hell bubbled up"
A History of the First National Park
"THE WILD ROMANTIC SCENERY"
There is something about Yellowstone that has
frequently brought out the poet, or would-be poet, in its visitors. Men
who ordinarily would not bother to remark on their surroundings have in
Yellowstone felt compelled to draft prose about the wonders they saw
around them. This impulse was particularly keen in those who saw Yellow
stone before the advance of civilization.
Little is known of the Indians' regard for
Yellowstone's natural features during the thou sands of years they lived
there. They did not leave their impressions in written form for the
reflection of later generations.
But the fur trappers did. Several of them kept
journals or related their experiences in letters and reminiscences. They
used their observations to spin entertaining yarns, and they sometimes
compared the surrounding beauty with what they knew back home. Yet they
generally resisted the "womanly emotions" of praising scenery, and most
of them were reluctant to reflect on nature's charms. A Maine farm boy
named Osborne Russell, who went West in the 1830's to trap, chided his
companions for their insensitivity:
My comrades were men who never troubled themselves
about vain and frivolous notions as they called them; with them every
country was pretty when there was weather and as to beauty of nature or
arts, it was all a "humbug" as one of them . . . often expressed
What Russell saw in Yellowstone affected him deeply.
He had reverent memories of one place in particular, a "Secluded
Valley," located on the Lamar River near the mouth of Soda Butte
There is something in the wild romantic scenery of
this valley which I cannot. . . describe; but the impressions made upon
my mind while gazing from a high eminence on the surrounding landscape
one evening as the sun was gently gliding behind the western mountain
and casting its gigantic shadows across the vale were such as time can
never efface from my memory . . . for my own part I almost wished I
could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where
happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic
Thermal features drew the most frequent notice from
Yellowstone's early visitors. Nathaniel Langford summarized the mystery
and disbelief many people feel while observing them:
General Washburn and I again visited the mud
vulcano [sic] to-day. I especially desired to see it again for the one
especial purpose, among others of a general nature, of assuring myself
that the notes made in my diary a few days ago are not exaggerated. No!
they are not! The sensations inspired in me to-day, on again witnessing
its convulsions . . . were those of mingled dread and wonder. At war
with all former experience it was so novel, so unnat urally natural,
that I feel while now writing and thinking of it, as if my own senses
might have deceived me with a mere figment of the imagination.
But more often the hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles,
and geysers seemed to suppress the poet and draw forth instead the
amateur scientist. Most early accounts centered on attempts at
measurement or analysis, or on speculations about the mechanisms of such
features. For many of these novice geologists, the surprises at Yellow
stone did not always come in the form of geysers or boiling springs. A.
Bart Henderson, a pros pector, was walking down the Yellowstone River in
1867, near the Upper Falls, when he was
very much surprised to see the water disappear
from sight. I walked out on a rock & made two steps at the same
time, one forward, the other backward, for I had unawares as it were,
looked into the depth or bowels of the earth, into which the Yellow
[stone] plunged as if to cool the infernal region that lay under all
this wonderful country of lava & boiling springs. The water fell
several feet, struck a reef of rock that projected further than the main
rock above. This reef caused the water to fall the remainder of the way
Henderson recovered his analytical composure and
concluded, "We judged the falls to be 80 or 90 feet high, perhaps
Henry Elliott's sketch of the Lower Geyser Basin was part of the
persuasive evidence produced by the Hayden survey.
Artist Thomas Moran, climbing on Mammoth Hot Springs, 1871.
Thomas Moran's field sketches of Tower Fall (top) and the hot springs
Because wildlife was plentiful everywhere in the West
in the 19th century, the abundant wildlife of Yellowstone seldom drew
the attention of early visitors, except when they referred to hunting
the "wild game." Occasionally a diary registered that some physical
feature had been endowed with the name of an animal. Prospector John C.
Davis shot at what he thought was a flock of flying geese in 1864. But
after a difficult swim to retrieve his prey, he decided that it was too
strange to eat, and hung it in a tree. From that small incident Pelican
Creek acquired its name.
Sometimes the wildlife forced their attentions on
visitors. Henderson prospected in Yellowstone again in 1870. He
christened Buffalo Flat because "we found thousands of buffalo quietly
grazing." But the animals were evidently not flattered, for one night,
"Buffalo bull run thro the tent, while all hands were in bed." As
Henderson's party continued their journey, another bull attacked their
horses, nearly destroying their supplies. Sometime later, the group "met
an old she bear & three cubs. After a severe fight killed the whole
outfit, while a short distance further on we was attacked by an old boar
bear. We soon killed him. He proved to be the largest ever killed in the
mountains, weighing 960 pounds." Two days later, Henderson "was chased
by an old she bear . . . . Climbe[d] a tree & killed her under the
But few encounters with wildlife were so unpleasant.
Most travelers recognized that the animals of Yellowstone were an
integral part of the environment. To David Folsom the voices of the
animals were but the voice of nature, reminding men of their smallness
in the natural world and of their aloneness in a strange country:
the wolf scents us afar and the mournful cadence
of his howl adds to our sense of solitude. The roar of the mountain lion
awakens the sleeping echoes of the adjacent cliffs and we hear the elk
whistling in every direction . . . . Even the horses . . . stop grazing
and raise their heads to listen, and then hover around our campfire as
if their safety lay in our companionship.
The explorers of 1869, 1870, and 1871, writing for a
wide audience, did their best to remain detached and to describe
objectively what they had seen. But their prose sometimes became
impassioned. Even the thermal features evoked poetic word pictures.
Charles Cook was startled by his first view of Great Fountain
Our attention was at once attracted by water and
steam escaping, or being thrown up from an opening. . . . Soon this
geyser was in full play. The setting sun shining into the spray and
steam drifting toward the mountains, gave it the appearance of burnished
gold, a wonderful sight. We could not contain our enthusiasm; with one
accord we all took off our hats and yelled with all our might.
Two early explorers examine Lone Star Geyser.
W. H. Jackson's photographs of Grotto Geyser (top) and the Grand Canyon
of the Yellowstone (bottom) were among the evidence that prompted
Congress to establish the national park.
Folsom recalled his last look at Yellowstone Lake
nestled among the forest-crowned hills which
bounded our vision, lay this inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and
sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild
freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty which has been viewed by
few white men, and we felt glad to have looked upon it before its
primeval solitude should be broken by the crowds of pleasure seekers
which at no distant day will throng its shores.
Even the scientifically minded professional soldier,
Gustavus Doane, departed from an objective recital to exclaim that the
view from Mount Washburn was really "beyond all adequate description."
Speaking of Tower Falls, Doane became cautiously lyrical:
Nothing can be more chastely beautiful than this
lovely cascade, hidden away in the dim light of overshadowing rocks and
woods, its very voice hushed to a low murmur unheard at the distance of
a few hundred yards. Thousands might pass by within a half mile and not
dream of its existence, but once seen, it passes to the list of most
The lieutenant dropped his reserve altogether when he
sang the praises of the Upper and Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the
Both these cataracts deserve to be ranked among
the great waterfalls of the continent. No adequate standard of
comparison between such objects, either in beauty or grandeur, can well
be obtained. Every great cascade has a language and an idea peculiarly
its own, embodied, as it were, in the flow of its waters . . . . So the
Upper Falls of the Yellowstone may be said to embody the idea of
"Momentum," and the Lower Fall of "Gravitation." In scenic beauty the
upper cataract far excels the lower; it has life, animation, while the
lower one simply follows its channel; both however are eclipsed as it
were by the singular wonders of the mighty cañon below.
The Hayden expeditions of 1871 and 1872 were
scientific ventures, composed of men of critical disposition who were
prepared to take a circumspect, unromantic view of all they encountered
in their path. Yet even they were moved to comment on the beauty of
Yellowstone. Henry Gannett, one of Hayden's later associates, wrote:
In one essential respect the scenery of the
Yellowstone Park differs from that of nearly all other parts of the
Cordilleras, in possessing the element of beauty, in presenting to the
eye rounded forms, and soft, bright, gay coloring.
Nor could the scholarly Hayden completely restrict
himself to scientific explanations of Yellowstone's charms. Mammoth Hot
Springs, he thought, "alone surpassed all the descriptions which had
been given by former travelers." When he came to the Grand Canyon and
the falls, he confessed that mere description was inadequate, that "it
is only through the eye that the mind can gather anything like an
adequate conception of them:
no language can do justice to the wonderful
grandeur and beauty of the cañon below the Lower Falls; the very
nearly vertical walls, slightly sloping down to the water's edge on
either side, so that from the summit the river appears like a thread of
silver foaming over its rocky bottom, the variegated colors of the
sides, yellow, red, brown, white, all intermixed and shading into each
other; the Gothic columns of every form standing out from the sides of
the walls with greater variety and more striking colors than ever
adorned a work of human art. The margins of the cañon on either
side are beautifully fringed with pines. In some places the walls of the
cañon are composed of massive basalt, so separated by the
jointage as to look like irregular mason-work going to decay . . .
Standing near the margin of the Lower Falls, and
looking down the cañon, which looks like an immense chasm or
cleft in the basalt, with its sides 1,200 to 1,500 feet high, and
decorated with the most brilliant colors that the human eye ever saw,
with the rocks weathered into an almost unlimited variety of forms, with
here and there a pine sending its roots into the clefts on the sides as
if struggling with a sort of uncertain success to maintain an
existencethe whole presents a picture that it would be difficult
to surpass in nature. Mr. Thomas Moran, a celebrated artist, and noted
for his skill as a colorist, exclaimed with a kind of regretful
enthusiasm that these beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human
Nathaniel P. Langford, first superintendent of the
Such were the men, from fur trappers to geologists,
who preceded the civilized world into Yellowstone, and such were the
feelings that nature produced in them. It was upon a stage thus set that
Yellowstone entered into its greatest periodthat of a wilderness
Last Updated: 04-Nov-2009