December 05, 2012
Before, during, and after the fire at Yellowstone's Canyon Hotel, August 8, 1960. John Frederick Burger photographs, Yellowstone Park Archives, #YELL 133527 and #YELL 199963.
"The Great Lady was outraged," wrote the editorial board of the Wyoming State Tribune on August 10, 1960. "She could not, she would not, accept the indignity of laborious, prolonged, and piecemeal destruction.She chose sudden death."
The Canyon Hotel, once a sprawling Yellowstone resort with a perimeter measuring a full mile, was destroyed in an early-morning fire after years of decline, debate, and drawn-out demolition. Since the hotel provided a variety of accommodations, politicians from every level of government and the well-heeled from every walk of life had stayed there, but so had Yellowstone's guests from other social and economic strata. Its architect, already illustrious for his 1904 design of the Old Faithful Inn, Robert Reamer, was lauded for his impressive design - long, horizontal lines that hugged the hills above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone like a natural outcropping and the unmatched elegance in its interiors.
The lobby and the adjoining lounge, with views of the unparalleled beauty of Yellowstone, reflected the natural environment of the park that surrounded it, yet was appointed in the most stylish of contemporary furnishings. Though the original Canyon Hotel was initially called "an unsightly affair," it came into its own as a superb accommodation for Yellowstone's wealthier guests after Reamer's immense 1910 addition. The new design was called "completely in harmony with the surroundings and withal is distinctly American" by the Livingston Enterprise.
Yet all the while, the ground was shifting underneath the Canyon Hotel - or, more accurately, the foundation was coming apart. For nearly 50 years, the Canyon's porte-cochere had welcomed stage coaches and then automobiles filled with guests, but finally, in 1958, the structure was condemned for an unsound foundation. It was decided that attempting rehab of the structure would be too costly, so demolition and salvage rights of the building were sold to the Carlos Construction Company of Cody, WY. "It is interesting to note the publicity that we are receiving out of the sale of Canyon Hotel for $25.00," wrote Thomas J. Hallin, Vice President of the legal firm that handled the contract, noting the numerous news stories of the sale of the grand hotel and the information that the demolition company's owner had been asked to appear on "I've Got A Secret." It does not appear that Bill Henry ever did get his day on the popular game show, but what is apparent is that the demolition of the hotel dragged out seemingly interminably, and park officials wondered if it would be completed within the time allotted by the contract.
On the night of August 8, 1960, all of the haranguing between park officials and the Carlos Construction Company became moot as fire swept one of the park's most admired hotels. John Burger, at that time an employee of the Yellowstone Park Company and later a renowned entomologist with a deep love for Yellowstone, happened to have taken photographs of the Canyon Hotel just before the fire, and was on scene with his camera during and after the conflagration. Along with his thousands of images taken in the course of his graduate work and his career studying vegetation change, these slides from Burger's first, influential summers at Yellowstone are in the holdings of the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center. They are an indelible reminder of the tragic, abrupt end to an architectural beauty that dominated the memories of many who traveled to the park during the first half of the twentieth century. Among the many who had loved the Canyon Hotel, equally besotted was the editorial staff of the Wyoming State Tribune, who, mournfully, declared the demise of the hotel as that of a "fabulous hostess" who "died of a broken heart."
Sources: Hert, Tamsen Emerson. "Luxury in the Wilderness: Yellowstone's Grand Canyon Hotel, 1911-1960." Yellowstone Science 13.3 (2005): 21-36; John Frederick Burger photographs (MSC 79), Yellowstone Park Archives; Subject Files, C - Canyon Hotel Demolition, 1959-1962, Yellowstone Park Company records (MSC 019), Yellowstone Park Archives.