Historic Relief Model Helped the Public Understand the Human Relationship to Yellowstone Geology
by Melanie Schleeter McCalmont
In the Yellowstone Justice Center in Mammoth, Wyoming, is a historic 1897 geologic relief model of Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka Range by Edwin E. Howell. At 7 ft. square, it’s a stunning scientific sculpture of a beloved geologic region in the U.S. (figure 1). It was donated to the park in 1921 and was installed in the old Information Center in Mammoth. A second relief model crafted by the Western Museum Laboratory in the 1930s is a cast copy of the Howell model and is installed at the Mammoth Community Center.
This article tells the relief model’s cultural anthropology—how it arrived, why it was built, and its historic role in the scientific study of Yellowstone National Park (YNP). While the actual data on the maps have been superseded by modern satellite and ground imagery, these historic maps and their educational interactions with park visitors persist to this day.
What’s a Relief Model?
A relief model is a three-dimensional terrain map. From the 1870s to 1950s, relief models were a popular interpretive object for museums, schools, and offices to display a landscape and its science.
Standing in front of it at the old Information Center in 1921, tourists of any educational level had an immediate grasp of the entire park. They could understand the relationship of geologic to cultural features—geysers, mountains, and fossil forests crossed by a network of rails, trails, and hotels—and so could better understand their human relationship to the science under their feet. Howell was a master at combining art and science in relief models for the public understanding.
Description of the Relief Model
The YNP relief model is about 7 ft. square and represents about 6,800 square miles, or about 4.3 million acres (figure 2). The 1897 model is colored geologically, based on the Arnold Hague U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) survey of the 1880-1890s (Hague 1899). Around the edge is a flat apron with the label “5000 Ft. Above Sea Level.” This apron was a standard method for relief models to show the base elevation and allow a more realistic vertical scale.
On either side of the title block are two geologic legends: on the left are geologic color patches of the major sedimentary formations and on the right, color patches for the major igneous flows. Within each legend, the formation patches are arranged from most recent to oldest formations reading left to right. On the model’s map surface, the legend colors are labeled with the text key (e.g., Cm for Carboniferous Madison formation). A small symbol “FAULTS ----- - - -” in the right igneous legend indicates the many fault lines on the map.
Although not in the legend, the park’s cultural geography of the time is shown as a reference. Solid red lines indicate improved stage and carriage roads of the time, and red dashed horse and foot trails branch off from the main roads to popular sights. Park hotels are small black squares with labels. The Continental Divide is shown as a long-dash red line running from the Madison Plateau southeast to Twin Ocean Pass. The boundary line shown on the relief model is the pre-1929 boundary.
At first glance, some railroad track symbols appear to be on the YNP relief model, for example, along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake (figure 3). But railroads were not in the park in 1897 when the original map was created. The ‘track’ symbols are actually later road corrections made on the map. You can see corrections between Bunsen Peak and Mt. Everts, the old road line (red) has been crossed out and moved from the north to the south side of the valley. The road between Junction Butte and Crescent Hill, now the Northeast Entrance Road, has been redrawn. Roads have been altered on the Solfatara Plateau, near Kepler Cascade, and along the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake. Not just roads, but physical features were corrected. What was previously labeled as the Stinkingwater River has been crossed out (figure 4) and changed to Shoshone River by park artisans due to the Wyoming legislature’s name change (State of Wyoming 1901).
Edwin Howell was skilled at using color themes to help the viewer intuitively grasp the geologic story. Starting with a deep red color, the map lightens this red shade of each younger igneous flow until it becomes white at the most recent eruptions. Deep and light orange likewise display the age of these unusual intrusive formations in the Absarokas. For sedimentary rock, Howell uses greens and blues, again making them lighter in color as they get younger. For a tourist public, Howell’s deliberate and consistent color themes helped them visualize their own human lifespan in relation to geologic time. The stacked colors were a layer cake of volcanic lava, ocean-bottom sediment, violent fissures, and trickling erosion that created Yellowstone’s features. Yellowstone was not just their vacation spot; they were participating in earth’s history.
Like many of Edwin Howell models, the geologic coloring continues below the “surface” of the land. When you visit the relief model at the Yellowstone Justice Center, look at the edges. The geologic strata continues along the sides so the viewer could imagine how the surface geologic features warped or faulted below the surface and possibly emerged at another point at the surface.
Today, with the YNP relief model over 120-years-old, it has sustained some damage. The model was first installed in the park’s new Mammoth Information Center in 1921, then moved to the Norris Museum, and likely moved many more times before its present location. A long horizontal gouge runs across the model just below the park border, exposing the core plaster. Because this model type had its frame recessed from the terrain, many of the higher mountain tops are sheared off the lower half of the model. The corners are cracked, a few carved initials can be discovered, and a puncture is on Coulter Creek. Even so, the relief model is in good enough shape that visitors and researchers could use it today as a comparison against newer maps.
Finally, some mistakes and corrections can be found on the YNP relief model. “The Thunderer” is labeled “The Thundere” missing the last ‘r’ named after the famous John Philips Sousa march that was popular during the pre-park surveys.