On August 30, 1878, a horse-drawn wagon pulled onto the sinter shelf near Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin. While it is true that Native Americans, mountain men, prospectors, explorers, and some hardy park tourists had already visited this area, park superintendent Philetus W. Norris (the leader of the crew of men accompanying the wagon) was well aware that this was the first wheeled vehicle to penetrate so far into Yellowstone’s wilderness.When Yellowstone was created in 1872, many in Congress were skeptical of the entire idea of national parks. But, these skeptics were convinced to create the nation’s first national park, in part, by the promise that no budget would be necessary to run it. Park proponents believed that enough funds would be generated by leasing land to concesssioners to provide all the money necessary for road construction and maintenance. However, the difficulties inherent in operating businesses that have no roads to them resulted in the failure of the park’s first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, to build any access roads
into the park.

The arrival of Superintendent Norris in 1878 was the first of many turning points for public access to Yellowstone. Norris was able to convince Congress to provide funds for the new park, including money for the construction of roads. The funding was not lavish by any means, leaving historian Aubrey Haines to remark that it was a “marvel” that Norris “accomplished so much with so little.” During Norris’ tenure, the miles of roads in Yellowstone increased from 32 to 153 (and trail mileage jumped from 108 to 204).
However, the term “road” was loosely applied to these early paths in the park, as tree stumps were routinely cut off just low enough for a wagon to pass over and side hills were graded either minimally or not at all. But, at least there was now a way to passably get into the new park. By the time Superintendent Norris left the park in 1882, the beginning of today’s Grand Loop Road system was clearly recognizable.

In 1883, the Congressional bill that provided funds for Yellowstone dictated that “the balance of the sum appropriated to be expended in the construction and improvement of suitable roads and bridges within said park, under supervision and direction of an engineer officer detailed by the Secretary of War for that purpose.” Thus, began the long association between the military, beginning with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Yellowstone National Park. The Corps of Engineers assigned Lieutenant Dan C. Kingman to Yellowstone. He arrived in the park August 13 and immediately set to work hiring
construction crews and planning road improvements. While accomplishing many things, he is best remembered for providing a new and easier route south from Mammoth Hot Springs, which bypassed the old route over Snow Pass in favor of a lesser grade through the canyon of Glen Creek. His original wooden trestle that made the route possible has been replaced several times (the current concrete bridge dates from 1977). Today, the canyon is referred to as the Golden Gate.

After Lieutenant Kingman was transferred to other duties in 1887, work on the park’s roads languished for a few years until the arrival in 1891 of Yellowstone’s greatest road builder, Lieutenant (later Captain) Hiram M. Chittenden of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Chittenden’s time in Yellowstone spanned two decades and included two different tours of duty. He completed the figure-eight shaped Grand Loop Road system begun by Norris and Kingman and still used in the park today. Chittenden also constructed a road over the top of Mount Washburn that was used by stagecoaches and, later, automobiles until the end of World War II; since that time the road has been one of the most popular hiking trails in Yellowstone. His construction of a concrete bridge over the Yellowstone River at the Grand Canyon, accomplished with a single pouring of concrete during a period of 48 hours, has been called by some the greatest engineering accomplishment in the history of the park.

Unfortunately, the maintenance of the park’s roads has been an enduringly difficult task. Long winters with heavy snow accumulations and severe cold followed by rapid spring melts have battered park roads from historic times to the present. Because many of Yellowstone’s current roads are simply pavement placed over the older wagon roads, no proper road base work or drainage design was ever done. Consequently, Yellowstone’s roads were not meant for today’s types, weights, size, and numbers of vehicles. Current road rebuilding efforts in the park are part of a multi-year plan to improve and completely reconstruct the main park road system. Because of sensitive resource issues, short construction seasons, and the need to keep the roads open for visitors during construction, this road rebuilding process will go on for many years. While it is true that construction delays often try visitors’ patience, this work is part of a process that for 125 years has kept Yellowstone National Park accessible to the public.


No one could argue that Yellowstone National Park’s geysers aren’t wondrous sights. But imagine most of the park’s best-known geysers, plus many hot springs that usually bubble quietly, all erupting at once. Anyone who had been standing in the geyser basins along the Firehole River at 11:37 p.m. on Aug. 17, 1959, would not have had to imagine it. On that date, one of the most powerful earthquakes to rock North America in modern times struck near Hebgen Lake west of the national park and, almost simultaneously, turned Yellowstone’s dancing waters wild.

Viewing the quake’s effects

Former park geologist George Marler surveyed the geysers as soon as daylight allowed the following morning.

“Scores of hitherto quiescent springs with no previous record of geyser activity were either boiling or showed clear evidence of having erupted,” Marler wrote in a scientific paper later published by the U.S. Geological Survey.” Large fragments of sinter scatteredaround the craters of some springs indicated a major increase of activity and forceful eruption.”

It was one of the most dramatic examples of the way seismic activity can force changes in Yellowstone’s famous hot springs and geysers, a principle that would prove itself again and again in later years– and which today offers geologists a possible tool for predicting earthquakes.

The 1959 tremor is now widely known as the Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Its magnitude was first estimated at 7.1, but was later revised upward to 7.5, making it the strongest earthquake that has shaken the Yellowstone region in modern times. Outside the national park, the temblor turned a peaceful summer night into tragedy.

A massive slide of 80 million tons of rocks and other debris in the Madison River Canyon west of Hebgen Lake buried and killed 19 people. Including those fatalities and others killed by falling rocks and other quake-related violence, the earthquake’s entire death toll was 28.

Great quake-induced cracks split roads and mountainsides. Automobiles caught by loosed rocks looked like crushed sardine cans. Houses tumbled into the waters of Hebgen Lake.

In Yellowstone Park, the quake caused damage, but the only reported injury was to a woman who hurt her ankle jumping out of bed. At the massive, log-lined Old Faithful Inn, a stone chimney crashed into the dining room, which only a few hours earlier had been filled with visitors.

Roads, buildings damaged

The earthquake caused an estimated $2.6 million in damage to park roads and $1.7 million worth to buildings. Crews clearing rocks off park road near Madison Junction freed a bear that had apparently become trapped within fallen rocks and timber. But the quake’s most striking effects were within the park’s geyser basins, fueled by heat from the same subterranean hot spot that twists and torments the earth in ways that cause such massive earthquakes.

Nearly 300 geysers erupted immediately after the Hebgen Lakeearthquake, and, of those, 160 were springs that had no previous record of eruption, Marler found. He counted 334 park thermal features that were more active after the earthquake than they had been before.

In the Lower Geyser Basin, Morning, Clepsydra and Fountain geysers had been known to erupt in sequence, one after the other. All three erupted simultaneously after the earthquake and erupted continuously throughout the next day.

Incredible geyser activity The earthquake’s “jarring served as a trigger to start discharge from hundreds of springs,” Marler wrote. “Had this happened in the daytime, the spectator would have witnessed geyser activity on a scale never even closely approximated since Yellowstone’s discovery. Even so, during the days following August 17, a spectacle without precedent was observed.”

A new geyser erupted 100 feet high from a fissure near Fountain Geyser and was promptly named Earthquake Geyser. Several days later, a steam explosion along the same fissure created another outlet for water and steam, and Earthquake Geyser’s activity declined in succeeding weeks. Today it is no longer considered a geyser but is visible as a spring, spouting only a slight bit of water.

Seismic Geyser is also a creation of the 1959 earthquake, but its last known eruptions were in 1974.

Geologists believe that the earthquake rattled the underground plumbing that supplies hot water to Yellowstone’s geyser basins. The shaking may have increased pressure on water in some of the conduits, driving water out of the ground like a squirt gun.

It may have also rearranged the minute cracks believed to make up that hidden plumbing system, sending water to surface features that had
previously had little or none.

“Throughout the basins there was evidence that the earthquake had acted like a giant hand which suddenly applied enormous pressure to the rocks beneath the hot springs, forcing water from their conduits in a manner comparable to the squeezing of a sponge,” Marler wrote.

Supporting evidence was the earthquake-caused cracks that appeared in the mineral deposits of many geyser basins. Nearly two miles worth of cracks appeared around Firehole Lake. Robert Smith, a geophysicist at the University of Utah, now says that earthquakes are a necessary element for geyser systems because the quakes open fractures that funnel hot water to the surface.

Seismic influences on Yellowstone geysers would reappear in 1983, when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit Borah Peak, Idaho, about 240 kilometers from Yellowstone. Park geologist Roderick “Rick” Hutchinson at the time recorded changes in the geyser basins that were more subtle than those triggered by the Hebgen Lake quake 24 years earlier.

A total of 37 thermal features exhibited changes after the quake.

“In 15 cases the physical changes of vent enlargement, rupturing of the siliceous sinter sheet, or extensive wash may be long-term or permanent,” Hutchinson wrote in a report.

One of the clearest changes was a sudden lengthening in the interval between eruptions of Old Faithful, which had been similarly affected by the 1959 earthquake.

The effects of the distant Borah Peak Earthquake on Yellowstone have since interested geologists and geophysicists looking for signs of impending earthquakes. Because geyser systems such as those in Yellowstone appear to be sensitive to seismic activity, the researchers suspect, watching the geysers may provide details about temblors that hit many miles away.


In 1929, Stephen Tyng Mather, founder and first Director of the National Park Service, was in Yosemite National Park trying to convince concessioner D.J. Desmond to build a hotel in Yosemite Valley. Desmond demurred, concerned that lack of visitation to the parks would mean empty rooms and possible bankruptcy. Mather’s response was incredulous: “Why, look at those cars! There must be close to two hundred of them. Where’s your imagination, man? Some day there’ll be a thousand!”During the early years of the national parks, their remoteness and the nature of their hotels and transportation companies resulted in the well-to-do being the main visitors to the parks. One of Mather’s priorities after Congress created the National Park Service in 1916 (44 years after the first national park, Yellowstone, was established) was to make the parks more accessible to all citizens. Besides believing that it was the right thing to do, Mather understood that greater visitation would result in the parks having a larger constituency. And larger constituencies meant an easier time getting budgets through Congress.

Mather could not have anticipated just how successful his campaign would be. Some years before, a railroad agent had been brooding over the statistic that Americans were spending four hundred million dollars a year visiting Europe, and he came up with a slogan for a new campaign: “See America First.” The creation of the National Park Service and the admission of automobiles to the national parks coincided beautifully with this campaign. Prior to 1916, Yellowstone was welcoming about 20,000 visitors each year. In 1923, the year after it’s semicentennial, 100,000 visitors came to the park. The number of annual visitors rose dramatically after World War II, and visitation continues to rise. One
million visitors came to Yellowstone in 1948, two million in 1965, and three million in 1992.

The impact of this dramatic increase in park visitation has begun to show in many places, both in the natural and cultural areas of the parks as well as in what visitors believe the quality of their experience is. Many of the complaint letters that the park receives each year include comments on the crowded conditions, traffic jams, and lack of anticipated quiet and solitude. Natural resources are impacted by the increased number of people on trails, vehicles pulling off the roadways, harassment of wildlife (unintentionally for the most part, but still an impact to wildlife). Cultural resources are impacted, too. One of the most frequently asked questions during the tours of the historic Old Faithful Inn is why guests are not permitted access to the roof observation platform. In 1904, the year the Inn opened, 13,727 visitors came to Yellowstone; in 1997, many more than that number come in a single day. The free-hanging stairs to the roof would not survive such an impact if visitors were allowed to use them.

In Stephen T. Mather’s day, the problem was that not enough people visited the national parks. Today the problem is just the opposite. In the first 62 years of its existence, a total of 3 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, and now just 63 years later that number come every year. Whether or not the parks are “overvisited” is a concern that managers face today. Some people believe the parks are being “loved to death,” and studies have been initiated to define and quantify impacts and evaluate them. The input of visitors and all concerned with the future of our national parks is encouraged and welcomed.


In May of 1902, acting Yellowstone superintendent Major John Pitcher received disturbing news. It was rumored that a local resident by the name of Henry G. Merry was going to drive his 1897 Winton automobile to park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs to discuss his displeasure with regulations that prohibited automobiles from entering the national park. Incensed by the thought of such a possible breech in regulations, the major stationed two mounted cavalrymen at the gate to prevent such an act. On June 2nd Mr. Merry and his Winton came through the gate at a breathtaking 25 miles per hour, and the noise that the vehicle generated so scared the horses that they bolted and ran the better part of a mile up the road before the soldiers could regain control and give chase. At headquarters, Mr. Merry was arrested and informed that he would have to pay a fine before he and his vehicle would be banished back to Gardiner. But the tide of progress could not be turned, and the inevitable was not long in coming.In the years prior to the arrival of automobiles in Yellowstone, the park was mainly visited by the wealthy. During the era of the stagecoach, a tour of the park was generally beyond the means of anyone except the upper middle class and the wealthy. The few who did come in private wagons and “camped out” were referred to as “sagebrushers.” These visitors were looked down upon and were not permitted access to the restaurants and hotels. With the popularization of the automobile after the turn of the century, Americans began to take to the roads to see their country–and the national parks were one of the first places they wanted to go.

Automobiles were allowed into Mount Rainier National Park in 1908, General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Park in 1910, Crater Lake National Park in 1911, Glacier National Park in 1912, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1913, and Mesa Verde National Park in 1914. Throughout these years, the transportation companies in Yellowstone were able to keep the “infernal machines” out of the park by pointing out that the one-lane roads would have to be shared by the autos and the 400 horse-drawn vehicles (which translates into nearly 1400 horses!) that they operated–a sure recipe for trouble! But, finally, in April 1915, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane announced that automobiles would be allowed into Yellowstone beginning August 1st. The park’s superintendent, fearing congestion at the gate, let the first vehicles into Yellowstone on July 31st. Permit #1 was issued to Mr. and Mrs. K.R. Seiler of Redwing, Minnesota. Mr. Seiler paid $5 in order to drive his Ford “Model T” into Yellowstone. In those days, no mechanics or auto parts were available inside the park, so the automobilist was required to show that he carried a good stock of spare fluids and parts and that his brakes were good enough to assure that the vehicle could skid to a stop!

Within a few years after admitting the automobile into Yellowstone, large yellow signs with black arrows (or often simply arrows painted on rocks or barns) were seen along America’s northern coast-to-coast highway. These signs pointed the driver to Yellowstone. The Yellowstone Trail, as the road was called, ran from Plymouth, Massachusetts, through Chicago and Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to Yellowstone and on to Seattle, Washington.

It is also fitting to note that Yellowstone’s first automobile permit went to a Ford “Model T.” Henry Ford’s mass-produced vehicle was responsible for getting Americans on the road, and Yellowstone was an early popular destination. With the arrival of that “Model T” on a pretty July evening so long ago, Yellowstone took a giant step forward in genuinely becoming a park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”


This week we highlight a few of the myths and legends about Yellowstone that have accumulated in the past 125 years. As with most myths, many of these stories have a grain of truth to them.For example, Yellowstone National Park has been referred to as “Colter’s Hell” since the early 1800s. While John Colter probably was the first EuroAmerican to enter what is today the park, his “Colter’s Hell” is not Yellowstone National Park. Colter was an early fur trapper who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous 1804-06 expedition to the Pacific northwest and then remained in this area. It is known that Colter made a U-shaped journey through the region during the winter of 1807-08. He started at the lower Yellowstone River near the mouth of the Bighorn River (east of Billings, Montana) and traveled south to the Absaroka Mountains, Jackson Hole, Pierre’s Hole (east of the Teton Mountains in Idaho), north past Yellowstone Lake (probably), and back to the Bighorn River. However, through careful research, we now know that the colorful name, “Colter’s Hell,” refers to DeMaris Springs near present-day Cody, Wyoming.

Another story that has “become fact” through the retelling is that the idea for making the Yellowstone area a national park came from the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. This expedition spent a number of months exploring the Yellowstone region in the summer of 1870. As the story goes, the members of the expedition were sitting around their final campfire at today’s Madison Junction on the evening of September 19, 1870, discussing the wonders they had seen. As related by expedition member (and first park superintendent) Nathaniel Pitt Langford in 1895, most of the expedition members thought they should each file claims on the land around the most extraordinary areas in Yellowstone. Then expedition member Cornelius Hedges finally spoke. In Langford’s account: “Mr. Hedges then said that he did not approve of any of these plans and that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park, and that each one of us ought to make an
effort to have this accomplished.”

For decades after the publication of this account, the story was accepted as the truth about the birth of the national park idea. However, the truth is that this campfire discussion may never have happened at all. More than a dozen members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane party kept journals about their travels in the area, and not one of these journals mentions any such discussion taking place. In reality, Mr. Langford’s account may simply have been an exaggeration of many different general conversations about Yellowstone that occurred before, during, and after the expedition. One needs to remember that for most of the first two decades of the park’s existence, hotels were not available for visitors to stay in, the roads were deplorable at best, poaching was rampant, and generally the national park idea was a failure. During this time, few people wanted to take credit for the park’s creation. However, once the U.S. Army arrived to administer and protect the park and hotels were available for visitors, Yellowstone became a popular
destination, and early promoters of the park and the national park idea–of whom Mr. Langford is one of the most famous–were proud to boast about their part in setting aside the nation’s first national park.

Now for the Yellowstone story that everyone “knows” is true. Every day at Old Faithful, Yellowstone staff must explain to visitors that Old Faithful Geyser does not (nor did it ever) erupt every hour on the hour! This myth probably came about because prior to the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, the average interval between Old Faithful eruptions ranged between 62 and 64 minutes. This number was close enough to an hour to propagate the erroneous idea that Old Faithful erupts like clockwork every hour. It is true that the
geyser has always erupted in a regular pattern (generally between 1 and 5 minutes in length), and it has always shown a pattern of taking longer to “recharge” after a longer eruption than after a shorter one. It is also true that Old Faithful Geyser’s eruptions used to happen more frequently, but the geyser has changed over time due to earthquakes in the region. While Old Faithful today generally has more longer eruptions (and hence a longer average interval between eruptions), its predictability is still among the best of all
geysers worldwide. For example, if Old Faithful erupts for 1 minute, you can add 51 minutes to the start time of the eruption to determine when the next eruption will occur (plus or minus 10 minutes). If the geyser erupts for 5 minutes, you need to add 95 minutes to the start time in order to determine the next eruption. So, Old Faithful is faithful, but in its own way.

Lastly, one of the myths that applies to more than just Yellowstone is that places we love will always be as we remember. Part of the public’s distress with the 1988 Yellowstone fires stemmed from the fact that people want to remember Yellowstone as it was when they first visited. Many who visited after the fires saw a very different landscape than that which they remembered. But, Yellowstone is not a static wilderness. We know now that Yellowstone experiences major cataclysmic forest fires every 200-400 years, and while fires change the view we have of the landscape, fires are an integral part of a healthy
ecosystem. As scientists study the ways ecosystems function, they have come to understand that wilderness ecosystems are chaotic places, and, if we want to preserve Yellowstone, what we must preserve first and foremost are the chaotic processes that have shaped it for millennia and go on shaping it today. We have come to realize that in many ways it is precisely because we do not understand these

processes that we call them wild, and it is because we are yet ignorant of how Yellowstone works that we call it wilderness. One of the many truths about Yellowstone is that by preserving this special place, we preserve much more than we understand today. Hopefully, one day we will understand.


When Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress on March 1, 1872, as the world’s first national park, there was not yet a National Park Service. In fact, one of the commitments made by supporters of the park bill during the debate in Congress was that they would make no funding requests for administering the new park. However, Congress did allow for the appointment of a civilian superintendent to oversee the park. Unfortunately, during the next 14 years, the various superintendents were unable to control the rampant poaching of wildlife, the destruction of thermal features and other resources, and the general unscrupulous nature of the business operators within the park.In the early 1880s, Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri, a strong defender of Yellowstone for much of his Senate career, uncovered a scandal in which the wonders of Yellowstone were nearly leased to private parties who would have charged the public money to see Old Faithful or the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Exposing and disposing of this scandal had required action by Congress, and one result of this was that many in Congress who considered the national park idea a failure began to suggest that Yellowstone National Park be abolished. Senator Vest had to use all of his powers of persuasion and compromise to save the park’s appropriation and to garner some better protection for it (in the form of ten assistants for the superintendent). He did this by agreeing to an amendment demanded by those who saw no future in civilian administration of the park. The amendment read: “The Secretary of War, upon the request
of the Secretary of the Interior, is hereby authorized and directed to make the necessary details of troops to prevent trespassers or intruders from entering the park for the purpose of destroying the game or objects of curiosity therein, or for any other purpose prohibited by law, and to remove such person from the park if found therein.”

Both Senator Vest and Henry M. Teller, Secretary of the Interior, were hopeful that such drastic actions would be unnecessary. However, Patrick H. Conger, Yellowstone’s superintendent from 1882 until 1884, and Robert E. Carpenter, who followed him in 1884, were unsuccessful in the execution of their duties. Both men had received their appointments to the superintendency because of their political connections to eastern
Congressmen, and both were completely unsuited for the rough duty demanded of them in the protection of Yellowstone National Park. Reports, complaints, and rumors about the situation in Yellowstone continued to reach Washington.

The situation was nearly changed after the Cleveland Administration came into power in Washington in 1884. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar appointed Colonel David W. Wear, a retired military officer, to the office of superintendent of Yellowstone. Wear fired nearly all of the assistant superintendents and replaced them with “stalwart mountaineers” who began arresting poachers and other wrongdoers. Given time, Wear’s superintendency might have proven the turning point. But time had already
run out.

News traveled slowly in the 19th century, and word of Wear’s efforts and successes never reached the ears of an exasperated Congress. The many reports that they had received about the various inept civilian administrators of Yellowstone led Congress to cancel all funds for the salaries of the superintendent and his assistants on August 4, 1886. At this point Secretary Lamar took the only course left open to him. On August 6, he called the attention of the Secretary of War to the amendment that had been passed three years
before, and he asked for his assistance. The Secretary of War directed Lieutenant-General Philip H. Sheridan to comply with the request. Sheridan, in turn, directed: “Troop M, 1st United States Cavalry, Captain Moses Harris commanding–station Fort Custer, Montana Territory–be ordered . . . to perform the duties in the Yellowstone National Park that recently devolved upon the Superintendent of the Park and his assistants.”

The first cavalry riders entered the park on August 17, and by August 20 Captain Harris and rest of Troop M had arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs. Captain Harris relieved Superintendent Wear of his duties that day, thus beginning 30 years of administration of Yellowstone by the United States Cavalry–saving both Yellowstone and the national park idea for the American people.

The Cavalry established a temporary tent camp, Camp Sheridan, under the base of Capitol Hill (near the present day concessioner horse corrals) by the hot spring terraces. When it became apparent that the military would be in Yellowstone for a long time, construction of Fort Yellowstone began in May of 1891. The wooden structures at the southern end of the post were constructed between 1891 and 1897; the stone structures were constructed after 1908. Between 1891 and 1908 the post grew from one troop of cavalry to four (approximately 240 troopers). The fort offered the full compliment of structures necessary to accommodate four troops of cavalry, including: a commanding officer’s residence (the present park Superintendent’s home), five sets of officer’s duplexes (the one stone and four wooden duplexes along Officer’s Row), bachelor officers quarters with six apartments (the Albright Visitor Center); two single troop barracks buildings, one two-troop barracks building, a small headquarters, a guard house, quartermaster supplies buildings, stables, four sets of NCO quarters (the houses on Soap Suds Row), a chapel, and a hospital (no longer here).

By World War I, the military was needed for other, more pressing national needs, and the growth of the national parks (there were now more than 30 national parks and monuments throughout the nation) necessitated the creation of an agency to manage these special places. On August 25, 1916, Congress created the National Park Service, and soon thereafter the Cavalry left Yellowstone.


For two weeks in the late summer of 1877, Yellowstone National Park was visited by 800 reluctant travelers. These unhappy migrants (along with 2,000 head of their stock) were members of five bands of the Nez Perce Indian tribe who had fled central Idaho on an epic flight to Canada.The Nez Perce were a peaceful people and had long been considered friendly to the white man. It was through their cooperation and guidance that the Lewis and Clark expedition succeeded in their exploration mission to the Pacific Northwest. For many years following that first encounter with white Americans, the Nez Perce had lived cooperatively and peacefully with settlers and missionaries in their homeland, which included land in
northcentral Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. In the 1860s all of that changed. There was an influx of miners and, later, ranchers to the region, and they pressured the Nez Perce to give up most of their lands. Some of the tribe’s numerous bands agreed to the loss of their land and moved to a reservation in western Idaho. But, five bands of the tribe resisted, and, eventually, some young warriors in a fit of anger
killed four settlers. The military arrived to restore order and force the recalcitrant bands onto the reservation. Initially, the five bands tried to surrender by raising a white flag, but the military fired on them, and in the resultant battle, the military lost. The dissident bands, including one led by Chief Joseph, fled on a circuitous 1,300 mile trek to Canada. The Nez Perce were convinced that if they could just reach Canada they would find sanctuary and be able to live their lives in peace. However, the military was not about to let them escape, and General O.O. Howard was sent in hot pursuit.

The Nez Perce entered Yellowstone in mid-August 1877 in the vicinity of the present West Entrance. They were somewhat familiar with the Yellowstone region as it was along one of the routes they had historically followed when traveling to the grasslands of Montana in pursuit of bison. The fugitives traveled upstream along the Madison and Firehole rivers, heading east and then south towards the Old Faithful area. On August 24, near the Lower Geyser Basin they captured 2 prospectors and 9 tourists from Montana who were visiting
the park. While there was no intent to harm these white captives, the Nez Perce did not want them reporting the tribe’s whereabouts to the pursuing army.

Before reaching the Old Faithful area, the Nez Perce left the Firehole River and followed Nez Perce Creek upstream and across the central plateau of the park. By this time, one of the group of Montana tourists, George Cowan, had had enough, and in the ensuing shouting match with his captors, was shot and left for dead (he survived and was later rescued). Eventually, all of the captives escaped or were released. The Nez Perce continued their trek along the southern edge of Hayden Valley and crossed the Yellowstone River at
Buffalo Ford (also called Nez Perce Ford) and went on to the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. Camping near Indian Pond, they were almost overtaken by Army Captain S.G. Fisher and his Bannock scouts. Fisher pursued the Indians up Pelican Creek about 10 miles, but returned to his camp where he had to spend two days recovering from a stomach ailment.

The Nez Perce headed north, continuing to try and avoid encounters with the military. To this end, the Nez Perce relied on information from several scouting/raiding parties. Throughout their time in Yellowstone, these scouting/raiding parties made forays into the surrounding countryside. One of these parties charged a group of tourists at Otter Creek, leaving one tourist dead. Another looted and burned the ranch of the Henderson brothers below present-day Gardiner, Montana. Another group of scouts killed a tourist in the doorway of McCartney’s Hotel in Mammoth. And, another burned Baronett’s bridge on the Yellowstone River to prevent the military from following them.

By the time Captain Fisher resumed his pursuit of the Nez Perce, they had moved their camps over the Pelican Creek divide and were at the headwaters of the Lamar River, which is at the base of the Absaroka Mountains. Eluding Fisher’s pursuit, at least part of the Nez Perce went through the Hoodoo Basin at the head of the upper Lamar and dropped down to the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon and travelled out of the park toward the Yellowstone River. Another group is thought to have exited the park 10-15 miles south of Cooke City, Montana.

The Nez Perce had sent representatives ahead to enlist the aid of their traditional friends, the Crows, but the Crows were unwilling to help. When Crow assistance did not materialize, the Nez Perce continued their flight north. They were pursued to Snake Creek, Montana (near Chinook), within 40 miles of the Canadian border, where they surrendered October 5, 1877, after a final battle with the Army.

The flight of the Nez Perce is recognized as an important event in our nation’s history. Look for Nez Perce National Historic Trail signs at the West Entrance and Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone where they mark the approximate locations of the entrance and exit routes of the Nez Perce.


On September 29, 1869, Charles Cook, David Folsom, and William Peterson ascended a hillside to take one last look at Yellowstone Lake. The three men had been traveling on horseback through the Yellowstone wilderness for some time and were now heading home to Montana Territory. The reports of their journey in the press would help spur further exploration parties, eventually leading to the creation of the nation’s first national park. On that day in late September, the future of the area that lay before the explorers was already plain to Folsom. He wrote: “As we were about departing on our homeward trip we ascended the summit of a neighboring hill and took a final 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.”When Yellowstone was created in 1872, the only way anyone could see the area was by foot or by horseback. While a couple of rudimentary roads led to the park, there was no road system within the park one could use to see the wonders of Yellowstone. In fact, Nathaniel Langford, the park’s first Superintendent, refused to issue leases to a number of entrepreneurs who wished to erect hotels in the new national park because there were no roads to serve the hostelries–and no money forthcoming from Congress to build them.

Yellowstone remained a park for the horseman until the superintendency of Philetus Norris, who, in 1878, laid the groundwork for the park’s Grand Loop Road, making travel by carriage possible. By 1892, the Northern Pacific Railroad had completed tracks nearly to the park’s northern border, and wealthy tourists flocked to Yellowstone. They toured “Wonderland” aboard stagecoaches specially built for use in the park by Abbot & Downing of Concord, New Hampshire. The “Yellowstone Wagons,” as this variety of “Concord Coaches” came to be called, differed from normal Concord Coaches in that all of the seats faced forward to allow sightseeing.

Stage travelers would spend four to five days touring the park spending a night in the fancy hotels at each of the famous locations. From the railroad terminus at Cinnabar, visitors would board stagecoaches for Mammoth. From Mammoth they would head south to Old Faithful and then east toward Yellowstone Lake. Descending the final hill to West Thumb, they would find (rather than the primeval solitude experienced by the Folsom party), a large dining tent and an 80-foot steamship resting quietly against a pier. After lunch, many of the tourists would board the S.S. Zillah for an afternoon cruise to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Iron hulled, multi-decked, and comfortable, this veteran of the Great Lakes had been brought to Yellowstone in 1891 to provide visitors the opportunity of an afternoon’s respite from the frightful dust that was the norm of stagecoach travel.

During this era, it was generally only the wealthy who could afford to see Yellowstone’s sights from the seat of a stagecoach and stay in the fashionable hotels. The few people of modest means who came to Yellowstone did so the old fashioned way: they rode their own horses or brought a small wagon to carry their supplies. Eventually, the freedom to see Yellowstone at one’s own speed proved so inviting to visitors that a rancher named Howard Eaton founded a business to lead patrons on three-week horseback trips around the park, camping at convenient places along the way. Upon his death in 1922, the trail he pioneered, which parallels the Grand Loop Road around Yellowstone, was named the “Howard Eaton Trail.”

Private automobiles were allowed in the park in 1915, and by the end of 1916 it was evident that the era of carriage and stagecoach travel had come to an end. That fall, the park’s transportation company placed an order with the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, for the first of hundreds of touring cars that were to travel the park roads for decades to come. With four doors along each side, a roll-back canvas roof, and a “gearjammer” (driver) at the wheel, the White touring cars became for many the “way to see Yellowstone.” After World War II private automobiles began to dominate the roads and eventually became the primary means by which most everyone sees Yellowstone today. The “Great Yellow Fleet” finally went on the auction block in the early 1960s.

While the Howard Eaton Trail lies forgotten, overgrown, and abandoned along most of its length, visitors can still enjoy Yellowstone from the back of a horse at corral facilities at Canyon, Mammoth, and Roosevelt, or by taking a trip with a licensed backcountry outfitter. At Roosevelt Lodge, visitors can ride in a replica of a Yellowstone stagecoach. And while few see the park exclusively by walking (as did visitor C. Hanford Henderson in 1898), Yellowstone has more than 1,500 miles of hiking trails that are extensively used and enjoyed by backpackers and dayhikers each summer and by cross country skiers in winter. Each one of Yellowstone’s visitors who walks a trail, rides a horse, or sleeps in a tent or at a hotel continues the earliest traditions of touring the park and discovering its wonders.


In today’s climate of controversy over federal funding of the arts, it is difficult to imagine that, 125 years ago, Congress was persuaded by art to take the bold step of establishing the world’s first national park. But, the pencil and watercolor field sketches of the Yellowstone area by Thomas Moran, a young artist from Philadelphia, so captured the imagination of members of Congress that they were inspired to do just that.

Moran’s interest in the area that would become Yellowstone National Park was piqued when he was commissioned in 1870 to illustrate Nathaniel P. Langford’s magazine article, “The Wonders of the Yellowstone”–an assignment he boldly accepted without benefit of having seen the place himself. After the job was done, Moran determined that he must travel to the Yellowstone area to see it for himself. An 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition led by fellow Philadelphian Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden provided the opportunity.

Survey teams of that era often included artists and photographers. In the days before color photography, the artist could provide an added dimension to the documentation necessary for a successful expedition. Luckily, the Hayden Survey boasted the magical combination of artist Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. The two collaborated in selecting views and creating the images that brought the near-mythical Yellowstone region to life for the politicians whose support was crucial in fashioning the area into something for which there was no precedent and few comparable models: a national park.

While the 34-year old Moran was a respected painter, engraver, and illustrator, he had never before ridden a horse, had camped but once, and was unaccustomed to the sorts of greasy foods that made up the usual camp fare. But, determined to bear whatever was required to paint the Yellowstone region, Moran impressed and earned the respect of the thirty-some members of the survey with his adaptability, tirelessness, and courage.

Between July 22 and August 9, Moran travelled through what would become Yellowstone National Park, sketching the Gardner River; Mammoth Hot Springs and LibertyCap; Tower Fall; the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its dramatic yellow, orange, and red walls and its impressive Upper and Lower Falls; Yellowstone Lake; Crystal Creek; Firehole River; the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins; and other scenes. While many visitors to Yellowstone are most captivated by the geysers and other thermal features and wildlife, Moran was clearly most struck by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Tower Fall area. Moran and Jackson devoted more time to the Grand Canyon (including the place now known as “Artist Point”) than anywhere else in Yellowstone–four days–and Jackson later wrote that “Moran’s enthusiasm was greater here than anywhere else.”

When Dr. Hayden and his survey party returned to Washington, he circulated Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photographs through the halls of Congress, providing the final push needed by a legislature already excited by the Moran watercolors and woodblock designs used to illustrate survey reports. Doubts about the vaunted wonders of the Yellowstone region vanished in the face of this tangible proof. Jackson admitted that, as Congress considered creating the park over the winter of 1871-1872, the watercolors and photographs made during the survey “were the most important exhibits brought before the [Congressional] Committee.” The “wonderful coloring” of Moran’s sketches, he wrote, made all the difference. A mere seven months after Moran’s work on the Hayden Survey ended–an astoundingly short period of time by today’s standards–Yellowstone National Park was a reality.

Three months later, Moran produced a monumental 7′ x 12′ panoramic, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” which was purchased by the Congress for display in the Senate lobby, causing a noted art critic to call it “the only good picture to be found in the Capitol.” By this time, friends had begun to call the artist “Tom ‘Yellowstone’ Moran,” and Moran had begun incorporating a “Y” into his initials when signing his works!

Today, Yellowstone National Park is privileged to own 21 of the sketches Moran produced while in the Yellowstone area; two of the artist’s sketchbooks, filled with rough drawings and notations; two charcoal drawings; tools he used in his work, including brushes and palette knives; some personal effects; the only diary he kept during his travels to Yellowstone; and, his only attempt at an autobiography.

The first retrospective exhibition of the work of Thomas Moran will open September 28 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibition will include, among many other works, twelve of Moran’s watercolors from Yellowstone National Park’s collection, the panoramic “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (now owned by the Department of the Interior), and photographs by William Henry Jackson from Yellowstone National Park’s photograph archives. After it closes at the National Gallery of Art on January 11, 1998, the exhibition will travel to the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be on view from February 8 through May 10, 1998. The exhibit will conclude at the Seattle Art Museum, where it can be seen from June 19 through August 30, 1998.

By the time Moran died in 1926, he had painted a dozen other areas that would become national parks or monuments in the National Park System. But Yellowstone, Moran himself claimed, was “his love” and is a land whose story will forever be intertwined with that of the man who first painted it, a little more than 125 years ago.


The soldiers stationed at Fort Yellowstone had a saying: “In Yellowstone there are only two seasons: winter and July.” While this may be a slight exaggeration, it is true that Yellowstone’s winter is by far its longest season–as many of the park’s permanent residents will attest to!

Climate is the long-term combination of atmospheric conditions produced by day-to-day weather. The physical geography of an area has an important influence on the type of climate a region experiences. Yellowstone is primarily a forested, volcanic plateau with an average elevation of about 8,000 feet. Because Yellowstone is located deep within the interior of the North American continent far from the climate-moderating influences of the oceans, one would ordinarily expect such an area at this latitude to have a severe (hot summers and cold winters) and dry climate. However, Yellowstone’s high elevation moderates the severity of its summers as well as the amount of precipitation it receives.

Weather observations were first taken at Mammoth Hot Springs by U.S. Army personnel in January 1887. By 1890, these observations were being taken on a regular and consistent basis, continuing to this day. Records taken include temperature, precipitation, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, sunshine, and humidity. The weather station at Mammoth Hot Springs is the second oldest weather observation station in continuous existence in the state of Wyoming. Yellowstone has also participated for many years in a national program to collect snow accumulation data from various locations in the park. This data is used by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) to calculate water content amounts in the snow in order to predict spring runoff flows for the nation’s rivers.

The weather in Yellowstone is characterized by summer days that are usually mild and nights that are cool. Daytime temperatures range between 70 and 80 degrees F, and nighttime temperature often fall below 40 degrees F. July is the warmest month in the park, but temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees F. Winters are cold, characterized by daily maximum temperatures that frequently do not rise above freezing. Spring and autumn are transitional seasons between the long, cold winter and the short, mild summer.

The highest recorded temperature in the park was 98 degrees F at Lamar Ranger Station in 1936, although 103 degrees F was recorded at Gardiner, Montana (on the park’s northern border), in 1960. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Yellowstone was -66 degrees F on February 9, 1933, at the old Riverside Ranger Station, which was about a mile east of the West Entrance. On that day, bitter cold temperatures were also recorded at Tower Fall (-52 degrees F), Lake Yellowstone (-56 degrees F), Lamar Ranger Station (-57 degrees F), and Mammoth (which recorded a mild -40 degrees F!).

There is a wide variety of elevations in Yellowstone, and the average annual precipitation (which includes rain and melted snow) ranges from as little as 11 inches at Gardiner, Montana, to about 38 inches at Bechler River (in the park’s southwest corner). Of course, greater amounts of precipitation occur high in the mountains. Park records indicate that annual precipitation may exceed 70 inches on the Pitchstone Plateau in the west central portion of the park, mainly a result of winter snowfall. Snow accumulation begins in mid- to late October, and snow stays on the ground until late March or early April. The average duration of snowcover is about 213 days for elevations up to 7,000 feet; this duration increases with elevation at the rate of 29 days for every 1,000 feet.

Climate (like weather) is constantly changing, and it does so on several scales. Departures from “normal” are the rule, not the exception. Analysis of pollen found in bogs and shallow ponds in the park show climatic changes on a scale of thousands of years and indicate that Yellowstone has had climatic conditions ranging from arctic to subtropical. Following the retreat of the glaciers (about 14,000 years ago), pollen studies indicate a warming trend followed by a cooling trend. More relevant to humans are the climatic changes that occur on the scale of decades, such as the drought of the 1930s and the high precipitation of the 1940s. These types of trends have occurred for at least the past 230 years, as indicated by tree-ring analysis. The period from about 1870-1900 was considerably wetter than present-day conditions, and in the 1840s and 1850s, dry conditions occurred that were similar to those of the 1930s. The global climate of the 1980s and 1990s has produced seven of the world’s warmest years since weather records have been kept. It is not yet clear if this represents a change in climate or is simple a departure from “the norm.”

The bottom line for visitors to Yellowstone is that they should expect any kind of weather at any time of year Snow and cold weather can occur in any month of the year here. In fact, one snowstorm on August 25th in the early part of the century stranded a number of visitors at Old Faithful. They decided to turn their “misfortune” into an adventure by celebrating “Christmas in August.” That one weather event has resulted in a tradition in Yellowstone, and every August 25th visitors find gaily decorated Christmas trees in hotel lobbies and employees singing Christmas carols. Weather and climate can affect more than just the great outdoors!

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