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The Washburn Yellowstone Expedition


by Walter Trumball

Overland Monthly; May 1871, San Francisco

            SINCE the first settlement of Montana, vague stories have been floating about, in regard to the wonders of the country surrounding Lake Yellowstone. Trappers and half-breeds have dilated, in glowing terms, of impassable cañons, water-falls thousands of feet in height, and "steamboat springs” of remarkable magnitude. Heretofore, these reports have been generally believed to be gross exaggerations. They, however, led to the formation of a party last summer, resolved upon as thorough an examination of that section of country as their leisure time would admit.

            The expedition left Helena, Montana, August 17th, 1870. General Washburn, Surveyor-General of Montana, was elected Captain. The remaining members of the expedition were: S. T. Hauser, President of the First National Bank of Helena; N. P. Langford, late U. S. Collector of Internal Revenue; T. C. Everts, late U. S. Assessor; Messrs. Hedges, Gillette, Smith, Stickney, and Trumbull, all of Helena; two packers, and two unbleached American citizens of African descent. Each member of the party was mounted on horseback, and there were twelve pack animals.

            By order of General Hancock, we were provided with an escort; and at Fort Ellis we were joined by Lieutenant Doane, of the Second Cavalry, with a squad of soldiers, well mounted, and armed with needle carbines and revolvers. We citizens carried an assorted armory, consisting of Henry, Ballard, and Spencer rifles, revolvers, and bowie-knives. We intended to hunt for all sorts of large game, Indians only excepted. No one desired to find any of them.

            On Monday morning, August 22d, our party bade adieu, for a time, to civilization; and leaving Fort Ellis, turned our faces toward the almost unexplored wilderness. The weather was fine; the air invigorating; all were cheerful, and each face betrayed that curiosity and expectation, which almost every one feels when entering upon a new field of adventure. Our course lay to the east, over Bozeman Pass; which will necessarily be the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad, if it goes anywhere in that vicinity.

            Having passed over the divide, the party camped on Trail Creek, a small stream flowing into the Yellowstone. At this place a night-watch was established; which was maintained throughout the entire trip, in order to keep the Indians from breaking the Eighth Commandment.

            The following day we reached the Yellowstone, and camped at Botteller's, which is the frontier rancho, as you ascend that river. During the day the party traveled in detachments. Three hunters kept several miles ahead; next, were two skirmishers in front of the main body; and a half-mile farther back, came the main body itself, together with the pack-train. As the skirmishers neared the river they discovered three Crows; not sitting on a tree, but riding in their direction. With keen military sagacity, they appreciated the position, and rallied on the main body with astonishing rapidity. This movement was much commended by parties who had had experience in our "late unpleasantness."

            For many miles, both up and down the river, on the side opposite Botteller's, the mountains rise somewhat abruptly, bold and rugged, to a height of three or four thousand feet above the river. Clumps of pines and cedars are scattered over them. They remind one very much of the grandeur and massiveness of the Sierra Nevada Range. A recent snow-storm had thrown a robe of purity over the scene, which rendered it more than ordinarily beautiful.

            From this point we followed the old Indian trail, leading up the left bank of the Yellowstone. It was generally from a fourth to a half-mile distant from the river-bank, and near the first line of bluffs, which bound the valley or river bottom. During the day we crossed three small streams, designated as Two-mile Creek and Eight-mile Creek—Nos. One and Two—being about those distances from Botteller's. At one place the trail crossed a rocky point, more than three hundred feet above the river, which there ran beside a precipice. The view was exceedingly fine. The valley was in sight from the mouth of the cañon, eight miles above, to a point at least forty miles below. The course of the river could be plainly discerned by an unbroken line of willows, stretching away to the north-east, while in the background the lofty, snow-capped peaks glistened midway between the earth and the cloudless firmament above. We camped at the mouth of the cañon, where the Yellowstone issues from the mountains. Above that point there is no open country, until you reach the basin of the great lake.

            During the day plenty of small game was killed, and the fishing was found to be excellent. Trout and white-fish were abundant—and such trout! They can only be found in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, and on the Pacific Slope. Few of them weighed less than two pounds, and many of them over three. They had not been educated up to the fly; but when their attention was respectfully solicited to a transfixed grasshopper, they seldom failed to respond.

            During the pleasant evening, and the long summer twilight peculiar to a northern latitude, some made rough sketches of the magnificent scenes by which we were surrounded; others wrote up their notes of the trip, while the rest serenely smoked their pipes, and listened to reminiscences from each other of by-gone times, or other scenes somewhat similar to those we then enjoyed.

            The day following we continued our way through the cañon, up the river, which there wound around to the east. The trail kept near the river, was very rough, and went over several high, rocky points. Distant views were shut out by the mountains, which constantly surrounded us. The only features of unusual interest seen during the day were a beautiful, snow-capped mountain, at least ten thousand feet above the sea, and the Devil's Slide, similar to a feature so named in Echo Cañon, on the Union Pacific Railroad, but vastly exceeding that one in size. Two perpendicular walls of mud and rock run directly down a mountain. They are about half a mile long, and the larger one a hundred feet high, and thirty feet across the top. Similar formations extend along the side of the mountain for some distance, but the rest are much smaller than the two mentioned. From a distance, the mountain appears to be traversed by a number of stone-walls running parallel to each other, from the summit to the base of the mountain, which is shaped like a long hay-stack. The walls are as regular as if they were a work of art.

            In the evening we camped on the Yellowstone, at the mouth of Gardiner's River. The beach was of sand, with large rocks lying right at the water's edge. It was wide enough for us to spread our blankets upon it, and was lined upon the inside by a row of cedar-trees, beyond which the bluff; covered with sage-brush, rose a hundred feet.

            The next day we forded Gardiner's River at its mouth, followed up the Yellowstone about two miles, and then, finding the cañon impassable, took a trail leading up the gulch to the right. In crossing the mountains, we attained the highest elevation we had yet reached. During the day an antelope was killed by one of the party. In the evening we camped on a clear mountain stream, not more than ten miles from our previous camp. The grass was abundant, and the location excellent. Two of the party, who went ahead, missed the camp, and were out overnight, although every endeavor was made to find them. They, however, got along well, by building a shelter of pine boughs, in front of which they made a large fire.

            By the brook-side we found a number of prospect-holes, and some blazed trees, showing that enterprising miners had preceded us. A gentleman got a pan of dirt from one of the holes, and succeeded in panning out two nuggets, evidently from different gulches, their combined value being about $8.

            The next day we traveled about six hours, nearly due east, over the mountains. After going sixteen miles, up hill and down, through gulches and woods, we camped on Warm Spring Creek, about a half-mile from its mouth, and at an elevation of 7,200 feet. Here we found our two lost friends, who had preceded us. The Yellowstone was several hundred feet beneath us; and but a short distance below our camp, one of the gentlemen had discovered some very picturesque falls, on Warm Spring Creek. At the foot of this creek we found a few warm springs, which probably caused early prospectors to so name the stream. The springs were small, and principally alum and sulphur, but they were interesting to us, as they were a new feature of the trip.

            On the Yellowstone, opposite the mouth of the creek, huge, basaltic cliffs and columns rose to a height of six hundred feet, looking like castles and massive fortifications. A short distance below our camp there was a fall in the creek of 112 feet. For a few hundred yards above the fall the stream had worn its way through a sandstone bluff, cutting quite a deep cañon. Immediately about the head of the falls the rocks were worn into curious and fantastic shapes, looking, in daylight, like spires or steeples, rising from thirty to sixty feet above the falls; but, in the moonlight, reminding one of the portal of an old castle, or a number of the fabled genii standing ready to hurl adventurous mortals into the gorge below, which was enveloped by the shadows of the night in impenetrable darkness.

            It was proposed to name these falls in honor of the discoverer, but it was decided to be in bad taste to name prominent objects after members of the expedition; besides, one of the party took an unaccountable interest in bestowing upon them the name of Tower Falls, which was finally adopted. His peculiar interest was afterward satisfactorily explained, as we learned he had a sweet-heart by that name, somewhere in the States. Another of the party was in favor of the name of Minaret (Minnie Rhett); but that was too apparent, and he was outvoted.

The following day the party struck across the country to the south, cutting off a large bend in the river, and then passed to the right of a high mountain, which some of the party ascended. It was found to be the highest peak in that section, a barometrical observation showing it to be 10,700 feet high. In honor of General Washburn, whom we had elected Captain of the expedition, we named it "Mount Washburn."

About four o'clock we camped by a small, clear, cold brook, flowing through a grassy upland opening, and, just below us, entering a thick, gloomy forest, which continued to the Yellowstone, about three miles distant. In exploring the creek toward the river, when about a mile from camp, we came suddenly to a small opening on a steep hill-side, where we found a number of hot springs. There were four quite prominent, besides a number of smaller ones. I can not describe them better than by quoting from a description given by Mr. Hedges to a local paper. He spent some time in giving them a thorough examination:

            "The westernmost spring had an oval-shaped basin, twenty by forty feet in diameter. Its greenish-yellow water was hot, and bubbles of steam or gas were constantly rising from various parts of its surface. This spring, with two others, was situated in about an east and west line, and at the upper side of the basin, which opened south, toward the creek. The central one of these three was the largest of all, and was in constant, violent agitation, like a seething caldron over a fiery furnace. The water was often thrown higher than our heads, and fearful volumes of stifling, sulphureous vapors were constantly escaping. The water was of a dark-lead color, and intensely hot. As near as I now recollect, the basin of this spring was about thirty feet in diameter. There was very little water flowing away from it, and very little deposit from its overflowings was visible. It had no such mound as many that we saw subsequently, nor was its margin of such solid material. The easternmost and uppermost spring was not as large in its crater as its near neighbors, but was more infernal to look at, and suggested the name that we attached to the springs. The substance was not as thick as mud, but rather beyond the consistency of soup, and was in constant, noisy ebullition, emitting fumes of villainous smell. The margin was not safe for close approach, but I ventured near enough to thrust a pine sapling into the substance of this infernal kettle, and on pulling it out found it covered about one-fourth of art inch thick with a lead-colored, sulphury slime. Nothing flows away in liquid form from this spring. It seems to be boiling down, and will doubtless become thick as pudding, like so many that we afterward saw.... So secluded is this cluster of springs, that it would be impossible to suppose it to have ever been seen before by any White Man; and it appeared to us the merest chance that directed our steps hither. How many similar basins are hidden away among the vast forests that cover this region we can best conceive, who have seen scores of them without turning much from our direct course."

            We reached the falls of the Yellowstone on the morning of August 30th. These falls, two in number, are less than half a mile apart. From the lake to the upper falls, a distance of about twenty miles, the river flows, with the exception of a short series of rapids having a moderate current, through an open, undulating country, gently sloping toward the stream. Here and there are small groves, and the timber is quite thick a mile away from the river. A quarter of a mile above the upper falls the river breaks into rapids, and foams in eddies about huge, granite bowlders, some of which have trees and shrubs growing upon them. Above the rapids the river is about 150 yards wide, but, as it approaches the falls, high, rocky bluffs crowd in on both sides, forcing the water into a narrow gorge, which, at the brink of the falls, is about thirty yards wide. The most convenient and desirable place from which to view the falls is from a ledge, easily reached, which juts into the river a considerable distance, just below the falls, and a few feet lower than their brink. It is so close that occasional drops dampen one's face. The height of the upper falls is 115 feet. The ledge is irregular, the water being much deeper on the west side than on the east. Great rocks project in the face of the fall, tearing and churning the waters into foam, with here and there a. little strip of green, which contrasts beautifully with the surrounding silvery whiteness of the water.

            Between the two falls the river flows quietly, in a wide channel, between steep, timbered bluffs, four hundred feet high. Just above the lower falls the bluffs again converge; the one from the west stretching out as if to dam up the river, which has, however, forced its way through a break, forty yards wide. The rocky cliffs rise perpendicularly from the brink of the falls, to a height of several hundred feet. The rocky formation is of a shelly character, and slightly colored with flowers of sulphur. The plunge of the water is in the direct course of the stream, and at the brink of the falls it appears to be of uniform depth. It clears its bed at a bound, and takes a fearful leap of 350 feet. The volume of water is about half as great as that which passes over the American Fall, at Niagara, and it falls more than twice the distance. The adjacent scenery is infinitely grander. Having passed over the precipice, the clear, unbroken, greenish mass is in an instant transformed by the jagged edges of the precipice into many streams, apparently separated, yet still united, and having the appearance of molten silver. These streams, or jets, are shaped like a comet, with nucleus and trailing coma, following in quick succession; or they look like foaming, crested tongues, constantly overlapping each other. The outer jets decrease in size as they descend, curl outward, and break into mist. In the sunlight, a rainbow constantly spans the chasm. The foot of the falls is enveloped in mist, which conceals the river for more than a hundred yards below.

            These falls are exactly the same in height as the Vernal Falls in the Yosemite Valley, but the volume of water is at least five times as great. I think I never saw a water-fall more beautiful than the Vernal, and its surroundings are sublime, Its Indian name is said to mean "Crown of Diamonds;” and it certainly deserves the name. I remember sitting on the rocky ledge just at the edge of the falls, and with an opera-glass watching the waters as they plunged downward, breaking into myriads of drops; each drop, like a lens, gathering prismatic tints from the shining sun, and flashing like diamonds of the purest brilliancy. The lower fall of the Yellowstone reminds me of the Vernal Fall, on the Merced. Though nothing, perhaps, can equal the sublime scenery of the Yosemite, yet that only excels the lower falls of the Yellowstone, and the grand cañon which extends for many miles below them.

            Below the falls the hills gradually increase in height, while the river descends in a succession of rapids through the cañon. At the falls the cañon is not more than twelve hundred feet deep, but a few miles lower down it is nearly eighteen hundred feet deep. Its average width at the top is about a third of a mile. The east wall is nearly vertical for its entire height, and presents an almost unbroken face. The west wall is much cut by re-entering angles, or steep, lateral ravines, leaving between them rocky, projecting points, or cliffs, from which can be obtained a magnificent view of the falls and cañon. These cliffs have perpendicular faces, varying from four to eight hundred feet in height, below which the cañon, composed mostly of the débris which have fallen from above, slopes steeply to the water's edge.

            The immense depth of this gorge almost overcomes the roar of the falls, and a short distance from the edge of the cañon the sound of the waters is unheard. The general color of the cañon is yellow, owing to the sulphureous fumes which rise from many steam-jets near the bottom; but in places the rock is of a reddish hue, while in others it is dazzlingly white. Days would be required to examine thoroughly and fully appreciate the vicinity of the falls, which, in many respects, are the most remarkable in America.

            Leaving the falls the first morning in autumn, we took the trail through the timber, in a south-west direction. We soon found ourselves in an open, rolling country, gradually sloping down to the river. About six miles from the falls, and a half-mile back from the river, we came to three white hills, of a volcanic nature, thrown up entirely by deposits from hot and boiling mineral springs, which were between and around them. The largest was forty feet by sixty. It was perfectly quiet, and looked like any other deep, muddy pond; its peculiarity being that, although it was easy for any one to handle it, he who attempted any such familiarity was sure to get scalded. The spring which attracted most attention was about seven feet by ten, and threw whitish, hot water from eight to ten feet above the rim of its basin. It also puffed like a steamboat, throwing off vast quantities of steam, and much resembled the Steamboat Geyser, in Sonoma County, California. Its rim was incrusted with sulphur, some specimens being quite pure.

            Within a space of half a mile square, at least seventy- five different springs and steam-jets occur. The mounds, or hills, at the bases of which are these springs, are nearly three hundred feet high. They are covered with small holes and fissures, from which issue hot air and steam. No vegetation of consequence grows on them, but a few clumps of trees are scattered between the springs at their base. Many of the craters contain a grayish, pasty-looking substance, about the consistency of mush nearly cooked. Other springs have waters of blue, pink, yellow, and brown tinges. One small, bubbling spring, of clear water, has an intensely sour, acrid taste.

            It is said that Indians do not go above the grand cañon on the Yellowstone. Whether this is true I know not, but I imagine that the unscientific savage finds little to interest him in such places. I should rather suppose he would give them a wide berth, believing them sacred to Satan. If a person should be cast into one of these springs, he would be literally immersed in a lake of burning brimstone.

            There being no good grass near Crater Hills, after stopping a few hours to examine them we moved to a point on the Yellowstone, about three miles above. Near this camp were several mineral springs, all hot, and many of them boiling. Most of them were ordinary, bubbling, spluttering mud-springs, but three of them were quite remarkable. Of these the first, or lowest down the river, is a cave-spring, with an opening of ten feet in width by six in height, in solid rock, with an almost perfect, oval arch. The water is clear as crystal, of boiling heat; and a vitriolic taste. As you look into the cave, it has the appearance of an opening to a subterranean lake. A small, hot stream flows from it. The water is continually washing its ten or twelve feet of shore, like an agitated lake. The bright pebbles in the bottom, the clean sand, and the smooth, white, flat stones left in regular ripples on its margin, together with the green, mossy sides of the cave, and the musical monotones of the rippling waters, almost lead one to think it the entrance to an enchanted land.

            A hundred yards above this spring, upon the side of a hill, was another, entirely different in character. It was really a small volcano, throwing mud instead of lava. Intermittent thumps, like the discharge of artillery, could be heard, at intervals of from fifteen to thirty seconds, for the distance of a mile. At every pulsation, thick, white clouds of steam came rolling out, and mud was thrown from the crater, gradually enlarging the mound which surrounded it. While we were watching this spring the mud was only thrown over the rim of the crater, but from the clay clinging to the branches of surrounding trees, especially on the upper side of the spring, it was evidently thrown, at times, to a height of two hundred feet. A circle, a hundred yards in diameter, was also well bespattered.

            Between the last-mentioned spring and the river is a boiling spring, a placid pond, a deep, dry funnel, or an active geyser, according to the time of one's visit. In the course of a day we saw it in all its protean shapes. When in its funnel form, one would not dream that, from the small opening in the bottom, twenty or thirty feet below, would come a power capable of filling with water the funnel, which at the top is thirty feet by forty, and then so agitating it that the water would be splashed to a height of from thirty to fifty feet. If one saw it when the waters were troubled, he would be scarcely less astonished to hear it give one convulsive throb, and then see it quietly settle clown in a single instant to the smooth surface of a placid pool. When the waters retired we went into the funnel, and found it rough, efflorescent, and composed of rock and hardened sulphur.

            Though very different in character from the geysers afterward seen on the head-waters of the Madison River, and far less grand, this one was very peculiar, and we saw nothing resembling it during the rest of the trip.

 continued at The Washburn Yellowstone Expedition, No.2