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continued from The Washburn Yellowstone Expedition, No.1

The Washburn Yellowstone Expedition


by Walter Trumball

Overland Monthly; May 1871, San Francisco

            AFTER remaining one day in the vicinity of the first geyser, we forded the Yellowstone just above our camp, and shaped our course for the lake. At the ford the river was quite wide, and a narrow bench of rock rose up from the bottom, stretching from bank to bank. On this bench the water was about three feet deep, but on either side of it was a foot or two deeper. In fording the stream, each man led a pack animal. All did very well while they kept upon the bench. Occasionally some one would get into deeper water, and become drenched, but he had the benefit of encouraging cheers from those who had crossed in safety, and who stood ready to welcome him upon the anticipated shore.

            From the ford to the lake—a distance of about ten miles—our course was generally through timber, much of which had been blown down by strong winds, rendering traveling exceedingly tedious and difficult. In open places near the river we were continually meeting with mud-springs, some of them of considerable magnitude. At one point in the river we discovered a short series of rapids, between high, rocky banks; the one on the east side rising to the proportion of a bluff. After fording a stream, about one-third the size of the Yellowstone, emptying into the lake, we camped on the edge of the timber, about a hundred yards from the lake-shore.

            Lake Yellowstone is a lonely, but lovely inland sea, everywhere surrounded by "forests primeval," and nestled in the bosom of the Rocky Mountains. Some trappers have insisted that its waters ran both to the Atlantic and the Pacific, but such is not the case. The summit of the main chain, however, approaches within half a mile of its south shore, and in places the divide is very little above the lake. Its shape resembles the broad hand of an honest German, who has had his forefinger and the two adjoining shot off at the second joint, while fighting for glory and Emperor William. The palm of the hand represents the main body, or north part, of the lake. The fingers and thumb, spread to their utmost extent — the thumb and little finger being much the longest—represent inlets indenting the south shore, and stretching inland, as if to wash away the Rocky Mountains. Between these inlets project high, rocky promontories, covered with dense timber. The largest stream flows into the lake at its upper end, or the extreme south-east corner. This stream is really the Yellowstone River, which, for a distance of thirty miles, has an average width of over fifteen miles. This enlargement constitutes the lake, which, after being augmented by several smaller streams, narrows down to the width of an eighth of a mile, and flows northward toward the great falls.

            The mood of the lake is ever changing; the character of its shore is ever varying. At one moment, it is placid and glassy as a calm summer's sea; at the next, "it breaks into dimples, and laughs in the sun." Half an hour later, beneath a stormy sky, its waters may be broken and lashed into an angry and dangerous sea, like the short, choppy waves which rise in storms on Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. Where we first saw it, it had a glittering beach of gray and rock-crystal sand, but as we continued around it, we found rocky and muddy shores, gravel beaches—on which several varieties of chalcedony were profusely scattered —and hot springs in abundance. Near the south-east end of the lake is the highest peak in the vicinity. It is steep and barren, and from the lake-shore appears to taper to a point. On the south side is a precipice, nearly a thousand feet high. Two of the party ascended it. It took them all of one day to make the trip and return. About two-thirds of the way up they were obliged to leave their horses, and continue the ascent on foot. The altitude of the mountain, as obtained by observations with the barometer and thermometer, was 11,163 feet. Much snow was found before reaching the summit. A fine view of the surrounding country, and a good idea of the shape of the lake, were obtained. Immense steam-jets were seen to the south; but as our time was becoming somewhat limited, we did not remain to visit them. Several barometrical calculations were made; and we determined the height of the lake to be 8,300 feet.

            On the south side of the lake we found dense timber, much of which was fallen. Through it were no trails, and traveling was exceedingly difficult. Many large trees had fallen, with their branches clear out into the lake, rendering it very hard to follow the lake-shore. We, however, kept the shore as much as possible, except when we cut across the bases of the promontories; though on one occasion we crossed a low divide in the main chain, and camped on the head-waters of Snake River, without finding it out for a day or two afterward. We thought the brook on which we were camped circled around, and ran into the lake.

            While straggling irregularly through the dense timber which covers the main chain, one of the party, Mr. Everts, became separated from the rest of us; but his disappearance was unnoticed until we reached a small strip of open country on the head- waters of Snake River. Leaving the party for a short time, either in pursuit of game or for the purpose of viewing the country, was not an unusual occurrence with members of the expedition; and consequently little was thought of Mr. Everts' absence. We, however, at once camped, and waited for him to catch up.

            One of the pack animals was missing; and the two packers, together with one of the party, went back on the trail to find him, hoping also to meet Mr. Everts, and to save him all trouble by guiding him into camp. The lost pack-horse was an extraordinary animal—a beautiful, golden stallion of vast proportions, some thought as much as thirteen hands high. Some people would have called him of buckskin color, but he was of that intensely brilliant hue which buckskin assumes when wet and in the shade. He was one of the animals which, in fording the Yellowstone, managed to flounder into deep water and saturate his pack; and whenever we waded through a slough, he was sure to be the horse that got stalled. In such cases he invariably waited until the packers, with their patience severely tried, went back and lifted him out by main force. On this particular occasion, he had proven himself the acrobat of the pack-train by turning a number of somersaults backward, down the hill, pack and all; and when found, was astride a log lengthwise, his feet just touching on either side, but either unable to extricate himself, or too proud and patient to make an effort to do so. He consequently very resignedly contemplated his position and surroundings. He was too proud and spirited to betray any emotion, though his situation was undoubtedly distasteful to his feelings. In war, he might have been a lion; in peace, he was certainly a lamb. He was just the kind of a horse that, in a race, would have driven every thing else before him. The pedigree of the beast has not been authentically preserved, but there is good reason to believe that his clam was Rosinante, while he was sired by Baalbec, the horse Mark Twain rode through the Holy Land. He was dubbed the "Yellowstone Wonder."

            Toward evening Mr. Everts' disappearance excited grave apprehensions. It would have been extremely difficult for any one to have followed our trail through the dense forests and over the fallen timber. Besides, Mr. Everts was quite near-sighted. Every endeavor was made to attract his attention, by firing guns and building fires on prominent points near the camp. Failing to find him, we changed our camp to the lake-shore, and remained for more than a week in the immediate vicinity, searching vigilantly for him. We expected to find him somewhere on the south-west shore of the lake, as at the time he was lost it was generally understood we would that evening camp on the southwestern arm of the lake.

            On the afternoon of September 13th, when Mr. Everts had been missing four days, there were slight indications of snow, which indications continued for two days, by which time it was two feet deep. The weather was not very cold, and by means of the tent we got along quite comfortably; but we feared that the storm would prove fatal to our poor, lost friend. Conjectures as to his probable fate were numberless, but futile. Our chief hope lay in the fact of his being well mounted, and the hope that, failing to find us on the second day, he had started for the settlements; in which case he might possibly be beyond the region of the snow-storm. When lost he was without provisions, but had with him a needle-gun. We continued our efforts until nearly out of provisions; and then, leaving three persons to still look for him, the rest of us turned toward the settlements.

            Immediately on our arrival, two old mountaineers were furnished with six weeks' provisions, and offered a large reward if they succeeded in finding him, or should bring back his body. They found him, quite exhausted, and nearly famished, about sixty miles from Bozeman. He was trying to follow back on the route by which we ascended the Yellowstone. It seems that his horse got away from him the day after he left us. His gun was made fast to the saddle, and his revolver was in his cantinas; so that he had no means of providing himself with food. During the snow-storm he got along by building a shelter of pine boughs over a warm spring. For forty days he lived on roots, and two minnows, which he caught in his hat. He tried to eat grasshoppers, but he found their jumping propensities were not confined to a living state; for he had no sooner swallowed one than it cleared his throat with a bound. It was weeks after his rescue before he fully recovered his strength. His escape from a terrible death was almost marvelous.

            Our last camp on the lake was near the extremity of the south-west arm. Close by us was a collection of warm springs—the largest, most numerous, varied, and peculiar which we had then discovered. Several were from fifty to eighty feet in length, by from twenty to fifty in width. The water was generally clear, and of great depth. All were hot, but of different temperatures. Around the larger ones the ground was marshy, and largely composed of a reddish earth, which looked like wet brick-dust. A number of hot streams flowed from these springs into the lake. The lake-shore was covered with a subsilica, broken into small pieces, and washed smooth by the action of the waves. Many of these pieces were pure and white as alabaster. Many of the smaller springs were mud-springs, boiling and spluttering incessantly. These were generally a few feet below the surface, and encased in clay banks. They emitted a strong, sulphurous smell, which rendered a close examination rather disagreeable. Several springs were in the solid rock, within a few feet of the lake-shore. Some of them extended far out underneath the lake; with which, however, they had no connection. The lake water was quite cold, and that of these springs exceedingly hot. They were remarkably clear, and the eye could penetrate a hundred feet into their depths, which to the human vision appeared bottomless. A gentleman was fishing from one of the narrow isthmuses, or shelves of rock, which divided one of these hot springs from the lake, when, in swinging a trout ashore, it accidentally got off the hook and fell into the spring. For a moment it darted about with wonderful rapidity, as if seeking an outlet. Then it came to the top, dead, and literally boiled. It died within a minute of the time it fell into the spring.

            On the 17th of September, the party left Lake Yellowstone for home, by way of the Madison River. Our immediate objective point was a small lake, in which the Fire Hole River, the main branch of the Madison, has its source. This was supposed to be about twelve miles west of us. In crossing the divide we found that the snow-storm had been general; about two feet of snow still remaining. We failed to find the lake, but finally camped in the snow, on a small stream running to the south, probably into the lake. The mountains were everywhere thickly timbered. Nearly all the trees had great lumps, like hornets'-nests, upon their trunks. They were generally large, but scraggy and irregular, and wholly unlike the tall, straight pines of the Sierras. It is said that nothing was created in vain; but it was a long time before I could conceive the utility of a forest so vast in a locality so remote and inaccessible. It was suggested to me by a comrade that the trees protected the snow, preventing it from all melting at once during the first warm days of spring, and thereby producing a freshet destructive of every thing in its wake. I can think of no other reason for their creation.

            The following day we traveled northwest, and soon reached the Fire Hole River. After passing by a fine cascade —which we stopped but a short time to examine—we forded the river, and camped about noon in the midst of the most wonderful geysers yet discovered in any country. The basin in which they were situated was over two miles long, and about a mile wide. It was nearly destitute of vegetation, but there were a few clumps of trees scattered through it, and in one place we found grass enough for our horses. The basin was chiefly on the west side of the river, but there was a narrow strip, with an average width of three hundred yards, on the east side, which was literally alive with geysers and steam-jets. We remained two days in this wonderful basin. The most prominent geysers which we saw in operation we named as follows : "Old Faithful," which was farthest up the river on the western bank; "The Castle," which was a third of a mile below "Old Faithful; " "The Giant," which was a half- mile below "The Castle; " "The Grotto," a short distance below "The Giant;" then crossing the river, lowest down was the "Fantail," and much higher up, nearly opposite "Old Faithful," were "The Giantess" and "Beehive."

            All around the geysers the ground was covered with incrustations and subsilica; and immediately about the vent of most of them the incrustations rose several feet above the surrounding level, assuming grotesque and fanciful shapes.

            "Old Faithful" was the first geyser we saw throwing up a column of water. It was named on account of its almost constant action. It did not intermit for more than an hour at any time during our stay. It had a vent five feet by three, and projected a solid column of water to a height of eighty or ninety feet. All around it were found pebbles and small stones, which, when broken open, proved to be simply pieces of wood, thoroughly incrusted, and perfectly hard and smooth on the outside, having the appearance of an ordinary stone.

            About the crater of "The Castle" was the largest cone, or mass of incrustations, in the basin. For a hundred yards around, the ground, flooded with subsilica, of glittering whiteness, sloped gradually up to the cone, which itself rose thirty feet, nearly perpendicular. It was quite rugged and efflorescent, and on its outer sides had a number of benches, sufficiently wide for a man to stand upon. These enabled us to climb up and look into its crater, which was irregular in shape, and about seven feet, the longest way, by five feet, the shortest. The outside of the mound was nearly round, and not less than thirty feet through at its base. We called it "The Castle," on account of its size and commanding appearance. It was in action a short time on the morning after our arrival, but only threw water about thirty feet high. The water did not retain the shape of a column, like that thrown out by "Old Faithful," but rather splashed up and slopped over. This geyser did not appear to be doing its best, but only spouted a little in a patronizing way, thinking to surprise us novices sufficiently without any undue exertion on its part.

            The mound around "The Giant" was about twelve feet high, and had a piece knocked out of one side of it, so that we could look into the crater, which was shaped like a hollow cylinder, and six feet in diameter. "The Giant" discharged a column of water, of the same size as its crater, to a height of a hundred feet. It played as if through an immense hose. We thought it deserved to be called "The Giant," as it threw out more water than any other geyser which we saw in operation. Its cone was also large, and the water was very hot; as, in fact, was the case with the water of all the geysers. The day of our arrival, it was in nearly constant action for about three hours, after which we did not see it again discharge.

            "The Grotto" has two craters, connected on the surface by the incrustations which surround them. We did not ascertain whether there was any subterranean connection between them. We did not observe both craters discharge at the same time, but one began when the other ceased. Neither was in action for more than an hour. A solid stream was thrown up more than sixty feet; that from the larger crater being about five feet in diameter, and that from the smaller one not more than three feet. The larger mound of incrustations was .about ten feet high, and twenty feet through at the base. There were several holes in it large enough for a man to crawl through, which some of the party did, when the geyser was not in action. The smaller mound was not more than five feet high, and shaped like a hay-cock, with a portion of the top knocked off. The two mounds were about twenty feet apart, and connected by a ridge, or neck of incrustations, two feet high. "The Grotto" was about a hundred yards from the river. A quarter of a mile farther back, and just at the edge of the timber, we found a mound in the true shape of a cone. At the vertex was a small opening, not more than a foot in diameter. This geyser did not appear to have discharged for some time. The ground was quite dry all around, and a number of incrusted pine twigs, leaves, and cones were found, which retained their shape perfectly, but were hard, smooth, and white as alabaster. At that point, much ballast was obtained for the pack animals.

            Crossing the river, we named the "Fantail" geyser from the fact that it discharged two streams from its vent which spread out very much like a fan.

            One of the most remarkable geysers was "The Giantess." For yards around, the ground rose gradually to its crater, but immediately about it was no formation rising above the surface, as was the case with all the other geysers which we saw in active operation. When quiet, it was a clear, beautiful pool, caught in a subsilica urn, or vase, with a hollow, bottomless stem, through which the steam came bubbling, just like the effervescence of champagne from the bottom of a long, hollow-necked glass. The mouth of the vase, represented by the surface, was twenty feet by thirty; and the neck, fifty feet below, was fifteen feet by ten. The water, at times, retired to the level of the neck, or vent, and at other times rose nearly to the surface. When in action, "The Giantess" became a fountain with five jets, shooting the spray to a height of two hundred feet. At the surface the largest jet was about two feet in diameter, and it kept in solid column for more than a hundred and fifty feet before breaking into drops and spray. It burst forth just before sunset, and the last rays of light gave prismatic tints to the glistening drops, when, having reached their utmost altitude, they trembled at their coming fall. The clouds of steam, which in this, as in all other instances, accompanied the boiling water, became a golden fleece lit up by wreaths of rainbows. Though inferior to "The Giant" in immensity of volume, and perhaps in grandeur, "The Giantess" was by far the most beautiful sight we saw in the geyser basin.

            "The Beehive" — named from the shape of its mound —was quite small, but threw its water higher than any other geyser which we saw. The stream was less than two feet in diameter, and ascended two hundred and twenty feet, from accurate measurement by triangulation. It remained in action only a few moments.

            We saw many other geysers in action, but those I have particularly described were the most notable. They were all intermittent, few of them continuing in action more than half an hour at a time. There were also many mounds from which the water was evidently discharged at times, but they were quiet during our stay. We were probably very fortunate

in the time of our visit, for those we left behind to search for Mr. Everts came by these geysers several days later, and saw but two in operation: "The Fantail," and a smaller one near it. They were, however, short of provisions, and remained in the vicinity of the geysers but a few hours.

            Steam-jets and clear, deep pools occurred in great numbers, all over the geyser basin. The latter were very beautiful. Four or five miles below the geyser basin, on the west side of the Fire Hole, were four hot lakes. They were similar to the clear, pale-violet pools which we saw above, and at the point where we left the lake, but were very much larger. Three of the party paced around the largest one, making the circumference four hundred and fifty paces. It looked very deep. The sides, of the whitest subsilica, converged at an angle of about forty-five degrees. It was full to the brim, and a track, about twenty feet wide all around it, was covered with two inches of water, which was so hot that it almost scalded our feet, through heavy boots. Before our pacers got all the way round, they stepped not only very high, but in quite a lively, animated style. Beyond the track of water which circled the lake, the ground, covered with subsilica, sloped away gradually on all sides. Immense volumes of steam rose from all these lakes, and first attracted our attention to them. So much hot water flowed from them that the Fire Hole was tempered for several miles below. We found no fish anywhere in the Fire Hole, though after its junction with the Madison they were quite plentiful.

Leaving the hot lakes, we continued homeward. On the way we passed through two beautiful cantons; one on the Fire Hole, and one on the Madison. The cañon on the Fire Hole is grand and beautiful. Its sides are granite, nearly perpendicular, and from eight hundred to a thousand feet high. It is cut on both sides by small, lateral ravines, which are filled with evergreens; and on both sides of the river is a narrow bottom, also covered with trees and verdure. The canon on the Yellowstone is grand and gloomy. This one is beautiful and cheerful. The first was seen from above, the last from below. The former inspires one with awe, the latter with delight.

            The Madison Cañon may be less grand, but scarcely less beautiful. Its walls are not so high, and generally not quite so precipitous. It is filled with fine timber, affords splendid and picturesque camping-places, and is watered not only by the Madison River, but by pleasant, clear, rippling brooks, which flow through ravines entering the sides of the cañon.

            On the 22d of September, just one month after leaving Fort Ellis, the party reached Farley's, the frontier rancho on the Madison River. It was a little strange to feel that we were again within the pale of civilization. During our month's absence, we had seen so much that was new and strange that it seemed more like a year. Every one felt funny; and we looked at each other and laughed in a silly way, as one small boy does, when, on entering church or any other place where he ought to keep quiet, he catches the eye of another small-boy acquaintance. There was a pleasure in getting home; and all felt curious to hear the news. Papers, old and new, were alike seized, and devoured with wonderful avidity. One gentleman even got hold of a Norwegian paper, but it was too much for his brain.

            As an agricultural country, I was not favorably impressed with the great Yellowstone basin, but its brimstone resources are ample for all the matchmakers of the world. A snow-storm in September, two feet deep, is hardly conducive to any kind of agricultural enterprise or stock-raising; still, I think sheep would do well in that country, if some shelter were erected for them in winter. When, however, by means of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the falls of the Yellowstone and the geyser basin are rendered easy of access, probably no portion of America will be more popular as a watering-place or summer resort than that which we had the pleasure of viewing, in all the glory and grandeur of its primeval solitude.