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Continued from The Wonders of the Yellowstone - First Article

The Wonders of the Yellowstone

Second Article

by Nathaniel P. Langford

Scribner's Monthly - An Illustrated magazine for the People; May 1871; Conducted by J.G. Holland; Scribner & Co.; New York

            THE writer, in company with General Washburn, rode back three miles the next morning to resurvey Crater Hill and the springs in its vicinity. The large sulphur spring was overflowing, and boiling with greater fury than on the previous visit, the water occasionally leaping ten feet high. On our return we followed the trail of the train, fording the river a short distance above the camp. Here we found the first evidence, since leaving Boteler's, that the country had been long ago visited by trappers and hunters. It was a bank of earth two feet high, presenting an angle to the river ingeniously concealed by interwoven willows, thus forming a rifle-pit from which the occupant, without discovery, could bring down geese, ducks, swans, pelicans, and the numerous furred animals with which the river abounds. Near by we stopped a moment to examine another spring of boiling mud, and then pursued our route over hills covered with artemisia (sage brush), through ravines and small meadows, into a dense forest of pines filled with prostrate trunks which had piled upon each other for years to the height of many feet. Our passage of two miles through this forest to the bank of the lake, unmarked by any trail, was accomplished with great difficulty, but the view which greeted us at its close was amply compensatory. There lay the silvery bosom of the lake, reflecting the beams of the setting sun, and stretching away for miles, until lost in the dark foliage of the interminable wilderness of pines surrounding it. Secluded amid the loftiest peaks of the Rocky Mountains, 8,337 feet above the level of the ocean, possessing strange peculiarities of form and beauty, this watery solitude is one of the most attractive natural objects in the world. Its southern shore, indented with long narrow inlets, not unlike the frequent fiords of Iceland, bears testimony to the awful upheaval and tremendous force of the elements which resulted in its creation. The long pine-crowned promontories, stretching into it front the base of the hills, lend new and charming features to an aquatic scene full of novelty and splendor. Islands of emerald hue dot its surface, and a margin of sparkling sand forms its jeweled setting. The winds, compressed in their passage through the mountain gorges, lash it into a sea as terrible as the fretted ocean, covering it with foam. But now it lay before us calm and unruffled, save by the gentle wavelets which broke in murmurs along the shore. Water, one of the grandest elements of scenery, never seemed so beautiful before. It formed a fitting climax to all the wonders we had seen, and we gazed upon it for hours, entranced with its increasing attractions.

            This lake is about twenty-five miles long and seventy-five or eighty in circumference. Doubtless it was once the mighty crater of an immense volcano. It is filled with trout, some of gigantic size and peculiar delicacy. Waterfowl, in great variety, dot in flocks its mirrored surface. The forests surrounding it are filled with deer, elk, mountain sheep, and lesser game; and in the mountain fastnesses the terrible grizzly and formidable amiss make their lairs.

            In form, it was by one of our party not inaptly compared to a "human hand with the fingers extended and spread apart as much as possible. The main portion of the lake is the northern, which would represent the palm of the hand. There is a large southwest bay, nearly cut off, that would represent the thumb, while there are about the same number of narrow southern inlets as there are fingers on the hand." Enclosing this watery palm, is a dense forest of pines, until now untraversed by man. It was filled with trunks of trees in various stages of decay, which had been prostrated by the mountain blasts, rendering it almost impassable; but as the beach of the lake was in many places impracticable, there was no alternative but to recede altogether or work our way through it.

            Our course for the first six miles lay along the beach, passing a number of hot sulphur springs and lukewarm ponds. Three steam jets, from incrusted apertures, discharged with a hissing noise resembling the sound of steam escaping from an engine. The water of the lake was thoroughly impregnated with sulphur, and the edges, at a distance of twenty to fifty feet from the beach, bubbled with springs, which, like those on the bank, discharged through pipes of silicious sinter. These pipes, though completely submerged, were intensely hot, while the water of the lake was too cold for a pleasant bath.

            At one point along the shore are scattered curiously wrought objects of slate, varying in size from a gold dollar to a locomotive. We gathered specimens of cups which had been hollowed out by the elements—discs, long pestles, resemblances to legs and feet, and many other objects which nature in her most capricious mood had scattered over this watery solitude. So strikingly similar were many of these configurations to works of art, that a fanciful old trapper who had seen them told us that we would find on the borders of the lake the drinking-cups, stone war-clubs, and remains of the idols of an extinct race which had once dwelt there. These were doubtless the joint production of fire and water,—the former roughly fashioning, and the latter beautifully polishing and depositing them where they could be easily obtained. We gave to this locality the name of "Curiosity Point," and added to our collection a number of specimens from its ample store.

            Ascending the plateau from the beach, we became at once involved in all the intricacies  of a primeval wilderness of pines. Difficulties increased with our progress through it, severely trying the amiability of every member of the company. Our packhorses would frequently get wedged between the trees or caught in the traps of a net-work of fallen trunks from which labor, patience, and ingenuity were severely taxed to extricate them. The ludicrous sometimes came to our relief, proving that there was nothing so effectual in allaying excitement as hearty laughter. We had a remarkable pony in our pack-train, which, from the moment we entered the forest, by his numerous acrobatic performances and mishaps, furnished amusement for the company. One part of the process of travel through this forest could only be accomplished by leaping over the fallen trunks, an exploit which, with all the spirit needful for the purpose, our little broncho lacked the power always to perform. As a consequence, he was frequently found with the feat half accomplished, resting upon the midriff, his fore and hind feet suspended over the opposite sides of some huge log. His ambition to excel was only equaled by the patience he exhibited in difficulty. On one occasion, while clambering a steep rocky ascent, his head overtopping his haunches, he literally performed three of the most wonderful backward headsprings ever recorded in equine history. A continued experience of this kind, after three weeks' toilsome travel, found him as sound as on the clay of its commencement, and we dubbed him the "Little Invulnerable."

            After fifteen miles of unvarying toil we emerged front the forest to the pebbly beach of the lake. Here we found carnelians, agates, and chalcedony in abundance. The lake was rolling tumultuously, its crested waves rising at least four feet high. The scene was very beautiful and exhilarating.

            Our route the next day was divided between the beach of the lake and the forest, and so much impeded by fallen timber that we traveled but ten miles. Part of this distance was along the base of a brimstone basin which stretched from the lake to a semicircular range of mountains. In company with Lieutenant Doane the writer ascended this range, traversing its slopes a distance of three or four miles, and found it covered half way to the summit with a mixture of carbonate of lime and flowers of sulphur. Exhalations, issuing from all parts of the surface, impregnated the atmosphere with strong sulphurous odors. Small rivulets of warm water, holding sulphur in solution, coursed their way down the mountain, uniting at its foot in a considerable stream. The surface over which we rode was strongly incrusted, and sounded hollow beneath the tread of our horses. It was filled with vents and fissures, surrounded with sulphur deposits nearly washed away. This mountain exhibited the same general phenomena as Crater Hill, though not in an equal state of activity.

            Our course during the two following days was nearly southeast, on a line parallel with the Wind River Mountains—that remarkable range which forms so conspicuous a feature in Mr. Irving's Astoria and Bonneville's Adventures. The faint outline of their distant peaks had been visible on the northeastern horizon for several days. On our right, seventy-five miles distant, were the towering summits of the three Tetons, the great landmarks of the Snake River valley. The close of the day, on Sept. 6th, found us near the southeastern arm of the lake, into which a large river flows. The ground was low and marshy, and being unable to find a fording-place, we were compelled to make our camp at the base of a range of bluffs half a mile away. During the night we were startled by the shrill and almost human scream of an amiss or mountain lion, which sounded uncomfortably near. This terrible animal is much larger than the panther of the eastern forests, but greatly resembles it in shape, color, and ferocity. It is the terror of mountaineers, and furnishes them with the staple for many tales full of daring exploits.

            Early the next morning our commander and several others left camp in search of a ford, while the writer and Lieutenant Doane started in the direction of a lofty mountain, from the summit of which we expected to obtain a satisfactory observation of the southern shore of the lake. At the expiration of two hours we reached a point in the ascent too precipitous for further equestrian travel. Dismounting, we led our horses for an hour longer up the steep side of the mountain, pausing every few moments to take breath, until we arrived at the line of perpetual snow. Here we unsaddled and hitched our horses, and climbed the apex to its summit, passing over a mass of congealed snow more than thirty feet in thickness. The ascent occupied four hours. We were more than 600 feet above the snow line, and by barometric calculation 11,350 feet above the ocean level.

            The grandeur and vast extent of the view from this elevation beggar description. The lake and valley surrounding it lay seemingly at our feet within jumping distance. Beyond them we saw with great distinctness the jets of the mud volcano and geyser. But beyond all these, stretching away into a horizon of cloud-defined mountains, was the entire Wind River range, revealing in the sunlight the dark recesses, gloomy cañons, stupendous precipices, and glancing pinnacles, which everywhere dotted its jagged slopes. Lofty peaks shot up in gigantic spires from the main body of the range, glittering in the sunbeams like solid crystal. The mountain on which we stood was the most westerly peak of a range which, in long-extended volume, swept to the southeastern horizon, exhibiting a continuous elevation more than thirty miles in width ; its central line broken into countless points, knobs, glens, and defiles, all on the most colossal scale of grandeur and magnificence. Outside of these, on either border, along the entire range, lofty peaks rose at intervals, seemingly vying with each other in the varied splendors they presented to the beholder. The scene was full of majesty. The valley at the base of this range was dotted with small lakes and cloven centrally by the river, which, in the far distance, we could see emerging from a cañon of immense dimensions, within the shade of which two enormous jets of steam shot to an incredible height into the atmosphere.

            This range of mountains has a marvelous history. As it is the loftiest, so it is the most remarkable lateral ridge of the Rocky Range. The Indians regard it as the "crest of the world," and among the Blackfeet there is a fable that lie who attains its summit catches a view of the land of souls, and beholds the happy hunting-grounds spread out below him, brightening with the abodes of the free and generous spirits.

            In the expedition sent across the continent by Mr. Astor, in 1811, under command of Captain Wilson P. Hunt, that gentleman met with the first serious obstacle to his progress at the base of this range. After numerous efforts to scale it, he turned away and followed the valley of the Snake, encountering the most discouraging disasters until he arrived at Astoria.

            Later, in 1833, the indomitable Captain Bonneville was lost in this mountain labyrinth, and, after devising various modes of escape, finally determined to ascend the range. Selecting one of the highest peaks, in company with one of his men, Mr. Irving says: “After much toil he reached the summit of a lofty cliff, but it was only to behold gigantic peaks rising all around, and towering far into the snowy regions of the atmosphere. He soon found that he had undertaken a tremendous task; but the pride of man is never more obstinate than when climbing mountains. The ascent was so steep and rugged that he and his companions were frequently obliged to clamber on hands and knees, with their guns slung upon their backs. Frequently, exhausted with fatigue and dripping with perspiration, they threw themselves upon the snow, and took handfuls of it to allay their parching thirst. At one place they even stripped off their coats and hung them upon the bushes, and thus lightly clad proceeded to scramble over these eternal snows. As they ascended still higher, there were cool breezes that refreshed and braced them, and springing with new ardor to their task, they at length attained the summit."

            As late as 1860, Captain Raynolds, the commander of the expedition sent by Government to explore the Yellowstone, from his camp at the base of this formidable range writes "To our front and upon the right, the mountains towered above us to the height of from 3,000 to 5,000 feet in the shape of bold, craggy peaks of basaltic formation, their summits crowned with glistening snow. It was my original desire to go from the head of Wind River to the head of the Yellowstone, keeping on the Atlantic slope, thence down the Yellowstone, passing the lake, and across by the Gallatin to the Three Forks of the Missouri. Bridger said at the outset that this would be impossible, and that it would be necessary to pass over to the head-waters of the Columbia, and back again to the Yellowstone. I had not previously believed that crossing the main crest twice would be more easily accomplished than the transit over what was in effect only a spur, but the view from our present camp (head of Wind River) settled the question adversely to my opinion at once. Directly across our route lies a basaltic ridge, rising not less than 5,000 feet above us, its walls apparently vertical, with no visible pass or even cañon. On the opposite side of this are the head-waters of the Yellowstone."

            We were an hour and a half making the descent of the mountain. At its base we struck the trail of our pack-train, which we followed to a point where the direction it had taken would have been lost, but for the foresight of one of our companions, who had formed a tripod of poles, one of which, longer than the others, pointed to the right. Obeying this Indian indication, we descended the bank and crossed the bottom to the river, fording which we followed the trail through a beautiful pine forest, free from undergrowth and other obstructions, the distance of a mile. Here night overtook us, and mistaking for the trail a dark serpentine line, we soon found ourselves clambering up the side of a steep mountain. The conviction that we were following a band of Indians, and possibly were near their lodges, suggested no pleasant reflections. Alighting from our horses, we built a fire upon the track, and, carefully examining it, could not find the impression of a single horseshoe. Further investigation revealed the fact that we had been for sonic time pursuing the path worn by a gang of elk that had crossed the trail of the pack-train since the twilight set in.

            A night on the mountain, without supper or blankets, was not to be endured. We retraced our route to the base of the mountain, and struck out boldly in the darkness for the beach of the lake, where we supposed our party had camped. Our ride through fallen timber and morass until we reached the shore was performed more skillfully than if we had seen the obstacles which lay in our path. We reached the lake in safety, and after a ride of two miles on the smooth beach rounded a point from which we saw the welcome watch-fire of our company. A loud halloo was responded to by a dozen sympathetic voices, showing that our anxiety had been shared by our companions. Our camp was on the eastern inlet of the south shore of the lake, distant but four miles from the camp of the preceding night.

            Thirteen miles of toilsome travel, zigzagged into only seven of progress, found us encamped, at the close of the next day, two miles from the mouth of a small stream flowing into the lake. Our party was separated nearly all day, searching for routes. Two members, after suffering all the early sensations incident to a conviction of being lost in the wilderness, came into camp at a late hour, full of glee at their good fortune. At one of their halts, after they had dismounted to reconnoiter, a huge grizzly jumped at one of them from the bushes, frightening his horse so that he broke his bridle and ran away. They caught him with difficulty. Our commander and Mr. Hauser, in company, while seeking a route for future travel, came suddenly upon a female grizzly and two cubs, about half a mile from camp. On their return, six of the party started in pursuit, but Madame Bruin, meanwhile, had made good her retreat.

            Our journey of five miles, the next day, was accomplished with great difficulty and annoyance. Almost the entire distance was through a forest piled full of fallen trunks. Traveling was but another name for scrambling ; and as man is at times the least amiable of animals, our tempers frequently displayed alarming activity, not only towards the patient creatures laden with our stores, but towards each other. Once, while involved in the reticulated meshes of a vast net of branches and tree-tops, each man, with varied expletive emphasis, clamorously insisting upon a particular mode of extrication, a member of the party, who was always jolly, restored us to instant good-humor by repeating, in theatrical tone and manner, those beautiful lines from Childe Harold:–

                        "There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
                        There is a rapture on the lonely shore."

Our “Little Invulnerable," too, was the unconscious cause of many bursts of laughter, which, like the appreciative plaudits of an audience, came in at the right time. We were glad, however, at an early hour in the afternoon, to pitch our tent on one of the small tributaries of Snake River—three miles distant from the lake. In the search made by every member of the party for routes, our company was unavoidably much scattered. Our first care being for the pack-train, when it came up we missed therefrom the little animal whose frequent mishaps had been to us all a source of so much amusement. An instant search was instituted, and at a late hour we found him three miles from camp. He saluted us with a low neigh, and with hurried pace soon rejoined his companions. One of our comrades (the Hon. Truman C. Everts, late U. S. Assessor of Montana) had failed to come up with the rest of the company; but as this was a common circumstance, we gave it little heed until the lateness of the hour convinced us he had lost his way. We increased our fire and fired our guns, as signals; but all to no purpose. It had been a sort of tacit agreement among us only the night before, that should any one get parted from the company, he would at once go to the south-west arm of the lake (that being our objective point) and await there the arrival of the train. The belief that we should find our companion there, hastened us into the commission of an error, which was designed by all as a measure of speedy relief. If we had not continued our journey with all possible expedition towards the point indicated, Mr. Everts would probably have rejoined us within three or four days, as he has informed us since that he visited our camp, but the falling foliage of the pines had entirely obliterated our departing trail.

            The narrative of this gentleman, of thirty-seven days spent in this terrible wilderness, will furnish a chapter in the history of human endurance, exposure, and escape as incredible as it must be painfully instructive and entertaining.

            Seven miles of struggling took us through the timber to another inlet, five miles farther on our way. No sign of our missing comrade. We built a large fire on a commanding ridge, and ascended a mountain overlooking the north and west shores of the lake, where we kindled another fire, which could be seen at a great distance. Eight hundred feet above Yellowstone Lake, nestled in a dark mountain glen, we found two small lakes, completely environed with frightful masses of basalt and brown lava, seemingly thrown up and scattered by some terrible convulsion. Two of our company took the backward trail at night, searching for Mr. Everts and our anxieties were greatly increased lest they too should meet with some disaster.

            We rose early the next morning, after passing a sleepless night. While at breakfast, our two companions came in. They had followed the beach to a point east of our camp of two days before, and found no trace of Mr. Everts. More than ever assured that we should find hint at the west arm of the lake, we struck out for that point,—three of our party, Mr. Hauser, Lieut. Doane, and myself, in advance, to explore a route for the train and make all possible search by the way. We posted notices on the trees to indicate the route we had taken, and made caches of provisions at several points. Late in the afternoon, at the close of a fatiguing day's travel, mostly through forest, we arrived at our objective point, and were greatly distressed to find there no trace of our lost friend. While gathered around our camp-fire in the evening, devising a plan for more systematic search, our ears were saluted with a screech so terribly human, that, for a moment supposing it to be our missing comrade, we hallooed in response, and would have started to his relief but that a minatory growl warned us of the near approach of a mountain lion.

            Three parties, of two each, struck out the next morning in different directions, in pursuit of our companion. One followed the lake shore; one the back trail through the forest; and the third, southerly from the lake to a large brown mountain. The party following the lake shore returned to camp early in the afternoon, with the report that they had seen Indians. The story of their adventures, written by one of them, runs thus: "He and his companion having penetrated several miles through the inhospitable wilds of that region, dismounted and unsaddled their horses. Mr. T. commenced to fish, and prepare them a little dinner, while Mr. S. went ahead with his gun, to continue the search on foot. The former had just caught four fishes, and kindled a fire, when the latter returned in some haste, but perfectly cool and self-possessed, and stated that there were six Indians on a point jutting out into the lake, about a mile distant. They concluded that neither had a mouth for fish, which they left sweltering in the noon-day sun, and, saddling their horses, they advanced towards the foe. Mr. S. saw them distinctly; but Mr. T. could not, probably because he was somewhat nearsighted. Finally, the former gentleman saw them flitting, phantom-like, among the rocks and trees, at which juncture the party retired to camp in platoons, and in good order, at the rate of a mile in every three minutes." This tribe of Indians, being one of the curiosities of the expedition, and hitherto unknown, was named after the person who discovered it.

            Both of the other parties returned, after a fruitless search. In their trip to the brown mountain, the two who went south crossed the main range of the Rocky Mountains through a very low pass, which on the western side terminated in a brimstone basin containing forty or fifty sulphur and mud springs, and a large number of craters, from which issued jets of vapor. This slope of the mountain was covered with a hollow incrustation through which the water from the springs, percolating in different channels, had spread out over the little patches of soil with which they came in contact, covering them with bright green verdure. In crossing one of these the horse of one of the party broke through to his haunches, and being extricated, he plunged more deeply into another trap, throwing headlong his rider, whose arm as he fell seas thrust violently through the treacherous surface into the scalding morass, from complete submersion in which both man and beast were with great difficulty saved.

            At the base of the brown mountain the party saw a lake of considerable size, which they believed to be the head-waters of Snake River—the Lewis fork of the Columbia. They could not approach it nearer than a mile, on account of the treacherous character of the soil.

            The other party were absent two days. They had visited all the camps of the six preceding days, following the trail between them, mostly obliterated by the falling foliage of the pines, with great difficulty, but without discovering the slightest indication that Mr. Everts had come upon it. On full consultation we came to the conclusion that he had either been shot front his horse by an Indian, or had returned down the Yellowstone, or struck out upon some of the head-waters of Snake River, with the intention of following it to the settlements. It was agreed that see should pursue the search three clays longer from this point before renewing our journey.  Snow began to fall early in the evening. Through the hazy atmosphere we beheld, on the shore of the inlet opposite our camp, the steam ascending in jets from more than fifty craters, giving it much the appearance of a New England factory village.

            Snow continued to fall all night and the next day, and we made our camp as comfortable as possible. At night the snow was more than two feet deep. It turned to rain the following morning. Showers, alternated with sunshine through the day, removed the snow rapidly. We were now so completely environed by forest, and so far away from any recognized trail, that all our fear of molestation by Indians, or of danger from any other cause, was thoroughly dissipated. With true Falstaffian philosophy we felt that we could take our ease in our inn, and the figure one of us presented has been graphically delineated by our artist upon the spot.

            We made a circuit round the head of the inlet to the springs we had seen, the next day. They were widely different from any we had visited before. In all they numbered 150, and were scattered along the lake shore about a mile, at a distance of 100 yards from the beach. Those farthest inland resembled boiling mud of various degrees of consistency, some not thicker than paint, others so dense that as they boiled over, the contents piled into heaps, which gradually spread over the ground, forming an extensive vitrified surface. This sediment varies in color—that flowing from some of the apertures being white as chalk, that from others of a delicate lavender hue, and front others, of a brilliant pink color. The following are the results of analyses of the various specimens which we gathered, by Professor Augustus Steitz., of Montana:—

  White sediment. Lavender sediment Pink sediment  


42.2 Silica 28.2 Silica 32.6  
  Magnesia 33.4 Alumina 58.6 Alumina 52.4  
  Lime 17.8 Boracic acid 3.2 Oxide of Calcium 8.3  
  Alkalies 6.6 Oxide of iron 0.6 Soda and potassa 4.2  
      Oxide of calcium 4.2 Water and loss 2.5  
      Water and loss 5.2      

            In close proximity- to these springs are others of pure, odorless water. Near the shore were several boiling springs, around which the sedimentary increment had formed into mounds of various sizes and heights. The deposit around one of these springs resembles a miniature forest of pines.

            The most remarkable springs in this group, six or seven in number, are of pure ultramarine hue—very large, and wonderfully transparent. The largest is forty feet wide by seventy feet long. The sides are funnel-shaped, converging regularly to the depth of forty feet, where they present a dark and apparently unfathomable chasm. From the surface to this opening the sides of the funnel are furrowed and sinuous, coated with a white sediment, which contrasts vividly with the dark orifice at its base.

            This group of springs exhibit in their deposits a great variety of shades and colors—no two of them being alike. Their constant overflow has fashioned a concrete bank of commingled tufa, eight feet in height and a quarter of a mile in length, on the margin of the lake. The waves have worn this bank into large caverns, which respond in hollow murmurs to their fierce assaults. Between the springs are numerous vents and craters, from which heated vapor is constantly rising. Along the edge of the water, and ten or twenty feet from shore, many springs are bubbling, none of which seem to be strongly impregnated with sulphur. The beach, for a mile or more, is strewn with fragments of sinter of various colors, which have been worn by the waves into many fantastic forms.

    The five days during which we camped at this locality were occupied by every possible effort to find our missing friend, but the labors of each day only served to increase our fears for his safety. One hope, that of meeting him at Virginia City, was still indulged; but opposed to this were many painful conjectures as to his possible fate—not the least prevalent of which was the one that he might have been shot from an ambush by an Indian arrow. Our provisions were rapidly diminishing, and our longer stay gave promise of unfavorable results. The force of circumstances obliged us to adopt the gloomy alternative of moving forward the next day, leaving one of our own party and two of the cavalrymen to prosecute a further search.

            The loss of our comrade and friend was to us all a source of much unhappy reflection, and the hope of finding him so entirely absorbed our attention that we had little curiosity to examine, and so escaped very many of the wonders of this region, which we should otherwise have seen. In our constant passing to and fro in different directions through the forest, along the lake, and over the surrounding mountains, we had glances of objects which, had we been free from a heavy charge, it would have been pleasant to visit and describe. These, however, are reserved for future investigation.

            The plan of our route led us in a northwesterly direction from the lake towards the head-waters of the Madison. We traveled through a dense pine forest, unmarked by trails and encumbered by fallen timber for most of the distance. The close of the first day's travel found us only twelve miles from the lake, still in the midst of the deep snow, with no place to pitch our tent, and each man seeking, unsuccessfully, a dry spot whereon to spread his blankets, under the shelter of the trees. The next day we reached the east bank of the Fire Hole River, the largest tributary of the Madison, down which we traveled, passing several cascades, many craters and boiling springs, to a large basin, two miles above the point of the union of the Fire Hole and Burnt Hole Rivers.

            We bade adieu to Yellowstone Lake, surfeited with the wonders we had seen, and in the belief that the interesting portion of our journey was over. The desire for home had superseded all thought of further exploration. We had seen the greatest wonders on the continent, and were convinced that there was not on the globe another region where, within the same limits, nature had crowded so much of grandeur and majesty, with so much of novelty and wonder. Our only care was to return home as rapidly as possible. Three days of active travel from the head-waters of the Madison, would find us among the settlers in the beautiful lower valley of that picturesque river, and within twelve miles of Virginia City, where we hoped to meet with Mr. Everts, and realize afresh that "all is well that ends well."

            Judge, then, what must have been our astonishment, as we entered the basin at midafternoon of our second day's travel, to see in the clear sunlight, at no great distance, an immense volume of clear, sparkling water projected into the air to the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet. "Geysers! geysers!" exclaimed one of our company, and, spurring our jaded horses, we soon gathered around this wonderful phenomenon. It was indeed a perfect geyser. The aperture through which the jet was projected was an irregular oval, three feet by seven in diameter. The margin of sinter was curiously piled up, and the exterior crust was filled with little hollows full of water, in which were small globules of sediment, some having gathered around bits of wood and other nuclei. This geyser is elevated thirty feet above the level of the surrounding plain, and the crater rises five or six feet above the mound. It spouted at regular intervals nine times during our stay, the columns of boiling water being thrown from ninety to one hundred and twenty-five feet at each discharge, which lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. We gave it the name of "Old Faithful."

            In our journey down the valley, looking down through a crevice in the crust upon which we were traveling, we discovered a stream of hot water of considerable size, running nearly at right angles with and away from the Fire Hole River.

            On the summit of a cone, twenty feet high, was a boiling spring, seven feet in diameter, surrounded with beautiful incrustations, on the slope of which we gathered twigs and pine-tree cones, encased in a silicious crust a quarter of an inch in thickness. But all of the curiosities of this basin sink into insignificance in comparison with the geysers. We saw, during our brief stay of but twenty-two hours, twelve in action. Six of these, from vents varying from three to five feet in diameter, threw water to the height of from fifteen to twenty-five feet, but in the presence of others of immense dimensions these soon ceased to attract attention. One, which we named "The Fan," has an orifice which discharges two radiating jets of water to the height of sixty feet, the falling drops and spray resembling a feather fan. It is very beautiful. Its eruptions are very frequent, lasting usually from ten to thirty minutes. A vent connected with it, about forty feet distant, expels dense masses of vapor fifty or sixty feet high, accompanied by loud, sharp reports, during the time the geyser is in action.

            "The Grotto” was so named from its singular crater of vitrified sinter, full of large, sinuous apertures. Through one of these, on our first visit, one of our company crawled to the discharging orifice; and when, a few hours afterwards, he saw a volume of boiling water, four feet in diameter, shooting through it to the height of sixty feet, and a scalding stream of two hundred inches flowing from the aperture he had entered a short time before, he concluded he had narrowly escaped being summarily cooked. The discharge of this geyser continued for nearly half an hour.

            “The Castle," situated on the summit of an incrusted mound, has a turreted crater through which a large volume of water is expelled at intervals of two or three hours to the height of fifty feet, from a discharging orifice about three feet in diameter. The architectural features of the silicious sinter surrounding it, which is very massive and compact, indicating that at some former period the flow of water must have been much greater than at present, suggested its name. A vent near it is constantly discharging a large stream of boiling water, and when the geyser is in action the water in this vent boils and bubbles with great fierceness.

            "The Giant" has a rugged crater, ten feet in diameter on the outsde, with an irregular orifice five or six feet in diameter. It discharges a vast body of water, and the only time we saw it in eruption the flow of water in a column five feet in diameter, and one hundred and forty feet in vertical height, continued uninterruptedly for nearly three hours. The crater resembles a miniature model of the Coliseum.

            Our search for new wonders leading us across the Fire Hole River, we ascended a gentle incrusted slope, and came suddenly upon a large oval aperture with scalloped edges, the diameters of which were eighteen and twenty-five feet, the sides corrugated and covered with a grayish-white silicious deposit, which was distinctly visible at the depth of one hundred feet below the surface. No water could be discovered, but we could distinctly hear it gurgling and boiling at a great distance below. Suddenly it began to rise, boiling and spluttering, and sending out huge masses of steam, causing a general stampede of our company, driving us some distance from our point of observation. When within about forty feet of the surface it became stationary, and we returned to look down upon it. It was foaming and surging at a terrible rate, occasionally emitting small jets of hot water nearly to the mouth of the orifice. All at once it seemed seized with a fearful spasm, and rose with incredible rapidity, hardly affording us time to flee to a safe distance, when it burst from the orifice with terrific momentum, rising in a column the full size of this immense aperture to the height of sixty feet; and through and out of the apex of this vast aqueous mass, five or six lesser jets or round columns of water, varying in size front six to fifteen inches in diameter, were projected to the marvellous height of two hundred and fifty feet. These lesser jets, so much higher than the main column, and shooting through it, doubtless proceed from auxiliary pipes leading into the principal orifice near the bottom, where the explosive force is greater. If the theory that water by constant boiling becomes explosive when freed from air be true, this theory rationally accounts for all irregularities in the eruptions of the geysers.

            This grand eruption continued for twenty minutes, and was the most magnificent sight we ever witnessed. We were standing on the side of the geyser nearest the sun, the gleams of which filled the sparkling column of water and spray with myriads of rainbows, whose arches were constantly changing,—dipping and fluttering hither and thither, and disappearing only to be succeeded by others, again and again, amid the aqueous column, while the minute globules into which the spent jets were diffused when falling sparkled like a shower of diamonds, and around every shadow which the denser clouds of vapor, interrupting the sun's rays, cast upon the column, could be seen a luminous circle radiant with all the colors of the prism, and resembling the halo of glory represented in paintings as encircling the head of Divinity. All that we had previously witnessed seemed tame in comparison with the perfect grandeur and beauty of this display. Two of 'these wonderful eruptions occurred during the twenty-two hours we remained in the valley. This geyser we named "The Giantess."

            A hundred yards distant front The Giantess was a silicious cone, very symmetrical but slightly corrugated upon its exterior surface, three feet in height and five feet in diameter at its base, and having an oval orifice twenty-four by thirty-six and one-half inches in diameter, with scalloped edges. Not one of our company supposed that it was a geyser; and among so many wonders it had almost escaped notice. While we were at breakfast upon the morning of our departure a column of water, entirely filling the crater, shot from it, which, by accurate triangular measurement, we found to be two hundred and nineteen feet in height. The stream did not deflect more than four or five degrees from a vertical line, and the eruption lasted eighteen minutes. We named it “The Beehive."

            How many more geysers there are in this locality it would be impossible to conjecture. Our waning stores admonished us of the necessity for a hurried departure, and we reluctantly left this remarkable region less than half explored. In this basin, which is about two milers in length and one mile in width, more than a thousand pipes or wells rise to the surface, varying in diameter from two to one hundred and twenty feet, the water in which varies in temperature from 140° to the boiling-point, upwards of a hundred of which give evidence, by the calcareous and silicious deposits surrounding them, that they are geysers; and to an appearances they are as likely to be as any we saw in action.

            The sides of these wells were covered with silicious incrustations, and were funnel-shaped ; and in many of the larger ones gradually converged for a distance of from twenty to fifty feet from the edge, below which point the apertures enlarged laterally in all directions like a jug below the neck, and were apparently unfathomable. None of the springs in this locality appear to be impregnated with sulphur. In this basin there are to be found no mud springs, of which we discovered so many in the valley of the Yellowstone; and we found but one spring of cold water.

            This entire country is seemingly under a constant and active internal pressure from volcanic forces, which seek relief through the numberless springs, jets, volcanoes, and geysers exhibited on its surface, and which, but for these vents, might burst forth in one terrific eruption and form a volcano of vast dimensions. It is undoubtedly true that many of the objects we saw were of recent formation, and that many of the extinguished craters recently ceased their condition of activity. They are constantly breaking forth, often assuming new forms, and attesting to the active presence of volcanic force.

            A mountaineer, who visited a portion of this region a year ago, found at one place a small volcano which was constantly overflowing with liquid sulphur and lava, and emitting smoke; showing that the genuine volcanic elements were there, and needed but the concentration of the forces now dissipated through thousands of vents to present a spectacle of grandeur surpassing that of Vesuvius or Ætna.

            The geyser is a new and, perhaps, the most remarkable feature in our scenery and physical history. It is found in no other countries but Iceland and Thibet. The geysers of the country last named are inconsiderable when compared with either those of Iceland, or the Fire Hole or Madison Basin; and those of Iceland, even, dwindle into insignificance by the side of those of the Madison. Until the discovery of the Madison geysers there were but two of any note known to the world–the Great Geyser and the Strokr of Iceland. The phenomena presented by these have been sufficient at various periods during the past century to invite the personal investigation of some of the most distinguished of European savans. Von Troil, Stanley, Ohlsen, Hooker, MacKensie, and, at a later day, Bunsen, have visited Iceland for the purpose of witnessing these aqueous eruptions, and forming some satisfactory conclusion relative to the causes in which they originate.

            The theory published by Sir George MacKenzie, that the outbursts were produced by pressure on the air contained in cavernous recesses under ground, for many years received the sanction of the scientific world. The periods intervening between the eruptions of the Great Geyser of Iceland have been very irregular until within the past forty or fifty years, since when it has generally projected a small jet to the height of twenty feet every two hours, and a large one to the height of eighty feet every six hours. MacKenzie's theory was that there were two subterranean cavities connected with the main pipe, one much deeper and larger than the other, which rapidly filled with water after each eruption, and that the pressure of the vapors upon them produced these periodic explosions.

            Ingenious as this theory appeared to be, it was dissipated by the experiments made upon water by M. Bonny, of Ghent. He discovered that water long boiled became more and more free from air, by which its molecular cohesion is so greatly increased, and that, when it is exposed to a heat sufficient to overcome the force of cohesion, the production of steam is so instantaneous and so considerable as to cause explosion. Bunsen ascribes the eruption of the geysers to this cause. He found the water at the buttons of the well of the Great Geyser to be of a constantly increasing temperature up to the moment of an eruption. On one occasion it was as high as 261° Fahrenheit. His idea is that on reaching some unknown point above that temperature ebullition takes place, vapor is suddenly generated in enormous quantities, and an eruption of the superior column of water is the consequence. The geysers of the Madison exhibit precisely the same physical features, and, doubtless, originate in the same causes. They are surrounded too, as are those of Iceland, by innumerable springs of hot water. The bursting of a column into millions of particles resembles an explosion more than a mere eruption ; and the vast clouds of vapor which enshroud them and mingle with them in their ascent sometimes give an appearance of bulk to the upper part of the columns much greater than their real magnitude.

            The water of the Madison geysers, like that of the geysers of Iceland, appears perfectly pure, and, doubtless, could be used for cooking or drinking. We had not the means of analyzing it on the spot. The sinter was both carboniferous and silicious, the latter characteristic predominating, but both prevailing sufficiently to have produced large incrusted mounds, and numerous illustrations of petrifaction in various stages of progress. All this, where such immense volumes of water are being constantly ejected, could be effected with a moderate infusion of silica or soda. Dr. Black gives the following result of an analysis of a quantity of 10,000 grains (about one-sixth of a gallon) of water from the Great Geyser of Iceland:–

Soda .................................0.95
Muriate of soda..................2.46
Dry sulphate of soda..........1.46

That the same elements are held in solution in the waters of the Madison geysers, we have abundant proof in the vast incrusted field by which they are surrounded. They are but a reproduction, upon a much grander scale, of the phenomena of Iceland.

            A wider field for the investigation of the chemist than that presented by the geysers may be found in the many-tinted springs of boiling mud and the mud volcano. These were objects of the greatest interest to Humboldt, who devotes to a description of them one of the most fascinating chapters of Cosmos. It would be rash in us to speculate where that great man hesitated. We can only say that the field is open for exploration—illimitable in resource, grand in extent, wonderful in variety, in a climate favored of Heaven, and amid scenery' the most stupendous on the continent.

            By means of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which will doubtless be completed within the next three years, the traveler will be able to make the trip to Montana from the Atlantic seaboard in three days, and thousands of tourists will be attracted to both Montana and Wyoming in order to behold with their own eyes the wonders here described. Besides these marvels of the Upper Yellowstone, one may look upon the strange scenery of the lower valley of that great river, the Great Falls of the Missouri, the grotesque groups of eroded rocks below Fort Benton, the beautiful cañon of the Prickly Pear, and the stupendous architecture of the vast chains and spurs of mountains which everywhere traverse that picturesque and beautiful country.