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The Wonders of the Yellowstone
I HAD indulged, for several years, a great curiosity to see the wonders of the upper valley of the Yellowstone. The stories told by trappers and mountaineers of the natural phenomena of that region were so strange and marvelous that, as long ago as 1866, I first contemplated the possibility of organizing an expedition for the express purpose of exploring it. During the past year, meeting with several gentlemen who expressed like curiosity, we determined to make the journey in the months of August and September.
The Yellowstone and Columbia, the first flowing into the Missouri and the last into the Pacific, divided from each other by the Rocky Mountains, have their sources within a few miles of each other. Both rise in the mountains which separate Idaho from the new Territory of Wyoming, but the headwaters of the Yellowstone are only accessible from Montana. The mountains surrounding the basin from which they flow are very lofty, covered with pines, and on the southeastern side present to the traveler a precipitous wall of rock, several thousand feet in height. This barrier prevented Captain Reynolds from visiting the headwaters of the Yellowstone while prosecuting an expedition planned by the Government and placed under his command, for the purpose of exploring that river, in 1859.
The source of the Yellowstone is in a magnificent lake, nearly 9,000 feet above the level of the ocean. In its course of 1,300 miles to the Missouri, it falls about 7,200 feet. Its upper waters flow through deep canons and gorges, and are broken by immense cataracts and fearful rapids, presenting at various points some of the grandest scenery on the continent. This country is entirely volcanic, and abounds in boiling springs, mud volcanoes, huge mountains of sulphur, and geysers more extensive and numerous than those of Iceland.
Old mountaineers and trappers are great romancers. I have met with many, but never one who was not fond of practicing upon the credulity of those who listened to his adventures. Bridger, than whom perhaps no man has experienced more of wild mountain life, has been so much in the habit of embellishing his Indian adventures, that they are received by all who know him with many grains of allowance. This want of faith will account for the skepticism with which the oft-repeated stories of the wonders of the Upper Yellowstone were received by people who had lived within one hundred and twenty miles of them, and who at any time could have established their verity by ten days' travel.
Our company, composed of some of the officials and leading citizens of Montana, felt that if the half was true, they would be amply compensated for all the troubles and hazards of the expedition. It was, nevertheless, a serious undertaking, and as the time drew near for our departure, several who had been foremost to join us, upon the receipt of intelligence that a large party of Indians had come into the Upper Yellowstone valley, found excuse for their withdrawal in various emergent occupations, so that when the day for our departure arrived, our company was reduced in numbers to nine, and consisted of the following-named gentlemen: General H. D. Washburn, who served with distinction during the war of the rebellion, and subsequently represented the Clinton District of Indiana in the Congress of the United States; Samuel T. Hauser, President of the First National Bank of Helena; Cornelius Hedges, a leading member of the bar of Montana; Hon. Truman C. Everts, late United States Assessor for Montana; Walter Trumbull, son of Senator Trumbull; Ben. Stickney, Jr.; Warren C. Gillette; Jacob Smith, and the writer.
The preparation was simple. Each man was supplied with a strong horse, well equipped with California saddle, bridle, and cantinas. A needle-gun, a belt filled with cartridges, a pair of revolvers, a hunting-knife, added to the usual costume of the mountains, completed the personal outfit of each member of the expedition. When mounted and ready to start, we resembled more a band of brigands than sober men in search of natural wonders. Our provisions, consisting of bacon, dried fruit, flour, &c., were securely lashed to the backs of twelve bronchos, which were placed in charge of a couple of packers. We also employed two colored boys as cooks.
Major-General Hancock, in favorable response to our application for a military escort, had given orders for a company of cavalry to accompany us, which we expected to join at Fort Ellis, in the Gallatin Valley—a distance of one hundred and twenty miles from Helena. We were none the less obliged to Gen. Hancock for his prompt compliance with our application for an escort, because of his own desire, previously expressed, to learn something of the country we explored which would be of service to him in the disposition of the troops under his command, for frontier defense ; and if the result of our explorations in the least contributed to that end, we still remain the debtor of that officer for his courtesy and kindness, without which we might have failed altogether in our undertaking.
Our ride to Fort Ellis, through a well-settled portion of the Territory, was accomplished in four days. That portion of the valleys of the Missouri and Gallatin through which we passed, dotted with numerous ranches, presented large fields of wheat, oats, potatoes, and other evidences of thrift common in agricultural districts. Large droves of cattle were feeding upon the bunch grass which carpeted the valleys and foot-hills. Even the mountains, so wild, solemn, and unsocial a few years ago, seemed to be domesticated as they reared their familiar summits in long and continuous succession along the bordering uplands. At the three forks, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin unite and form the Missouri, a thriving agricultural community has sprung up, which must eventually grow into a town of considerable importance. Entering the magnificent valley of the Gallatin at this point, our course up the river lay through one of the finest agricultural regions on the continent. The soil is remarkably fertile, and the valley stretches away on either side, a distance of twenty miles, to immense mountain ranges, which traverse its entire length, enclosing a territory as large as one of the larger New England States, every foot of which is susceptible of the highest cultivation.
Bozeman, a picturesque village of seven hundred inhabitants, situated at the foot of the Belt Range of mountains, is considered one of the most important prospective business locations in Montana. It is near the mouth of one of the few mountain passes of the Territory deemed practicable for railroad improvement. Its inhabitants are patiently awaiting the time when the cars of the "Northern Pacific" shall descend into their streets. The village is neatly built of wood and brick. Its surroundings are magnificent. The eye can distinctly trace the mountains by which it is encircled, a distance of four hundred miles.
Fort Ellis, three miles distant, is built upon a table of land elevated above the valley, and which overlooks it for a great distance. Our party was welcomed by Colonel Baker, the commandant, and we pitched our tent near the post.
On the morning succeeding our arrival we were informed that, owing to the absence on duty of most of the soldiers, a fraction of a company—five cavalrymen and a lieutenant in command—were all that could be afforded for our escort; but, realizing that a small body of white men can more easily elude a band of Indians than can a large party, and without hesitating to consider the possible defense which we could make against a war party of hostile Sioux with this limited number, we declared ourselves satisfied, and took our departure for the terra incognita as fully assured of a successful journey as if our number had been multiplied by hundreds.
Our pack-horses were brought up and their loads fastened to them with that incredible rapidity and skill which is the result only of life-long practice. The dexterity with which a skillful packer will load and unload his horses is remarkable. The rope is thrown around the body of the animal and securely fastened in less time than it takes to tell it. No matter what the character of the beast, wild or tame, it is under the perfect control of its master. The broncho is, however, a refractory customer. He has many tricks, unknown to his well-trained brother of the East. Bucking is a frequent vice, for which there is small remedy; but, as was proved in a single instance on the morning we left the fort, that horse must be more expert than was any in our train who can foil an experienced packer. Every leap of the enraged brute only increased the tension of the cord which bound and finally subdued him, and rendered him tractable.
Once under way, our little company, now increased to nineteen, presented quite a formidable appearance, as by dint of whip and spur our steeds gayly wheeled across the plain towards the mountains. After a tedious ride of several hours up steep acclivities, over rocks, and through dark defiles, we at length passed over the summit of the mountain range, took a last look of the beautiful valley of the Gallatin, and descended into a ravine coursed by the waters of Trail Creek. Following this two days, we came to the Yellowstone, up which we rode to the solitary ranch of the brothers Boteler—the last abode of civilized man in the direction of our travels. These hardy mountaineers received and entertained us in hearty mountain style—giving us the best of everything their ranch afforded, together with a great deal of information and advice about the country, which we afterwards found to be invaluable. The Botelers belong to that class of pioneers, of which there are many in the new Territories, who are only satisfied when their location and field of operations are a little in advance of civilization — exposed to privation and danger—and yet unite with these discomforts some advantages of hunting, trapping, and fishing not enjoyed by men contented to dwell in safety. Free-hearted, jolly and brave, living upon such means as the country afforded, accustomed to roam for days and weeks in the mountains in pursuit of game and furs, their experience renewed our courage, and the descriptions which they gave us of the wonders they had seen increased our curiosity. It was not pleasant, however, to learn that twenty-five lodges of Crows had gone up the valley a few days before our arrival, or to be told by a trapper whom we met that he had been robbed by them, and, in common parlance, "been set on foot," by having his horse and provisions stolen.
In anticipation of possible trouble from this source, we organized our company, and elected Gen. H. D. Washburn, Surveyor-General of Montana, commander. It was understood that we should make but one march each day—starting at 8 A.M., and camping at 3 P.M. This obviated the necessity of unpacking and cooking a dinner. At night the horses were to be carefully picketed, a fire built beyond them, and two of the company to keep guard until one o'clock; then to be relieved by two others, who were to watch until daylight. This divided the labor among fourteen, who were to serve as picket-men twice each week.
These precautionary measures being fully understood, we left Boteler's, plunging at once into the vast unknown which lay before us. Following the slight Indian trail, we traveled near the bank of the river, amid the wildest imaginable scenery of river, rock, and mountain. The foot-hills were covered with verdure, which an autumnal sun had sprinkled with maroon-colored tints, very delicate and beautiful. The path was narrow, rocky, and uneven, frequently leading over high hills, in ascent and descent more or less abrupt and' difficult. The increasing altitude of the route was more perceptible than any over which we had ever traveled, and the river, whenever visible, was a perfect mountain torrent.
While descending a hill into one of the broad openings of the valley, our attention was suddenly arrested by half a dozen or more mounted Indians, who were riding down the foot-hills on the opposite side of the river. Two of our company, who had lingered behind, came up with the information that they had seen several more making observations from behind a small butte, from which they fled in great haste on being discovered. They soon rode down on the plateau to a point where their horses were hobbled, and for a long time watched our party as it continued its course of travel up the river. Our camp was guarded that night with more than ordinary vigilance. A hard rain-storm, which set in early in the afternoon and continued through the night, may have saved us from an attack by these prowlers.
When we started the next morning, Gen. Washburn detailed four of our company to guard the pack train,- while he, with four others, rode in advance to make the most practicable selection of routes. Six miles above our camp we ascended the .spur of a mountain, which came down boldly to the river's edge. From its summit we had a beautiful view of the valley stretched out before us—the river fringed with cottonwood trees—the foot-hills covered with luxuriant, many-tinted herbage, and over all the snow-crowned summits of the mountains, many miles away, but seemingly rising from the midst of the plateau at our feet. Looking up the river, the valley opened widely, and from the rock on which we stood was visible the train of pack-horses, slowly winding their way along the sinuous trail, which followed the inequalities of the mountain-side. The whole formed a scene of great interest. Pursuing our course a few miles farther, we camped just below the lower cañon of the river. Our hunters provided us with a sumptuous meal of antelope, rabbit, duck, grouse, and trout.
The night was very cold, the mercury standing at 40° when we broke camp, at eight o'clock the next morning. We remained some time at the lower cañon of the Yellowstone, which, as a single isolated piece of scenery, is very beautiful. It is less than a mile in length, and perhaps does not exceed 1,000 feet in depth. Its walls are vertical, and, seen from the summit of the precipice, the river seems forced through a narrow gorge, and is surging and boiling at a fearful rate—the water breaking into millions of prismatic drops against every projecting rock.
After traveling six miles over the mountains above the cañon, we again descended into a broad and open valley, skirted by a level upland for several miles. Here an object met our attention which deserves more than a casual notice. It was two parallel vertical walls of rock, projecting from the side of a mountain to the height of 125 feet, traversing the mountain from base to summit, a distance of 1,500 feet. These walls were not to exceed thirty feet in width, and their tops for the whole length were crowned with a growth of pines. The sides were as even as if they had been worked by line and plumb—The whole space between, and on either side of them, having been completely eroded and washed away. We had seen many of the capricious works wrought by erosion upon the friable rocks of Montana, but never before upon so majestic a scale. Here an entire mountainside, by wind and water, had been removed, leaving as the evidences of their protracted toil these vertical projections, which, but for their immensity, might as readily be mistaken for works of art as of nature. Their smooth sides, uniform width and height, and great length, considered in connection with the causes which had wrought their insulation, excited our wonder and admiration. They were all the more curious because of their dissimilarity to any other striking objects in natural scenery that we had ever seen or heard of. In future years, when the wonders of the Yellowstone are incorporated into the family of fashionable resorts, there will be few of its attractions surpassing in interest this marvelous freak of the elements. For some reason, best understood by himself, one of our companions gave to these rocks the name of the "Devil's Slide." The suggestion was unfortunate, as, with more reason perhaps, but with no better taste, we frequently had occasion to appropriate other portions of the person of his Satanic Majesty, or of his dominion, in signification of the varied marvels we met with. Some little excuse may be found for this in the fact that the old mountaineers and trappers who preceded us had been peculiarly lavish in the use of the infernal vocabulary. Every river and glen and mountain had suggested to their imaginations some fancied resemblance to portions of a region which their pious grandmothers had warned them to avoid. It is common for them, when speaking of this region, to designate portions of its physical features, as "Fire Hole Prairie,” the "Devil's Glen,"—" Hell Roaring River," &c. —and these names, from a remarkable fitness of things, are not likely to be speedily superseded by others less impressive. We camped at the close of this day's travel near the southwestern corner of Montana, at the mouth of Gardiner's River.
Crossing this stream the next morning, we passed over several rocky ridges into a valley which, for a long distance, was crowded with the spires of protruding rocks, which gave it such a dismal aspect that we named it "The Valley of Desolation." The trail was so rough and mountainous that we were able to travel but six miles before the usual hour for camping. Much of the distance was through fallen timber, almost impassable by the pack train. A mile before camping we discovered on the trail the fresh tracks of unshod ponies, indicating that a party of Indians had recently passed over it. Lieutenant Doane, with one of our company, had left us in the morning, and did not come into camp this evening. One of our horses broke his lariat during the night and galloped through the camp, rousing the sleepers, who grasped their guns, supposing the Indians were really upon them.
We started early the next morning and soon struck the trail which had been traveled the preceding day by Lieutenant Doane. It led over a more practicable route than the one we left. The marks made in the soil by the travais (lodge-poles) on the side of the trail showed that it had been recently traveled by a number of lodges of Indians,—and a little colt, which we overtook soon after making the discovery, convinced us that we were in their immediate vicinity. Our party was separated, and if we had been attacked, our pack-train, horses, and stores would have been an easy conquest. Fortunately we were unmolested, and, when again united, made a fresh resolusion to travel as much in company as possible. All precautionary measures, however, unless enforced by the sternest discipline, are soon forgotten—and danger, until actually impending, is seldom borne in mind. A day had scarcely passed when we were as reckless as ever.
From the summit of a commanding range, which separated the waters of Antelope and Tower Creeks, we descended through a picturesque gorge, leading our horses to a small stream flowing into the Yellowstone. Four miles of travel, a great part of it down the precipitous slopes of the mountain, brought us to the banks of Tower Creek, and within the volcanic region, where the wonders were supposed to commence. On the right of the trail our attention was first attracted by a small hot sulphur spring, a little below the boiling point in temperature. Leaving the spring we ascended a high ridge, from which the most noticeable feature, in. a landscape of great extent and beauty, was Column Rock, stretching for two miles along the eastern bank of the Yellowstone. At the distance from which we saw it, we could compare it in appearance to nothing but a section of the Giant's Causeway. It was composed of successive pillars of basalt overlying and under- lying a thick stratum of cement and gravel resembling pudding-stone. In both rows, the pillars, standing in close proximity, were each about thirty feet high and from three to five feet in diameter. This interesting object, more from the novelty of its formation and its beautiful surroundings of mountain and river scenery than anything grand or impressive in its appearance, excited our attention, until the gathering shades of evening reminded us of the necessity of selecting a suitable camp. We descended the declivity to the banks of Tower Creek, and camped on a rocky terrace one mile distant from, and four hundred feet above the Yellowstone.
Tower Creek is a mountain torrent flowing through a gorge about forty yards wide. Just below our camp it falls perpendicularly over an even ledge 112 feet, forming one of the most beautiful cataracts in the world. For some distance above the fall the stream is broken into a great number of channels, each of which has worked a tortuous course through a compact body of shale to the verge of the precipice, where they re-unite and form the fall. The countless shapes into which the shale has been wrought by the action of the angry waters, add a feature of great interest to the scene. Spires of solid shale, capped with slate, beautifully rounded and polished, faultless in symmetry, raise their tapering forms to the height of from 80 to 150 feet, all over the plateau above the cataract. Some resemble towers, others the spires of churches, and others still shoot up as lithe and slender as the minarets of a mosque. Some of the loftiest of these formations, standing like sentinels upon the very brink of the fall, are accessible to an expert and adventurous climber. The position attained on one of their narrow summits, amid the uproar of waters and at a height of 250 feet above the boiling chasm, as the writer can affirm, requires a steady head and strong nerves yet the view which rewards the temerity of the exploit is full of compensations. Below the fall the stream descends in numerous rapids, with frightful velocity, through a gloomy gorge, to its union with the Yellowstone. Its bed is filled with enormous boulders, against which the rushing waters break with great fury.
Many of the capricious formations wrought from the shale excite merriment as well as wonder. Of this kind especially was a huge mass sixty feel in height, which, from its supposed resemblance to the proverbial foot of his Satanic Majesty, we called the "Devil's Hoof." The scenery of mountain, rock, and forest surrounding the falls is very beautiful. Here, too, the hunter and fisherman can indulge their tastes with the certainty of ample reward. As a half-way resort to the greater wonders still farther up the marvelous river, the visitor of future years will find no more delightful resting-place. No account of this beautiful fall has ever been given by any of the former visitors to this region. The name of "Tower Falls," which we gave it, was suggested by some of the most conspicuous features of the scenery.
Early the next morning several of our company left in advance, to explore a passage for our pack train over the mountains, which were very steep and lofty. We had been following a bend in the river,—but as no sign of a change in its course was apparent, our object was, by finding a shorter route across the country, to avoid several days of toilsome travel. The advance party ascended a lofty peak,—by barometrical measurement, 10,580 feet above ocean level,—which, in honor of our commander, was called Mount Washburn. From its summit, 400 feet above the line of perpetual snow, we were able to trace the course of the river to its source in Yellowstone Lake. At the point where we crossed the line of vegetation the snow covered the side of the apex of the mountain to the depth of twenty feet, and seemed to be as solid as the rocks upon which it rested. Descending the mountain, we came upon the trail made by the pack-train at its base, which we followed into camp at the head of a small stream flowing into the Yellowstone. Following the stream in the direction of its mouth, at the distance of a mile below our camp, we crossed an immense bed of volcanic ashes, thirty feet deep, extending one hundred yards along both sides of the creek. Less than a mile beyond, we suddenly came upon a hideous-looking glen filled with the sulphurous vapor emitted from six or eight boiling springs of great size and activity. One of our company aptly compared it to the entrance to the infernal regions, It looked like nothing earthly we had ever seen, and the pungent fumes which filled the atmosphere were not unaccompanied by a disagreeable sense of possible suffocation. Entering the basin cautiously, we found the entire surface of the earth covered with the incrusted sinter thrown from the springs. Jets of hot vapor were expelled through a hundred natural orifices with which it was pierced, and through every fracture made by- passing over it. The springs themselves were as diabolical in appearance as the witches' caldron in Macbeth, and needed but the presence of Hecate and her weird band to realize that horrible creation of poetic fancy. They were all in a state of violent ebullition, throwing their liquid contents to the height of three or four feet. The largest had a basin twenty by forty feet in diameter. Its greenish-yellow water was covered with bubbles, which were constantly rising, bursting, and emitting sulphurous gas from various parts of its surface. The central spring seethed and bubbled like a boiling caldron. Fearful volumes of vapor were constantly escaping it. Near it was another, not so large, but more infernal in appearance. Its contents, of the consistency of paint, were in constant, noisy ebullition. A stick thrust into it, on being withdrawn, was coated with lead-colored slime a quarter of an inch in thickness. Nothing flows from this spring. Seemingly, it is boiling down. A fourth spring, which exhibited the same physical features, was partly covered by an overhanging ledge of rock. We tried to fathom it, but the bottom was beyond the mach of the longest pole we could find. Rocks cast into it increased the agitation of it’s waters. There were several other springs in the group, smaller in size, but presenting the same characteristics.
The approach to them was unsafe, the incrustation surrounding them bending in many places beneath our weight,—and from the fractures thus created would ooze a sulphury slime of the consistency of mucilage. It was with great difficulty that we obtained specimens from the natural apertures with which the crust is filled,—a feat which was accomplished by one only of our party, who extended himself at full length upon that portion of the incrustation which yielded the least, but which was not sufficiently strong to bear his weight while in an upright positions, and at imminent risk of sinking into the infernal mixture, rolled over and over to the edge of the opening, andwith the crust slowly bending and sinking beneath him, hurriedly secured the coveted prize.
There was something so revolting in the general appearance of the springs and their surroundings—the foulness of the vapors, the infernal contents, the treacherous incrustation, the noisy ebullition, the general appearance of desolation, and the seclusion and wildness of the locations—that though awe-struck, we were not unreluctant to continue our journey without making them a second visit. They were probably never before seen by white man. The, name of "Hell Broth Springs," which we gave them, fully expressed our appreciation of their character.
Our journey the next day still continued through a country until then untraveled. Owing to the high lateral mountain spurs, the numerous ravines, and the interminable patches of fallen timber, we made very slow progress; but when the hour for camping arrived we were greatly surprised to find ourselves descending the mountain along the banks of a beautiful stream in the immediate vicinity of the Great Falls of the Yellowstone. This stream, which we called Cascade Creek, is very rapid. Just before its union with the river it passes through a gloomy gorge, of abrupt descent, which on either side is filled with continuous masses of obsidian that have been worn by the water into many fantastic shapes and cavernous recesses. This we named "The Devil's Den." Near the foot of the gorge the creek breaks from fearful rapids into a cascade of great beauty. The first fall of five feet is immediately succeeded by another of fifteen, into a pool as clear as amber, nestled beneath overarching rocks. Here it lingers as if half reluctant to continue its course, and then gracefully emerges from the grotto, and, veiling the rocks down an abrupt descent of eighty-four feet, passes rapidly on to the Yellowstone. It received the name of "Crystal."
The Great Falls are at the head of one of the most remarkable cañons in the world— a gorge through volcanic rocks fifty miles long, and varying from one thousand to nearly five thousand feet in depth. In its descent through this wonderful chasm the river falls almost three thousand feet. At one point, where the passage has been worn through a mountain range, our hunters assured us it was more than a vertical mile in depth, and the river, broken into rapids and cascades, appeared no wider than a ribbon. The brain reels as we gaze into this profound and solemn solitude. We shrink from the dizzy verge appalled, glad to feel the solid earth under our feet, and venture no more, except with forms extended, and faces barely protruding over the edge of the precipice. The stillness is horrible. Down, down, down, we see the river attenuated to a thread, tossing its miniature waves, and dashing, with puny strength, the massive walls which imprison it. All access to its margin is denied, and the dark gray rocks hold it in dismal shadow.
Even the voice of its waters in their convulsive agony cannot be heard. Uncheered by plant or shrub, obstructed with massive boulders and by jutting points, it rushes madly on its solitary course, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the rocky firmament. The solemn grandeur of the scene surpasses description. It must be seen to be felt. The sense of danger with which it impresses you is harrowing in the extreme. You feel the absence of sound, the oppression of absolute silence. If you could only hear that gurgling river, if you could see a living tree in the depth beneath you, if a bird would fly past, if the wind would move any object in the awful chasm, to break for a moment the solemn silence that reigns there, it would relieve that tension of the nerves which the scene has excited, and you would rise from your prostrate condition and thank God that he had permitted you to gaze, unharmed, upon this majestic display of natural architecture. As it is, sympathizing in spirit with the deep gloom of the scene, you crawl from the dreadful verge, scared lest the firm rock give way beneath and precipitate you into the horrid gulf.
We had been told by trappers and mountaineers that there were cataracts in this vicinity a thousand feet high; but, if so, they must be lower down the canon, in that portion of it which, by our journey across the bend in the river, we failed to see. We regretted, when too late, that we had not made a fuller exploration—for by no other theory than that there was a stupendous fall below us, or that the river was broken by a continued succession of cascades, could we account for a difference of nearly 3,000 feet in altitude between the head and the mouth of the cañon. In that part of the cañon which we saw, the inclination of the river was marked by frequent falls fifteen and twenty feet in height, sufficient, if continuous through it, to accomplish the entire descent.
The fearful descent into this terrific cañon was as accomplished with great difficulty by Messrs. Hauser and Stickney, at a point about two miles below the falls. By trigonometrical measurement they found the chasm at that point to be 1,190 feet deep. Their ascent from it was perilous, and it was only by making good use of hands and feet, and keeping the nerves braced to the utmost tensions, that they were enabled to clamber up the precipitous rocks to a safe landing-place. The effort seas successfully made, but none others of the company were disposed to venture.
From a first view of the cañon we followed the river to the falls. A grander scene than the lower cataract of the Yellowstone was never witnessed by mortal eyes. The volume seemed to be adapted to all the harmonies of the surrounding scenery. Had it been greater or smaller it would have been less impressive. The river, from a width of two hundred feet above the fall, is compressed by converging rocks to one hundred and fifty feet, where it takes the plunge. The shelf over which it falls is as level and even as a work of art. The height, by actual line measurement, is a few inches snore than 350 feet. It is a sheer, compact, solid, perpendicular sheet, faultless in all the elements of grandeur and picturesque beauties. The cañon which commences at the upper fall, half a mile above this cataract, is here a thousand feet in depth. Its vertical sides rise gray and dark above the fall to shelving summits, from which one can look down into the boiling, spray-tilled chasm, enlivened with rainbows, and glittering like a shower of diamonds. From a shelf protruding over the stream, 500 feet below the top of the cañon, and 180 above the verge of the cataract, a member of our company, lying prone upon the rock, let down a cord with a stone attached into the gulf, and measured its profoundest depths. The life and sound of the cataract, with its sparkling spray and fleecy foam, contrasts strangely with the sombre stillness of the cañon a mile below. There all was darkness, gloom, and shadow; here all was vivacity, gayety, and delight. One was the most unsocial, the other the most social scene in nature. We could talk, and sing, and whoop, waking the echoes with our mirth and laughter in presence of the falls, but we could not thus profane the silence of the cañon. Seen through the cañon below the falls, the river for a mile or more is broken by rapids and cascades of great variety and beauty.
Between the lower and upper falls the cañon is two hundred to nearly four hundred feet deep. The river runs over a level bed of rock, and is undisturbed by rapids until near the verge of the lower fall. The upper fall is entirely unlike the other, but in its peculiar character equally interesting. For some distance above it the river breaks into frightful rapids. The stream is narrowed between the rocks as it approaches the brink, and bounds with impatient struggles for release, leaping through the stony jaws, in a sheet of snow-white foam, over a precipice nearly perpendicular, 115 feet high. Midway in its descent the entire volume of water is carried, by the sloping surface of an intervening ledge, twelve or fifteen feet beyond the vertical base of the precipice, gaining therefrom a novel and interesting feature. The churning of the water upon the rocks reduces it to a mass of foam and spray, through which all the colors of the solar spectrum are reproduced in astonishing profusion. What this cataract lacks in sublimity is more than compensated by picturesqueness. The rocks which overshadow it do not veil it from the open light. It is up amid the pine foliage which crowns the adjacent hills, the grand feature of a landscape unrivaled for beauties of vegetations as well as of rock and glen. The two confronting rocks, overhanging the verge at the height of a hundred feet or more, could be readily united by a bridge, from which some of the grandest views of natural scenery in the world could be obtained—while just in front of, and within reaching distance of the arrowy water, from a table one-third of the way below the brink of the fall, all its nearest beauties and terrors may be caught at a glance.
We rambled around the falls and cañon two days, and left them with the unpleasant conviction that the greatest wonder of our journey had been seen.
We indulged in a last and lingering glance at the falls on the morning of the first day of Autumn. The sun shone brightly, and the laughing waters of the upper fall were filled with the glitter of rainbows and diamonds. Nature, in the excess of her prodigality, had seemingly determined that this last look should be the brightest, for there was everything in the landscape, illuminated by the rising sun, to invite a longer stay. Even the dismal cañon, so dark and gray and still, reflected here and there on its vertical surface patches of sunshine, as much as to say, “See what I can do when I try." Everything had “put a jocund humor on." Long vistas of light broke through the pines which crowned the contiguous mountains, and the snow-crowned peaks in the distance glistened like crystal. Catching the spirit of the scene, we laughed and sung, and whooped as we rambled hurriedly from point to point, lingering only when the final moment came to receive the very last impression.
At length we turned our backs upon the scene, and wended our way slowly up the river-bank along a beaten trail. The last vestige of the rapids disappeared at the distance of half a mile above the Upper Fall. The river, expanded to the width of 400 feet, rolled peacefully between low verdant banks. The water for some distance was of that emerald hue which is so distinguishing a feature of Niagara. The bottom was pebbly, and but for the treacherous quicksands and crevices, of which it was full, we could easily have forded the stream at any point between the falls and our camping-place. We crossed a little creek strongly impregnated with alum,—and three miles beyond found ourselves in the midst of volcanic wonders of great variety and profusion. The region was filled with boiling springs and craters. Two hills, each 300 feet high, and from a quarter to half a mile across, had been formed wholly of the sinter thrown from adjacent springs—lava, sulphur, and reddish-brown clay. Hot streams of vapor were pouring from crevices scattered over them. Their surfaces answered in hollow intonations to every footstep, and in several places yielded to the weight of our horses. Steaming vapor rushed hissingly from the fractures, and all around the natural vents large quantities of sulphur in crystallized form, perfectly pure, had been deposited. This could be readily gathered with pick and shovel. A great many exhausted craters dotted the hillside. One near the summit, still alive, changed its hues like steel under the process of tempering, to every kiss of the passing breeze. The hottest vapors were active beneath the incrusted surface everywhere. A thick leathern glove was no protection to the hand exposed to them. Around these immense thermal deposits, the country, for a great distance in all directions, is filled with boiling springs, all exhibiting separate characteristics.
The most conspicuous of the cluster is a sulphur spring twelve by twenty feet in diameter, encircled by a beautifully scolloped sedimentary border, in which the water is thrown to a height of from three to seven feet. The regular formation of this border, and the perfect shading of the scollops forming it, are among the most delicate and wonderful freaks of nature's handiwork. They look like an elaborate work of art. This spring is located at the western base of Crater Hill, above described, and the gentle slope around it for a distance of 300 feet is covered to considerable depth with a mixture of sulphur and brown lava. 'The moistened bed of a small channel, leading from the spring down the slope, indicated that it had recently overflowed.
A few rods north of this spring, at the base of the hill, is a cavern whose mouth is about seven feet in diameter, from which a dense jet of sulphurous vapor explodes with a regular report like a high-pressure engine. A little farther along we came upon another boiling spring, seventy feet long by forty wide, the water of which is dark and muddy, and in unceasing agitation.
About a hundred yards distant we discovered a boiling alum spring, surrounded with beautiful crystals, from the border of which we gathered a quantity of alum, nearly- pure, but slightly impregnated with iron. The violent ebullition of the water had undermined the surrounding surface in many places, and for the distance of several feet from the mar gin had so thoroughly saturated the incrustation with its liquid contents, that it was unsafe to approach the edge. As one of our company was unconcernedly passing near the brink, the incrustation suddenly sloughed off beneath his feet. A shout of alarm from his comrades aroused him to a sense of his peril, and he only avoided being plunged into the boiling mixture by falling suddenly backward at full length upon the firm portion of the crust, and rolling over to a place of safety. His escape from a horrible death was most marvellous, and in another instant he would have been beyond all human aid. Our efforts to sound the depths of this spring with a pole thirty-five feet in length were fruitless.
Beyond this we entered a basin covered with the ancient deposit of some extinct crater, which contained about thirty springs of boiling clay. These unsightly caldrons varied in size from two to ten feet in diameter, their surfaces being from three to eight feet below the level of the plain. The contents of most of them were of the consistency of thick paint, which they greatly resembled, some being yellow, others pink, and others dark brown. This semi-fluid was boiling at a fearful rate, much after the fashion of a hasty-pudding in the last stages of completion. The bubbles, often two feet in height, would explode with a puff, emitting at each time a villainous smell of sulphuretted vapor. Springs six and eight feet in diameter, but four feet asunder, presented distinct phenomenal characteristics. There was no connection between them, above or below. The sediment varied in color, and not unfrequently there would be an inequality of five feet in their surfaces. Each, seemingly, was supplied with a separate force. They were embraced within a radius of 1,200 feet, which was covered with a strong incrustation, the various vents in which emitted streams of heated vapor. Our silver watches, and other metallic articles, assumed a dark leaden hue. The atmosphere was filled with sulphurous gases, and the river opposite our camp was impregnated with the mineral bases of adjacent springs. The valley through which we had made our day's journey was level and beautiful, spreading away to grassy foot-hills, which terminated in a horizon of mountains.
We spent the next day in examining the wonders surrounding us. At the base of adjacent foothills we found three springs of boiling mud, the largest of which, forty feet in diameter, encircled by an elevated rim of solid tufa, resembles an immense caldron. The seething, bubbling contents, covered with steam, are five feet below the run. The disgusting appearance of this spring is scarcely atoned for by the wonder with which it fills the beholder. The other two springs, much smaller, but presenting the same general features, are located near a large sulphur spring of milder temperature, but too hot for bathing. On the brow of an adjacent hillock, amid the green pines, heated vapor issues in scorching jets from several craters and fissures. Passing over the hill, we struck a small stream of perfectly transparent water flowing from a cavern, the roof of which tapers back to the water, which is boiling furiously, at a distance of twenty feet from the mouth, and is ejected through it in uniform jets of great force. The sides and entrance of the cavern are covered with soft green sediment, which renders the rock on which it is deposited as soft and pliable as putty.
About two hundred yards from this cave is a most singular phenomenon, which we called the Muddy Geyser. It presents a funnel-shaped orifice, in the midst of a basin one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, with sloping sides of clay and sand. The crater or orifice, at the surface, is thirty by fifty feet in diameter. It tapers quite uniformly to the depth of about thirty feet, where the water may be seen, when the geyser is in repose, presenting a surface of six or seven feet in breadth. The flow of this geyser is regular every six hours. The water rises gradually, commencing to boil when about half way to the surface, and occasionally breaking forth in great violence. When the crater is filled, it is expelled from it in a splashing, scattered mass, ten or fifteen feet in thickness, to the height of forty feet. The water is of a dark lead color, and deposits the substance it holds in solution in the form of miniature stalagmites upon the sides and top of the crater. As this was the first object which approached a geyser, we, naturally enough, regarded it with intense curiosity. The deposit contained in the water of this geyser comprises about one-fifteenth of its bulk, and an analysis of it, made by Prof. Augustus Steitz, of Montana, gives the following result :—Silica, 36.7; alumina, 52.4; oxide of iron, 1.8 ; oxide of calcium, 3.2 ; oxide of magnesia, 1.8 ; soda and potassa, 4.1= 100.
While returning by a new route to our camp, dull, thundering sounds, which General Washburn likened to frequent discharges of a distant mortar, broke upon our ears. We followed their direction, and found them to proceed from a mud volcano, which occupied the slope of a small hill, embowered in a grove of pines. Dense volumes of steam shot into the air with each report, through a crater thirty feet in diameter. The reports, though irregular, occurred as often as every five seconds, and could be distinctly heard half a mile. Each alternate report shook the ground a distance of two hundred yards or more, and the massive jets of vapor which accompanied them burst forth like the smoke of burning gunpowder. It was impossible to stand on the edge of that side of the crater opposite the wind, and one of our party, Mr. Hedges, was rewarded for his temerity in venturing too near the rim, by being thrown by the force of the volume of steam violently down the outer side of the crater. From hasty views, afforded by occasional gusts of wind, we could see at a depth of sixty feet the regurgitating contents.
This volcano, as is evident from the freshness of the vegetation and the particles of dried clay adhering to the topmost branches of the trees surrounding it, is of very recent formation. Probably it burst forth but a few months ago. Its first explosion must have been terrible. We saw limbs of trees 125 feet high encased in clay, and found its scattered contents two hundred feet from it. We closed this day's labor by a visit to several other springs, so like those already described that they require no special notice.
(Continued in The Wonders of the Yellowstone - Second Article)
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