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The Living Age; April 8, 1882; Littell and Co,; Boston

From The Nineteenth Century. (A British Publication)

The Yellowstone Geysers.

            "WAL, sir, I tell you that that thar Yellowstone Park and them Geysers is jest indescribable. Yes, sir, that's what they are, sure," said all the packers, teamsters, and prospectors we consulted on the subject. A greater measure of truth characterized this statement than is usually contained in eulogistic reports of scenery. We were advised at Ogden that pack trains or wagons could be hired at various points of the "Utah Northern " branch of the Union Pacific Railway. In order to economize time my companion preceded me, to contract for transport, whilst I remained in Ogden to conclude arrangements in connection with the commissariat department. These completed, I followed him. He met me at Dillon with a history of woe. At so short a notice no "outfits" were to be obtained anywhere but at this place, and here the demands for them were exorbitant. No regard was taken of current rates. We were looked upon as so much quartz to be crushed and smelted. I ventured to expostulate with one teamster:

            “What you ask is absurd. It would pay you in three weeks more than your outfit' cost."

            “Oh, horses is dear in this country!"

            "Not as dear as that amounts to."

            “Wal, it ain't much for them as has the means and wants to go in."

            I am afraid, to use a miner's expression, that we did not "pan out" quite so well as their previous experiences of an English "prospect" led them to anticipate. Eventually a little diplomacy secured us the services of a Mormon teamster and his boy, a wagon, and twelve mules and horses, on very moderate terms. We engaged a cook, and with Dick (the guide we had brought from Ogden), the "outfit " was complete.

            Dick was an old soldier, and a first-rate fellow. True, the Dillon whisky proveed almost too much for him at starting, but ordinary poison would be a mild beverage in comparison with it, and we were so glad that it did not kill him outright that we excused his temporary indisposition. Besides, even then he displayed the most charming urbanity and the greatest anxiety to get under way.

            "All I wants, Mr. —, is to make a start,— to get away— beyond the pale of civilization as you may say—beyond the (hic) pale," he would repeat, meditatively.

            "Beyond the pail or the cask, Dick?"

            "Beyond the (hic) pale," replied Dick somewhat dubiously, after a long and thoughtful pause.

            Dick was energetic in his endeavors to engage an "outfit"

            "Say you, look here," he would explain to a native ; " these 'ere men don't want none of your — — snide outfits, but jest good bronchos and a wagon and strong harness."

            "Wal, can't yer find no wagons?"

            "Wagons! —! Wagons 'trough for a whole army, you bet. But — — it, these fellows all propose to make independent fortunes in a single day. Why, they want jest as much to hire out one broncho for a week as 'll buy a whole team."

            Swearing is prevalent amongst these fellows. Our teamster was rather gifted with talent in this direction. He was to be heard at his best in the early morning whilst engaged in catching the hobbled mules and horses. Amongst the more harmless titles conferred by him on members of our stud were the "yaller one-eyed cuss," "the private curse," "the bandy-legged, hobbling, contrary son of etc., etc.," here following contumelious references to both the animal's remote ancestors and immediate progenitors. But I do the man injustice. It is impossible to render in its pristine vigor, upon paper, the eloquence that distinguished his morning exhortation to the mules- Frantic with rage, he usually concluded by imploring us to assist him in hanging them or driving them into the river with the view of drowning them. Brown, our cook, one of the quietest, gentlest, and best old fellows in the world, rather enjoyed the scene. The teamster criticised his cooking, an insult that the meekest cook cannot forget.

            "Yes," he said one day, as he turned the antelope steaks in the frying-pan and listened to the voice of the teamster softly swearing in the distance ; "yes, Mormons always do swear ter'ble, and the women as well, and the children too, and smoke. I guess they smokes more and stands for the swearingest people as there is anywhere. And they're all alike."

            We took no tent, but trusted entirely to fine weather and buffalo robes. For the first few days the track lay through a gameless and uninteresting alkali country.

            Every one, myself excepted, was disagreeably affected by the water. Even the dogs were unwell. The dryness of the atmosphere was remarkable. Moist sugar became as hard as rock; discharged powder left nothing but a little dry dust in the guns, our lips cracked and our finger-nails grew so brittle that it was impossible to pare without breaking them. As we proceeded the scenery grew wild, and in places fine. On many slopes the pine forests had been lightly swept by fire, and skeleton trunks, from which the bark had fallen away, stood out in ghostly array against the yellow, red, and russet undergrowth, or looked with ascetic asperity on the bright belt of light-leaved willow bushes whose boughs danced gaily in the sunlight on the foot-hills.

            At length we surmounted a low divide leading from the Centennial Valley and caught our first glimpse of Henry's Lake. In the purple haze of an autumnal sunset it stretched out before us, and the ripples that dwelt there, waked from their midday slumbers by the evening breeze, sparkled and glittered and tossed and laughed whilst they restlessly compared their blue and gold and violet reflections and chased each round the shores of emerald islands out on the silver bosom of the waters. Time was when only the sun came up over the hills and looked in upon the solitude of this beautiful sheet of water, dreaming its days away in the still heart of the mountains. At most perchance an occasional Indian wandered thither to hunt antelope on its grassy shores, wild fowl in its reedy fringe, or spear by torchlight the noble trout that haunt its crystal depths. Now it is in a fair way to become a "summer resort." Already a log hotel has been tried there. Jam-pots and empty meat-tins lie around it in profusion. Fortunately for some reason it has been deserted. So the pelicans, the swans and geese that dot the lake's wide surface, the ducks and flocks of teal that sail there in fleets or skim in close order to and fro, the grouse in the willow thickets, and the wary regiments of antelope, have yet a respite of comparative security to enjoy, before civilization drives them from their patrimony.

            We frequently camped near a trout stream. The trout, although proof against the persuasive influence of the artificial fly, were generally amenable to the seductions of the grasshopper, the butterfly, or grub. Dick's disgust at fly-fishing, was amusing. One day B. lent him a rod and I gave him some flies. He was absent about an hour, and then returned with little more than the winch and the butt end of the rod.

            "Well, Piscator, what luck ?" inquired B.

            "Why, these here durned fish don't piscate worth a cent. Guess I'll go and catch some with a pole and a hopper or thar won't be any fish for supper." The identification of trout was one of sundry points on which the teamster and I begged to differ. Trout vary considerably in markings in these mountain streams ; still a trout is unmistakable.

            "That's a pretty trout," said I, one day.

            "He ain't no trout. That thar's a chub, that's what he is."

            "How do you know that – from observation?"

            "No, chap he told me so the other day."

            "I should call it a trout."

            "Wal, I reckon they call him a chub down at the terminus[*],* and the boys they know something there. Anyway he's a chub in this country."

            With this conclusive argument Andrews always annihilated me. We were at issue upon several questions of this and other natures. Only one, however, threatened to result unpleasantly. Andrews had a boy. He was a surly, flat-faced boy, with a nose like a red pill. His name was Bud, or Buddy. The father thought all the world of Bud. Bud was one of "the smartest boys in the States." (There are a good many of them.) His proud spirit brooked no restraint. On all subjects he was the best informed person in the party. He was twelve years of age. He was also a Mormon. His education was complete. He possessed, together, with great experience, implicit self-reliance, a shot-gun, a rifle, and a racing pony. Bud at once assumed command of the expedition. He seemed to labor under an impression that we had come from England to accompany him.

            When the track was well travelled he would drive our spare stock a few yards ahead of me, in order that I should be thoroughly annoyed with the dust. This pleased him; but I was forced to insist on his taking his pleasure in some other way. Bud declared that "he would be dog-durned if he was a-going to run his interior (he called it by some other name) out a-driving the stock any further ahead – durned if he would." However, he was induced to change his mind; and as the teamster expended all his courage in talking, and collapsed the moment an opportunity was afforded him of displaying his prowess, the matter was amicably settled. Thenceforward Bud was a little more circumspect. He used to over-eat himself. When just retribution overtook him, his devoted parent, in an agony of fear, would declare his intention of returning at once with his “outfit " to the terminus in quest of a doctor. On two occasions we hung for a while with the greatest anxiety upon Bud's languid responses to questions regarding his health. And we questioned him as if we loved him. We all doctored him too. Yet he lived! Evidently his constitution was very strong. At any rate we had nothing in camp that could make him die or even get worse. Once in a fit of meddlesome benevolence I restrained his father from giving him a powerful aperient for diarrhœa. It has been a source of regret to me ever since, for though some months have elapsed since Bud and I were comrades, my feelings towards him have undergone no change.

            Never allow a boy to accompany a party of this kind, and, least of all, a Western frontier boy. The patience with which an American will submit to insolence from an ill-conditioned young cub of this kind is truly marvellous, and utterly passes the comprehension of an Englishman. Therefore, I say, on no account have anything to do with a boy.

            Those who dwell in the vicinity of the Yellowstone National Park love enthusiastically to term it Wonderland. Nor is it altogether without reason. Within its boundaries (one hundred miles square) there are over ten thousand active geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, solfataras, salses, and boiling pools. Of these over two thousand are confined in the small area comprising the upper and lower geyser basins. Sulphur mountains, an obsidian mountain, a mud volcano, and various other remarkable phenomena, add to the curiosity of this extraordinary region. Some of the grandest, some of the most grotesque scenery may be seen here, and the magnificent falls, the interesting cascades, and the eccentric beauty of the Grand Cañon may well challenge comparison with the world's most picturesque features. To attempt an exhaustive description of these marvels within the limits of letter-writing is impossible. Equally difficult is it, amongst so much that merits attention, to select that which is most noteworthy.

            We will proceed at once towards the upper geyser basin, passing en route the lower basin with its so termed "paint-pots” or "cream-pots" — boiling vats of a semi-silicious clay, which varies in color from creamy white to pink or slate. The next point of interest is Hell's Half-Acre. The pools here are at once the most impressive and beautiful in the park. I turned aside twice to see them, once on my way to the upper basin, and again on my return. On these occasions I saw them under completely diverse aspects; for on the first day a thunderstorm darkened the usually serene beauty of the sky. They are situated near the bank of a river, in a desolate expanse of white, formed by deposits from the numerous tiny springs that bubble up on all sides. The first pool is of comparative unimportance. The second, from which the locality derives its name, considerably exceeds half an acre in extent. It is but recently that it assumed its present dimensions. These apparently are daily increasing ; and it bids fair, if its devouring energies continue undiminished, to join forces with its fellow pools, and form a lake some acres in extent. Numerous cracks and fissures scallop the edges of the yawning gulf, and indicate the direction of future encroachments. It is with feelings not altogether devoid of apprehension, therefore, that the stranger to these infernal regions cautiously approaches to windward of the steam, to gaze into the awesome abyss below him. The boiling hiss and roar of many waters issues increasingly from its cavernous depths, but heavy clouds of steam veil them from view, and the miniature cliffs, all jagged and crumbling, that plunge precipitately down into the sea of white, are speedily lost in its enveloping folds. Anon the wind sweeps past, and a momentary glimpse is obtainable, through a rift in the steam, of the perturbed and seething surface of the water. It is a wonderful sight. Alone it would repay the labor of the journey. And seen as I first saw it, when thunder rolled overhead, and the broad heavens were tilled from time to time with the glare of lightning, the impressive character of the scene was enhanced.

            Unlike Hell's Half-Acre, the third and largest pool is brimful, and overflows its edges, forming, with the minerals its waters contain in solution, a succession of steps and tiny ledges which entirely surround it. It is impossible to conceive anything more beautiful than the brilliant coloring here presented. Its waters are of the purest, brightest, cerulean blue, but near the shallow edges are reflected the enclosing rocks, and the glorious blue is lost in yellow, pale green, or red, whilst chemical deposits, in exquisite arrangements, such as the genius of nature alone can suggest, of écru and ivory, lemon and orange, buff, chocolate, brown, pink, vermilion, bronze, and fawn, encircle the pool, or paint with ribbon-like effect the tiny streams that trickle from its overflow. Nor is this all. In the transparent curtain of rising steam, as it is gently wafted across the pine-wood landscape, a dim reflection of all these wondrous colors slowly dissipating and melting into thin air, is distinctly visible. The sleepy stillness, the appearance of profound depth, and the moist brilliancy of the coloring, defy all efforts at description. The brush of the greatest artist, the pen of the finest writer, would alike be laid aside in despair, and the genius of man perforce must bow before the power of nature, were it tasked to convey in a faithful picture the fantastic beauty of this unearthly scene.

            We passed on through pine forests, seared and blackened by recent fires, and through the middle geyser basin, with its columns of steam, its subterraneous rumblings, its hollow echoing of our horses' trampling, its hissing craters and its bubbling springs, that sometimes lay within a few feet of the track. Towards evening we entered the upper basin. Imagine the head of a valley walled in by sombre hills and threaded by a rushing stream. Patches of desert white alternating with clumps of pine trees filled the bottom. On all sides, issuing from amidst the foliage, dense columns of steam rose up and towered into the heavens. The storm had cleared, and the sun, sinking amidst gold and purple clouds, shed a fiery glow through the trees upon the ridges, that caused each twig, almost, I had said, each pine needle, to stand out clearly in a fringe of delicate tracery against the sky. As we crossed the stream and mounted the opposite bank, a vast monument of steam, followed by a stream of water one hundred and sixty feet high, shot up into the air at the further end of the basin. "There goes Old Faithful," exclaimed Dick; "the only reliable geyser in the park. You can always bet on seeing him every sixty-five minutes."

            Already encamped here we found a party of twenty American ladies and gentlemen, who were travelling through the park. They informed us that the Giantess (perhaps the finest, but certainly the most capricious geyser of all) was expected to play in the morning, and the Castle to perform the next evening. There are nine principal geysers, namely, the Giant, Giantess, Castle, Grand, Beehive, Comet, Fan, Grotto, and Old Faithful. With exception of the Grotto, which simply churns and makes a great uproar, one of these tremendous fountains may be expected at any moment to cast a stream of boiling water from one to two, or even three hundred feet into the air.

            All geysers have not the same action, and most of them, in style of action, in the duration of their eruptions, and in the intervals that elapse between them, are apt individually to vary. Some play with labored pumping, others throw a continuous stream, some wear themselves out in a single effort, others subside only to recommence again repeatedly. Thus an eruption may extend from two to twenty minutes the approximate time occupied by the Grand ; or even to one hour and twenty minutes — a period that the Giant has been timed to play.

            The colors that tinge the edges of some craters, and stain the courses of the streams that they send forth, are indescribably beautiful. The snowy whiteness of the grounding is relieved by dainty buffs, pale pinks and softest écrus, deep yellow shot with brown, orange streaked with vermilion or straying into crimson, chocolate merging into black, and interlined with lemon — by colors, in fact, run riot, and all glistening wet beneath the clearest crystal water, that in the centre of the crater deepens into the heavenliest blue. From such brilliancy it is a relief to turn towards the sullen hills of purple pines.

            Extinct domes and craters, overgrown with flourishing trees, or mounds still bare, and even steaming, with otherwise only their immense size to indicate the mighty power that formed them, are found here and there, amongst those well known to be still active. Many craters are surrounded by the skeleton trunks of trees that they have killed, and which, under the action of their mineral waters, are rapidly becoming petrified; whilst in the conflict betwixt desolation and verdure, which, owing to the frequent variation of the centres of action, is constantly in progress, the lowly bunch-grass steals ground wherever it dare draw a blade.

            Of all the geysers whose eruptions we witnessed, the Grand was, I think, the most interesting. It played each evening at a regular hour. We were thus enabled to get comfortably into front seats, focus our glasses, and discuss the programme, as it were, before the performance commenced. This it did very abruptly, although the activity displayed by a small vent-hole, and the furious bubbling in another orifice connected with it, might be accepted as premonitory symptoms. Suddenly, with a single prefatory spurt, the Grand shot a vast stream of water over two hundred feet into the air. For a few minutes this pressure was maintained with unabated vigor, then it suddenly ceased, and the waters shrank back out of sight in the cavernous hollow of the crater. Meanwhile the vent and cauldron were still furiously laboring, and subterraneous thunder shook the ground on which we stood. After a minute's cessation, the geyser again burst forth without warning, and with even greater violence. This continued until nine successive pulsations had occurred. The latter efforts, however, perceptibly diminished in grandeur.

            It is impossible to conjure up in words any idea of the majestic fury of the scene. The maddened rush of scalding water bursting for a moment's freedom from its mysterious captivity, the gigantic columns of dense vapor, the clouds and clouds of lace-like falling spray or diamond showers, the lance-tipped water-jets pennoned with puffs of steam, the subterraneous reports, the wondrous effects of the evening sun on the silver sheaf of water-spears that with lightning rapidity flashed forth and vanished, broke and reformed, and the rainbow that shone through the drifting masses of gauzy mist, baffle entirely my powers of description. I could only gaze and marvel. The packers and teamsters were right : "the Yellowstone Park and them geysers is jest indescribable." Over and over again was I forced to admit it, and not the least heartily when looked down the dim valley at night and watched the ghostly columns of gleaming vapor winding from amidst impenetrable shadows and invading the silent heavens, or listened to the ever recurring rush and splashing of those mighty fountains breaking the stillness of the breathless hours.

            Slightly removed from the main group is one of lesser importance, containing, , however, objects of considerable interest. Chief amongst these is the Golconda spring. In some respects this is one of the most striking features in the upper basin. It lies in the hollow of banks that form an exact representation of an inverted horseshoe. By tiny terraces, the creation of deposits contained in its heavily charged waters, the stream issues from the frog of the hoof and spreads over a large surface on its shallow course to the river. There is a strange fascination in striving to pierce the profound, pellucid and brilliant depths of this extraordinary spring. Somewhat akin the feeling is to that which impels us to gaze and gaze over some sheer, scarped precipice or into some grand ravine. One could stand for hours there, tracing the ivory cliffs bathed in sapphire circles, down, down, down, to where the gleaming waters grow black and awesome, and the creamy rocks contracting, lose their fantastic imagery and mass in weird mystery, to form the gloomy portals of what seem the fathomless abysses of another world.

            As a game country the Yellowstone Park is a mistake. You may kill a few antelope, an occasional elk or deer; it would not be utterly impossible to happen on a stray bear or bison; but to go there merely for game is to court certain disappointment. Besides which, hunting is restricted in the park. Beyond its boundaries good game countries are easy of access; within them summer tourists have scared away all the game. Nevertheless it is always possible to kill enough birds and antelope to vary the camp fare. It is a delightful climate and a glorious country for gipsying. I, at least, never tire of riding through the cool dim pine woods and grassy glades, where the chipmunk and squirrel curiously reconnoitre you, and the odor of pine sap is heavy on the air, where the breeze from without penetrates only in softened and saddened murmurous tones, that in rising and falling seem to come from so far away, to linger so short a while near you, and to die away so very slowly in the unexplored aisles of the forest. On you ride silently over a thick carpet of pine needles, and smoke pipe after pipe whilst you travel lazily back over the past and its scenes in thought. Anon you halt for a while and chat to the wise-looking retriever "Shot," till the wagon wheels are heard creaking in the distance and you pass on again ahead of the party. Perchance the scene changes to some stream-threaded valley, full of beaver-dams, near which a few ducks are idly sailing in security. Here the pine yields place to willow bushes or the ever-rustling quaking aspen, and the chipmunk and squirrel are succeeded by gorgeous butterflies and red-winged grasshoppers that spring away with noisy clapping from every tuft of grass beneath your horses' hoofs. At night round a blazing camp-fire Dick and old Brown, B. and I, sit through many a pleasant hour chatting, till the flames wax low and red and the vociferous snoring of the teamster warns us of the time. Old Brown then "gets off" his last tale or joke, and with a hearty good-night, we turn into luxurious couches of springy pine tops and buffalo robes, where we sleep a la belle étoile the unbroken sleep of a natural life. What silver-lit skies spread above us, what a glorious blue their shadowy depths embosom, and how exquisitely delicate is the tracery of yonder pine bough betwixt us and the late-rising moon! "Good-night, good-night," and "Shot" replies with a lazy yawn as he coils himself up against my back and makes himself comfortable also for the night.

            F. FRANCIS.

[*] The "terminus" is any village on the railway line that the speaker happens to frequent.