Yellowstone, America’s First National Park

The Henry Ford

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, based upon the groundbreaking notion that America’s magnificent natural wonders should be enjoyed by everyone rather than just the privileged few.

Early Photographs
During early scientific explorations of Yellowstone, the stunning work of photographers proved that these unique natural wonders actually existed and made people excited to view them for themselves.  William Henry Jackson was a self-taught artist and photographer who accompanied the 1871 Hayden Expedition to explore the wonders of Yellowstone.  His detailed photographs helped convince Congress to establish the national park in 1872.  The names that these earliest adventurers to the park gave to geysers, hot springs, and mud pools are still in use today.

The scenery that early explorers, surveyors, artists, and photographers encountered at Mammoth Hot Springs was among the most striking in the park. Hot waters heavily charged with lime had built up tier upon tier of elaborately carved and fretted terraces made of a hard rock called travertine. The springs that created the terraces, like this terrace the explorers named “Pulpit,” were constantly moving and shifting—leaving old terraces dormant and forming new ones.

Norris Geyser Basin changed daily due to water fluctuations and seismic activity. New hot springs and geysers appeared, while others became dormant. Constant Geyser, on the left, was a relatively frequent performer, spraying twenty to thirty feet high in few-second bursts. Black Growler, in the background, was a steam vent—a cluster of hissing holes in a barren hillside that emitted a thick tower of steam, occasionally switching from one hole to another.

Lower Geyser Basin sat on unstable glacial gravel atop solid rock—causing effects like bubbling mud pools and unpredictable increases in water temperature. When it erupted, Fountain Geyser was one of the most impressive geysers in the park, reaching twenty to fifty feet in the air and lasting twenty-five minutes or more.

The so-called “Paint Pot” in Lower Geyser Basin was an oxide-colored pool of mud composed of hot clay minerals and fine particles of silica. It became famous for its blooping and spitting sounds. Bursting bubbles might unexpectedly lob high into the air.

The tallest predictable geyser in the park, Grand erupted from a large pool of powerful bursts every seven to fifteen hours. Average eruptions lasted nine to twelve minutes, in one to four bursts that sometimes reached 200 feet in the air. Grand Geyser was connected to other geysers in the so-called Grand Group, which also included adjacent Vent Geyser and Turban Geyser.

Old Faithful was the most famous and celebrated geyser in the park—and indeed the world. Members of the 1870 Washburn Expedition, who camped near this geyser, named it Old Faithful because they discovered that it erupted at frequent and regular intervals (averaging about every ninety minutes). Each eruption emitted 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of boiling water for a period of two to five minutes, with water reaching a height of 90 to 184 feet.

Yellowstone Lake—one of the coldest, largest, and highest lakes in North America—was a jaw-dropping discovery for early explorers. The shoreline covered 110 miles at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet above sea level. This photograph was taken from Stevenson Island, which later became a popular spot for fish fries during tourist excursions on the lake.

Touring the Park
During the first decade of the 1900s, tourists could take the Grand Tour of Yellowstone National Park by horse-drawn carriage.  The 4 ½-day tour offered the best views of the park’s natural wonders—then referred to as oddities and curiosities.

The Roosevelt Arch, named after Theodore Roosevelt, was completed 1903 at the north entrance to the park.

The inscription over Roosevelt Arch symbolized the ideals that established Yellowstone and defined the vision for all national parks to come.

Bison almost became extinct due to sport hunting and poaching, but a remarkable effort was made to preserve them at Yellowstone during the early 1900s. The few bison that remained were rounded up and brought to this corral for park officials to watch over and for tourists to view. The greatly expanded bison herd was returned to the wild in the 1930s.

At the intersection of three major earthquake fault zones, Norris Geyser Basin was the hottest, most active geyser basin in the park. Underground water temperatures of 706 degrees Fahrenheit have been measured.

Upper Geyser Basin, about two square miles in area, contained the largest concentration of geysers in the park—in fact, nearly one-quarter of all the geysers in the world!

Located along the edge of Yellowstone Lake, this small geyser basin consisted of a stone mantle riddled with hot springs. They resembled vast boiling pots of paint with a continuous bubbling-up of mud.

Hayden Valley, the remains of an ancient lakebed, was filled with large, open meadows on either side of the Yellowstone River.

As the Yellowstone River flowed north from Yellowstone Lake, it took two great plunges: first over the Upper Falls and then, a quarter mile downstream, over the Lower Falls. The Lower Falls was 308 feet high, or almost twice as high as Niagara Falls, and was the tallest falls in the park.

The Lower Falls had a larger volume of water passing over it than any other waterfall in the Rocky Mountains area. In places, the walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone dropped some 1,000 feet to the river below.

Staying There
The Grand Tour involved stopping at a grand hotel every night, while Wylie Camps offered less expensive lodgings in canvas tents.  Automobiles were officially allowed in the park in 1915, and many early motorists came prepared to “rough it.”

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was a rather typical hotel of the era, taking its design cues from eastern resorts of the time.

Old Faithful Inn, a grand hotel built alongside Old Faithful geyser in 1903, was the first true rustic-style western resort. Architect Robert Reamer designed it to fit in with nature rather than—like other fancy resorts—to provide an escape from it.

The inside of Old Faithful Inn continued the rustic look, with a spectacular seven-story log-framed lobby containing a massive stone fireplace.

The oldest surviving hotel in the park, charming Yellowstone Lake Hotel was built in 1891. Architect Robert Reamer added the colonial-style columns in 1903.

Those who couldn’t afford to take the Grand Tour could choose the less expensive “Wylie Way,” which involved seeing the sites from a Wylie stagecoach and lodging in a canvas tent overnight.

More and more motorists arrived in the park, leading to paved roads, parking area, service stations, and improved public campgrounds. Most early motorists came prepared to camp.

Tourist Behavior
Early Yellowstone tourists looked forward to feeding the bears or cooking freshly-caught fish in Fish Pot Hot Spring at Yellowstone Lake.  These practices were later banned because they proved to be harmful to fragile ecosystems, natural resources, and wildlife.

Although Yellowstone had been designated a national park to protect the area’s geothermal features and natural wonders, the park bears quickly became one of its primary attractions. As far back as the 1890s, tourists enjoyed nightly “bear shows,” as bears emerged at dusk to scavenge at the hotel garbage dumps. The introduction of automobiles into the park increased the likelihood of bear sightings, as it became common for black bears, in particular, to beg for human food handouts. Overzealous tourists forgot any concerns that these wild animals might be dangerous and took to such reckless behavior as feeding them out of their hands (as in this photo from about 1917), taking photographs with them, and even “dancing” with them. Inevitably, incidents of damage to human property and human injuries led to an intensive bear management program in 1970.

Fish Pot Hot Spring, also called “Fishing Cone,” is a shoreline geyser that protrudes from the bottom of Yellowstone Lake. Early tourists claimed that they could catch a trout from the lake, and without moving a step, cook the fish within a few minutes by dipping it into the boiling water inside the cone while the fish was still on its line. By the 1930s, this practice had been prohibited.

This petrified redwood tree is a remnant of the trees that were once part of a great primeval forest. Three petrified trees once stood on this site but two were carried off in pieces by souvenir hunters. This remnant was surrounded by a protective iron fence in 1947.

When Yellowstone was established in 1872, no one knew what a national park should be. Over time, Yellowstone National Park became a testing ground for what it meant to both preserve America’s natural wonders and make them accessible to everyone.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

For more related artifacts on Yellowstone or our national parks, visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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