A Tale: A Million Billion Barrels of Hot Water — 1871

A group of professionals and businessmen visited the geysers in 1871—long before the era of hot water heaters. The trip was chronicled by Harry Norton, who published the first Yellowstone travel guide in Virginia City in 1873. Norton called one of his companions, who owned telegraph lines between Deer Lodge and Bozeman, “Prince Telegraph.” Here’s Norton’s description of the Prince’s experiments in geyserland.


Just for the oddity of the idea, some of the party proposed that we should try a cup of geyser tea. Happy thought! A million billion barrels of hot water within easy reach, and nothing to do but put the tea a-drawing! Notwithstanding all that has been said by former tourists, the tea was excellent—and produced no disagreeable effects.

We afterwards utilized several of the geysers by boiling meat, dirty clothes, beans, coffee, etc., each experiment being attended with satisfaction. For boiled beans, two quarts of “navies” were put in a flour sack, and with a rope, lowered into the steaming crater. In thirty minutes they were perfectly soft and palatable. This is not a first-rate method to make allopathic bean soup, but for a homeopathic dose. it can’t be beat. In this connection, a little incident:

Prince Telegraph’s wardrobe, like our saddle-seat, was constantly getting out of repair—and as he had failed in trying to sew on a patch with a needle-gun he was obliged to procure assistance. He finally compromised affairs by a change of duties: Woodall, an expert, was to sew on the patch while Prince Telegraph washed the dishes—his first attempt probably in a lifetime. Hesitating a moment, a brilliant idea struck him. Fifty or sixty feet distant was a very noisy little geyser. Its aperture was in the centre of a noisy shallow, well-rimmed basin of about two and a half by four feet. The water scarcely ever covered the flat bottom at a greater depth than two inches.

Pitching the soiled tin ware, knives, forks, towels, etc., into a champagne basket, and with an “0h, ho! I guess I can’t wash dishes!” the Prince approaching his improvised dishpan, unceremoniously dumped them in to soak while he placidly enjoyed his meerschaum. Suddenly, and as if resenting the insult to its dignity, the little spouter spit the basin full to overflowing in a second. Setting the contents in a perfect whirl, and the next instant, drawing in its breath, the geyser commenced sucking everything toward the aperture.

We at the camp heard an agonizing cry for help, and looking out, beheld the Prince—with hat off and eyes peeled—dancing around his dishpan in a frantic attempt to save the last culinary outfit. It was comical in the extreme. There would be a plunge of the hand in the boiling water, a yell of pain, and out would come a spoon—another plunge and yell, and a tin plate—an” Oh! ah! o-o-o, e-e-e” and a fork. As we arrived, the towel and one tin plate were just going out of sight; while the Prince, gazing at his parboiled hands, was profanely discussing the idea of being “sucked in” by a geyser!


— From  Harry J. Norton, Wonderland Illustrated or, Horseback Rides Through the Yellowstone National Park, 1873.

— Postcard from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

— You may also enjoy Colonel William J. Barlow’s tale of bathing in Mammoth Hot Spring.

— For more funny stories click on “Humor” under the “Categories” button on the left side of this page.

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