One of the most luxurious early trips to Yellowstone Park was led by President U.S. Grant’s Secretary of War, General William Belknap. In 1875, Belknap was joined by four other Generals including W.E. Strong, who provide an account of the trip.
The Generals crossed the country in a plush Pullman car smoking cigars, drinking whisky, and telling stories, on the new transcontinental railroad. Then they rode in a special stagecoach that traveled at breakneck speed from Utah to Montana.
Along the way they were feted with banquets, parties and parades. In Bozeman a Silver Coronet Band greeted them at the edge of town and escorted them through the city to Fort Ellis.
At Fort Ellis they were provided with an escort of active duty soldiers led by Gustavus Doane, who had commanded the escort of the Washburn Expedition in 1870.
Each General was assigned an orderly to take care of his every whim: packing his personal belongings, putting up his tent, rolling out his bed roll, digging his latrine, and cleaning any fish he caught. All at army expense, of course. A year later the U.S. Senate impeached General Belknap for taking bribes.
General Strong eloquently describes the wonders of Yellowstone—falls, hot springs and geysers, and describes the people he met—mountain men, stagecoach drivers, and towns people. Most of all, he revels in telling exciting tales of hunting elk, stampeding buffalo, and catching fish. Here’s his description of fishing.
Again I threw my hook in the swift water, and down the stream it went like lightning, tossing about like a feather in the rapid. My reel whirled and spun like a buzz saw, the line went out so fast.
I never touched the reel to check the running line till seventy-five feet, at least, was in the water. Then I pressed my thumb firmly upon it and drew gently back the rod. At the same instant something struck my hook that nearly carried me off my feet. I had to let go the reel to save the rod.
I had him securely hooked, but could I land him? That was the question. I gave him twenty-five or thirty feet more line—then checked again and tried to hold him—but it was no use, the rod bent nearly double, and I had to let him run.
My line was one hundred and fifty feet in length, and I knew when it was all out, if the fish kept in the rapids, I should lose him. No tackle like mine could stand for a moment against the strength of such a fish as I had struck in such swift water.
I therefore continued to give him the line—but no faster than I was forced to. No more than twelve or fifteen feet remained on the reel. Fortunately for me, he turned to the left and was carried into an eddy which swept him into more quiet water near the shore.
Twice in his straight run down the rapid current of the stream he leaped clear from the water. I saw he was immense—something double or triple the size of any trout I had ever caught. The excitement to me was greater than anything I had ever experienced.
No one but a trout fisherman can understand or appreciate the intense pleasure of a single run. I was crazy to kill and land him, and yet I knew the chances were against it. Again and Again I reeled him within twenty-five or thirty feet of the rock. But he was game to the last, and would dart off with the same strength as when he first struck. I had to let him go.
Finally, he showed signs of exhaustion. I managed to get him to top the water, and then worked him in close to the sore. Flynn was waiting to take the line and throw him out, as I had no landing net. Flynn did it very well. When the trout was very near the bank and quiet, he lifted him out.
He was a fine specimen, and would weigh four pounds if he weighed an ounce. This trout was three times the size I had ever caught. At 4:30 o’clock I stopped fishing having landed thirty-five trout which would have run from two and a half to four pounds in weight—none less than two and one half pounds.
— For more stories about fishing in Yellowstone Park, click on “fishing” under the “Categories” button on the right.
— From W.E. Strong, A Trip to the Yellowstone National Park in July, August, and September, 1875.
— Photo from Paul Schullery, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.