After the Washburn Expedition got home in 1870, the news stimulated enormous excitement in Montana. Bozeman artist and photographer Henry “Bird” Calfee and his friend, Macon Josey, decided to see the wonders.
Calfee’s account of their trip was found at the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman in a clipping from an unidentified newspaper, which apparently was published about than twenty years after the trip. Calfee said the trip took place in 1871, but that must be in error because he recounts things that didn’t occur until 1872—like an encounter with the notorious Harlow gang of horse thieves.
Calfee was so impressed with the park that he returned often, and eventually started a business selling Yellowstone photographs. Here’s an excerpt from his reminiscence that tells about Josey falling in a geyser, an incident I fictionalized in my middle-grade novel, Macon’s Perfect Shot.
While out exploring and gathering specimens on a tributary of the Firehole River we scared a dear out of a small bunch of timber. In its frightened condition, it attempted to bound over a large open geyser that was in its line of retreat. Failing to land with its hind feet on the farther edge of the formation, it fell backwards into the boiling caldron. We hastened to its rescue and attempted to raise it out by thrusting a long pole under its belly. The formation gave way with us, my companion going down with it into the horrible seething pool. I narrowly escaped by falling backward into the solid formation.
I assisted my companion it quickly as possible, but in one half minute he was scalded from his waist down. He was so a badly scalded that when I pulled his boots and socks off the flesh rolled off with them. I managed to get him back to camp and put what little remaining flour we had on his raw and bleeding burns.
I began immediately making preparations for an early start the next morning for the settlement on the Madison River below. I expected to reach them in two days, but so slow was our progress that we were scarcely out of sight of the lower geyser basin at the end of that time. I hastily constructed a travois after the Indian style, in which Josey could ride.
I then went up to the old Faithful geyser to whom we had delivered our washing the morning before. I found it all nicely washed and lying on his pearly pavement ready for delivery. Our linen and cotton garments, which had been stiff and black with dirt, lay there as white as the driven snow, and our woolen clothes were as clean as could be. But oh my, imagine them in that mammoth unpatented washing machine boiling for one solid hour and then imagine my one hundred and sixty-five pound carcass inside of a suit of underwear scarcely large enough for a ten-year-old boy. I said to Old Faithful, you are a mighty good laundryman but you will not do up my flannels any more. I went back to camp regretting that we couldn’t stay in this vicinity long enough to patronize him again.
Early next morning I got up and got breakfast, which was not a very laborious job as it consisted of elk, straight. I saddled and packed up got Josey into his travois and started down the river reluctantly leaving behind us the world’s most marvelous wonders, many of which were yet to be won by human eye. I here resolved to return as soon as circumstances would permit.
We were all day getting into the lower geyser basin, all of ten miles. We camped near the Fountain geyser and as we were leaving next morning it began spouting. Josey asked me to lead his horse around where he could have a good view of the eruption that continued at least a half hour. Josey declared he could have lain there all day, suffering as he was, and watch such displays of natural magnificence and grandeur. I doubt whether distress and pain could relieve him of all desire for such displays of natural beauty. We bade goodbye to the fountain, started on our journey.
The next day we traveled along at a better speed. That afternoon we passed through the portals of that picturesque valley of the Madison and shook hands with a hardy pioneer, George Lyon, whose latch string hung outside of his dirt covered mansion. As we rode up he stood in his yard with his ax in his had silently gazing, full of wonder and amazement at the appearance of such a looking caravan.
Josey perched on his eminence with his head bundled up for protection from mosquitoes with his legs crossed resembling an Arab more than a geyser crippled shoemaker. And I, with my geyser done up clothes, presented a spectacle, which Lyon had never seen before.
We were welcomed, thrice welcomed, to the hospitalities of our host and we were soon off our horses and at home. About the first thing I did was to introduce Josey to a cake of soap and a trough of water, after which there was little resemblance to the man that started out with me in the spring to explore the wonders of Yellowstone.
Our landlord soon spread out a bountiful supper—the best that a bachelor’s culinary affords. After supper we sat around his open fireplace and narrated for the first time our perilous adventures. He listened attentively to all we said and pronounced us lucky to be alive.
— Abridged from “Calfee’s Adventures” by Henry “Bird” Calfee. Clipping of unknown origin, Pioneer Museum, Bozeman.
— Photo, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.
— You might enjoy Frank Carpenter’s story of doing laundry in a geyser in “Angering Old Faithful.”
— You can read more about Calfee’s adventures in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.