A Tale: Building Fires To Light Up Grotto Geyser — 1880

Visitors on Groto Geyser Cone

When the U.S. Congress established Yellowstone Park in 1872, they didn’t provide a budget for rangers to enforce regulations. That left people free to do whatever they wanted—and often they did things people today would never imagine.

Early travelers’ accounts include descriptions of such things as dumping rubble in Old Faithful to see what would happen, shooting bald eagles for sport and doing dishes in hot springs. The Army took over administration of the park in 1886 and guarded it until the Park Service was established in 1916.

Robert Strahorn, who visited the park in 1880 to write a description for the Union Pacific Railroad, built fires beside Grotto Geyser so he could see it play by firelight. Here’s what he said about that.


Groto Geyser Closeup

The Grotto is the most singular piece of mechanism among all the geysers. Its dome is some 30 feet long and half as wide, and 20 feet high. It is a miniature temple of almost alabaster whiteness, with arches leading to some interior Holy of Holies, whose sacred places may never be profaned by eye or foot. The hard, calcareous formation about it is smooth and bright as a clean swept pavement.

Several columns, resembling masses of pearls, rise to a height of eight or ten feet, supporting a roof that covers the entire vent, forming fantastic arches and entrances, out of which the water is ejected, during an eruption, 50 or 60 feet.

The entire surface is composed of the most delicate bead-work imaginable, massive but elaborately elegant, and so peerlessly beautiful that the hand of desecration has not been laid upon it, and it stands without flaw or break in all its primal beauty—a grotto of pearls.

Darkness coming on, we built large fires on one side of the Grotto, and from the opposite side were afforded a sight, whose wonderful weirdness we can never forget. The volumes of water then resembled sheets of flame or molten metal and the drenched and dripping arches, through which the flickering blaze was plainly seen, seemed more like a fiery furnace than a real, live geyser.

We camped by the side of the Grotto during the night, and with the confused noises of hundreds of geysers, steam vents and boiling springs in our ears, and reflection, which would not “down,” upon the almost supernatural experiences of the day, there was more wakefulness than tired bodies warranted.


— Excerpt from Robert E. Strahorn’s book, Montana and Yellowstone Park, 1881.

— Images from Coppermine Photo Gallery.

— You also might enjoy this story by Robert Strahorn’s wife, Carrie: An October Snowstorm at Yellowstone Canyon, or John L. Stoddard’s description of Fountain Geyser as a Cloudburst of Jewels.

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