A Tale: A Moonlit Wait for Fountain Geyser —1897

Wading in Great Fountain Geyser, c. 1906

By the 1890s Yellowstone Park had been transformed from a roadless wilderness into a genteel resort with comfortable carriages and luxury hotels. That’s when Frank B. King got on a train in California and traveled to Gardiner, Montana, to take a coach tour of the Park. Although the high adventures of thirty years before we gone, there was still plenty to thrill a visitor like Frank. Here’s his description of waiting in the moonlight for a geyser.


Soon we arrived at the famous Great Fountain, which is one of the largest geysers in the Park. Its crater is about twenty feet in diameter, and one can see down into its clear, blue water at least fifteen feet, and watch the bubbles ascend and break upon the surface. Surrounding the main crater is a secondary, flat basin, and it is in the formation of this border that one sees the most beautiful tints that Nature can produce. The shapes and forms are of the most fantastic and artistic. The coloring is of the lighter and more delicate hues, being upon the pink and amber shades. The forms, colored as they are with the beautiful tints and seen through the clear, still water, which gives one the impression of looking through a pure crystal, make one think of fairyland, they are so beautiful and artistically ideal.

After viewing these more gentle elements, we became impatient for the grand. We had come to see an eruption—had almost been promised it at seven o’clock—and here it was nearly eight. We watched the indicators, but they gave no sign of sounding the alarm. We watched the bubbling water of the crater rise and fall, hoping that each rise would be the last grand spurt, and that each fall was the lull before the storm. We asked questions of the guide; talked among ourselves; carried wood, and built a fire. Time passed, the night grew colder, and still there was no eruption. About ten-thirty, it was the general opinion of the party that we had better give the moon and stars our proxies and let them watch the never-ceasing bubbling of the Fountain, and we returned to the hotel, a cold, tired, and disgusted lot.

The next day, as we were returning from our visit to the Upper Basin, we saw a vast column of steam ascend toward heaven from the vicinity of the Fountain, which was a sign that there had been an eruption, and we had just missed it.

The third evening that we were at the Fountain hotel, we were again told that there was to be an eruption of the Great Fountain. We thought perhaps there might be luck in odd numbers, having missed two eruptions. We piled into the bus to make a try for the third. Again we viewed the beauties of the border; again we watched the fluctuation of the water of the crater, and again we became impatient. The hours passed slowly because we expected every minute to be the last. Nine o’clock came and no eruption. Ten o’clock came and no eruption. The moon rose and cast its mellow light upon the water of the crater and the outer basin. The stars blinked and twinkled and watched over us and the geyser. It was a beautiful sight, with the great geyser before us slowly and deliberately preparing for a mighty effort, the pines back of us sighing and whispering to one another, and that little knot of impatient watchers moving to and fro in the firelight. The question was raised, “Shall we go or shall we stay?” and it was decided we should stay with it until the “bitter end.” There was more wood piled upon the fire, and we settled down to wait in earnest. We had gotten to that “don’t care” state, when those who were standing at the edge of the crater rushed back with a cry of, ” Here she comes!”

Slowly and deliberately the water in the crater overflowed into and filled the outer basin. This was an unfailing indication that an eruption was coming. More wood was piled upon the fire, and the flames leaped with joy and reflected themselves in the moving water. The moderate bubbling increased to violent convulsions. There was a low, sullen rumbling; a bulging of that great mass of water, and with a rush and a roar, the whole mass shot into the air one hundred and fifty feet. It was a sight worth the many hours of waiting to see that great volume of water, twenty feet in diameter and one hundred and fifty feet high, rise and then fall and rise again and continue to play. As it rose toward the spangled blue and the reflected glow of the fire fell upon the water and steam, it seemed like a most beautiful and grand electric fountain; then the steam would drift to one side and the moonlight would play upon it. It was a grand and overpowering sight!

The geyser continued to play for nearly an hour, but the first twenty minutes it was at its best and showed its greatest power, making grand spurts which would be followed by the little lull that came before a renewal of vigor. Then, little by little, the spurts became more feeble; the water subsided, the fire smoldered and went out, and the eruption of the Great Fountain was over.


— Frank B. King, “In Nature’s Laboratory: Driving and Fishing in Yellowstone Park.” Overland Monthly, June 1897.

— NPS Photo, Coppermine Photo Gallery.

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