In the summer of 1885, General George W. Wingate took his wife and daughter through Yellowstone Park. Although the system of roads was complete by then, the Wingates decided to make their tour on horseback, the better to see the sights. The General, who was a civil war veteran and later president of the National Rifle Association, wrote a charming book about his adventures in the park. Here’s an excerpt.
The 19th being Sunday, the ladies rested in camp, while I took our three men and rode to the Middle Falls of the Gardner. There was no road; merely a blazed trail through the woods, which we had to hunt up. This involved fording the river and considerable skirmishing among fallen timber, and in and out of places where I would never have dreamed at the East of venturing on horseback. Finally, the trail (probably an old elk runway) was found. It was just wide enough for a horse to get through, and led us up the mountain by a comparatively easy grade, but along a precipice, with yawning depths, to glance into which was sometimes quite startling. But we were rapidly becoming accustomed to that sort of thing and took it as naturally as our ponies did.
After a steady climb of four miles, we found ourselves on the edge of a canyon overlooking the falls. It was a magnificent and most picturesque sight. Mr. Winson’s very accurate guide book gives the depth of the canyon at from 1,200 to 1,500 feet. I think this is an error as this would be deeper than the Great Canyon (which the same authority gives at 1,200 feet) and I should think the latter was considerably the deepest. But whatever the measurement, it is of appalling depth, about 500 yards wide at the top and very narrow at the bottom, not to exceed 150 feet. The sides drop from the brink above in almost perpendicular ledges, as steep as the Palisades on the Hudson River and four times their depth. Into this cleft in the rocks, the river plunges in one unbroken fall of over a hundred feet and then continues its fall in a scries of cascades to the bottom of the dark chasm. The white fall, the tumbling water, and the dark shadows of.the canyon, make a striking picture.
After fully enjoying the scene, we amused ourselves by rolling large rocks over the cliff. It was wonderful to see a stone the size of a trunk leap into the air in a plunge of 200 or 300 feet, strike the shelf below as if thrown by a catapult, and with such tremendous force as to rebound twenty feet, and after a series of such terrific bounds, make another tremendous leap to the slope below, continuing in bound after bound until it reached the creek, growing smaller and smaller at each movement until it seemed no larger than a foot-ball.
While indulging in this boyish sport a faint shout came up from below signifying that there was some one down in the canyon. It is unnecessary to say that we at once stopped the stone rolling. Looking down we saw a party of fishermen from the hotel dodging up the bottom of the canyon with great celerity and evident anxiety as to whether any more stones might be expected. So great was the depth, that they looked like children.
While watching them, Horace’s hat blew off and lodged in the shelf at the foot of the cliff at the brink of which we were standing. It seemed only a short way down, and we undertook to fasten the picket ropes of the horses together so as to aid him to descend, but found they would not begin to reach the distance. Horace was determined to have his hat, and with regular western recklessness started to climb down.
By selecting places where the fragments from the sides of the canyon had formed a slope, and clinging to the trees and shrubs, he managed to work his way to the shelf below, and up on that to his beloved head-gear. He had to go so far down that he appeared only half his natural size.
The exploit was more hazardous than we imagined. Mr. Davis, of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as I was afterwards told, undertook to climb up near that very spot only a day or two before. The loose stone slid under his feet, as is common in mountain climbing, but which, though fatiguing, is not dangerous if one keeps moving. Finally, he climbed out on a large boulder, the size of a small house, to look around. Suddenly he discovered that it too was in motion. He slid along upon it for some distance expecting it would roll at every instant, when fortunately, it passed so near a tree that he was enabled to spring into the branches, while the boulder went crashing downwards for a thousand feet, snapping the trees like pipe stems in its course.
— From George Wood Wingate, Through the Yellowstone Park on Horseback. Judd and Judd: New York, 1886. Pages 79-81.
— Photo, Coppermine Photo Gallery.
You might also enjoy:
- General Wingate’s story, “Stampeded by and Umbrella.”
- “Sidford’s Fall on Grand Teton Mountain” by N. P. Langford.
- “To the Base of the Lower Fall” by F. Dumont Smith.