A Scene: The Geysers of Yellowstone — Washburn, 1870

There had been rumors of wonders in the upper Yellowstone for more than 50 years, but the Washburn Expedition of 1870 made it official. The place really did contain towering waterfalls, a huge inland sea and—most stupendous—boilding fountains that threw water hundreds of feet into the air. 

There were several reasons Washburn and his companions captured the public imagination. First, the expedition was composed of prominent government officials and businessmen whose word could not be doubted. Second, the expedition included several skilled writers who published reports immediately after they returned from the wilderness. Third, there was a well developed communication system that included several Montana territorial newspapers and the telegraph to spread the news across the nation. Finally, the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was making its way westward, promoted the area in hopes of  making it a tourist destination.

General Washburn himself was one of the skilled writers whose work was caught up in this fortuitous combination. Here’s his description of the geysers of the Upper Yellowstone.


Grand Geyser

On the south end of the lake is a very beautiful collection of hot springs and wells. In many the water is so clear that you can see down fifty or a hundred feet.

The lake is 8,000 feet above the level of the sea, a beautiful sheet of water, with numerous islands and bays, and will in time be a great summer resort; for its various inlets, surrounded by the finest mountain scenery, cannot fail to be very popular to the seeker of pleasure, while its high elevation and numerous medicinal springs will attract the invalid. Its size is about twenty-two by fifteen miles.

Leaving the lake, we moved nearly west, over several high ranges, and camped in the snow amid the mountains. Next day, about noon we struck the Fire Hole River. and camped in Burnt Hole Valley.

This is the most remarkable valley we found. Hot springs are almost innumerable. Geysers were spouting in such size and number as to startle all, and are beyond description. Enormous columns of hot water and steam were thrown into the air with a velocity and noise truly amazing. We classified and named some of them according to size:

No. 1. The Giant, 7 by 10 feet, throwing a solid column of water from £0 to 120 feet high.

No. 2. The Giantess, 20 by 30. throwing a solid column and jets from 150 to 200 feet high.

No. 3. Old Faithful, 7 by 8, irregular in shape, a solid column each hour, 75 feet high.

No. 4. Bee Hive, 24 by 15 inches, stream measured 219 feet.

No. 5. Fan Tail, irregular shape, throwing a double stream 60 feet high.

No. 6 is a beautiful arched spray, called by us the Grotto, with several apertures through which, when quiet, one can easily pass, but when in action each making so many vents for the water and steam.

Upon going into camp we observed a small hot spring that had apparently built itself up about three feet. The water was warm but resting very quietly, and we camped within 200 yards of it. While we were eating breakfast this spring, without any warning threw, as if it were the nozzle of an enormous steam-engine, a stream of water into the air 210 feet, and continued doing so for some time, thereby enabling us to measure it, and then as suddenly subsided.

Surrounded by these hot springs is a beautiful cold spring of tolerably fair water. Here we found a beautiful spring or well, raised around it was a border of pure white, carved as if by the hand of a master-workman, the water pure. Looking down into it, one can see the sides white and clear as alabaster, and carved in every conceivable, shape, down, down, until the eye tires in penetrating.

Standing and looking down into the steam and vapor of the crater of the Giantess. With the sun upon our back, the shadow is surrounded by a beautiful rainbow; and, by getting the proper angle, the rainbow, surrounding only the head, gives that halo so many painters have vainly tried to give in paintings of the Savior.

Standing near the fountain when in motion, and the sun shining, the scene is grandly magnificent; each of the broken atoms of water shining like so many brilliants, while myriads of rainbows are dancing attendance. No wonder, then, that our usually staid and sober companions threw up their hats and shouted with ecstasy at the sight.

We bid farewell to the geysers, little dreaming there were more beyond. Five miles below Burnt Hole we found the “Lake of Fire and Brimstone.” In the valley we found a lake measuring 450 yards in diameter, gently overflowing, that had built itself up by a deposit of white sub-strata at least 50 feet above the plain. This body of water was steaming hot.

Below this was a similar spring, but of smaller dimensions while between the two, and apparently having no connection with either, was a spring of enormous volume flowing into the Madison, and is undoubtedly the spring about which Bridger was laughed at so much when he reported that it heated the Madison for two miles below. For some distance down the river we found hot springs and evidences of volcanic action.


— From Henry Washburn, “The Yellowstone Expedition,” Helena Daily Herald, September 27 and 28, 1870.

— Frank J. Haynes postcard, Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

— You might also enjoy General Washburn’s description of Yellowstone Falls.

— For more stories from the Washburn Expedition, click “Washburn” under the “Categories” button to the left.

2 thoughts on “A Scene: The Geysers of Yellowstone — Washburn, 1870

  1. Pingback: A Scene: The Great Falls of the Yellowstone — Washburn, 1870 « M. Mark Miller

  2. I’m fascinated by this story. This was just half a decade after the civil war. “There was a well developed communication system that included several Montana territorial newspapers and the telegraph to spread the news across the nation.”
    Montana was really happening.

    Bro Robert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s