A Tale: Documenting Prospector Tales of Boiling Fountains — Cook, 1869

Great Springs of the Firehole River by Thomas Moran, 1871.

By the late 1860s enough prospectors’ reports of boiling fountains, deep canyons and glass mountains had accumulated to convince people that there really were things worth seeing on the upper Yellowstone. Several plans for expeditions to document the wonders of the area fizzled because organizers couldn’t recruit enough men to feel safe from Indians.  But in 1869 David Folsom, Charles Cook and William Peterson decided that a small group could avoid the hostiles.

These intrepid explorers succeed in finding the canyons, falls, and geysers, but publishers were leery of their stories.  Both the New York Tribune and Scriber’s magazine refused to publish an account of the expedition because “they had a reputations that could not risk such unreliable material.”  A Chicago based magazine, the Western Monthly, finally published it in July 1870, nearly a year after the trip. The  Monthly attributed the story to C.W. Cook.

The account didn’t get wide circulation until nearly 35 years later when it was published by the Montana Historical Society.  N.P. Langford, who wrote a preface for the historical society version, attributed it to David E. Folsom. Here’s the Cook/Folsom description of geysers and hot springs.


We ascended to the head of the lake and remained in its vicinity for several days, resting ourselves and our horses and viewing the many objects of interest and wonder. Among these were springs differing from any we had previously seen. They were situated along the shore for a distance of two miles, extending back from it about five hundred yards and into the lake perhaps as many feet. The ground in many places gradually sloped down to the water’s edge, while in others the white chalky cliffs rose fifteen feet high,, the waves having worn the rock away at the base, leaving the upper portion projecting over in some places twenty feet.

There were several hundred springs here, varying in size from miniature fountains to pools or wells seventy-five feet in diameter and of great depth. The water had a pale violet tinge and was very clear, enabling us to discern small objects fifty or sixty feet below the surface. In some of these, vast openings led off at the side, and as the slanting rays of the sun lit up these deep caverns, we could see the rocks hanging from their roofs, their water-worn sides and rocky floors, almost as plainly as if we had been traversing their silent chambers.

These springs were intermittent, flowing or boiling at irregular intervals. The greater portion of them were perfectly quiet while we were there, although nearly all gave unmistakable evidence of frequent activity. Some of them would quietly settle for ten feet, while another would as quietly rise until it overflowed its banks, and send a torrent of hot water sweeping down to the lake. At the same time, one near at hand would send up a sparkling jet of water ten or twelve feet high, which would fall back into its basin, and then perhaps instantly stop boiling and quietly settle into the earth, or suddenly rise and discharge its waters in every direction over the rim; while another, as if wishing to attract our wondering gaze, would throw up a cone six feet in diameter and eight feet high, with a loud roar.

These changes, each one of which would possess some new feature, were constantly going on; sometimes they would occur within the space of a few minutes, and again hours would elapse before any change could be noted. At the water’s edge, along the lake shore, there were several mounds of solid stone, on the top of each of which was a small basin with a perforated bottom. These also overflowed at times, and the hot water trickled down on every side. Thus, by the slow process of precipitation, through the countless lapse of ages, these stone monuments have been formed. A small cluster of mud springs near by claimed our attention. They were like hollow truncated cones and oblong mounds, three or four feet in height. These were filled with mud, resembling thick paint of the finest quality, differing in color from pure white to the various shades of yellow, pink, red and violet. Some of these boiling pots were less than a foot in diameter. The mud in them would slowly rise and fall, as the bubbles of escaping steam, following one after the other, would burst upon the surface. During the afternoon they threw mud to the height of fifteen feet for a few minutes, and then settled back to their former quietude.

As we were about departing on our homeward trip, we ascended the summit of a neighboring hill and took a final look at Yellowstone Lake. Nestled among the, forest crowned hills which bounded our vision, lay this inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty which has been viewed by but few white men, and we felt glad to have looked upon it before its primeval solitude should be broken by the crowds of pleasure seekers which at no distant day will throng its shores.

September 29th, we took up our march for home. Our plan was to cross the range in a northwesterly direction, find the Madison river, and follow it down to civilization. Twelve miles brought us to a small triangular-shaped lake, about eight miles long, deeply set among the hills. We kept on in a northwesterly direction as near as the rugged nature of the country would permit, and on the third day came to a, small irregularly shaped valley, some six miles across in the widest place, from every part of which great clouds of steam arose. From descriptions which we had had of this valley from persons who had previously visited it, we recognized it as the place known as “Burnt Hole” or “Death Valley.” The Madison river flows through it, and from the general contour of the country we knew that it headed in the lake: which we passed two days ago, only twelve miles from the Yellowstone. We descended into the valley and found that the springs had the same general characteristics as those I have already described, although some of them were much larger and discharged a vast amount of water. One of them, at a little distance, attracted our attention by the immense amount of steam it threw off, and upon approaching it we found it to be an intermittent geyser active operation. The hole through which the water was discharged was ten feet in diameter, and was situated in the center of a large circular shallow basin, into which the water fell. There was a stiff breeze blowing at the time, and by going to the windward side and carefully picking our way over convenient stones, we were enabled to reach the edge of the hole. At that moment the escaping steam was causing the water to boil up in a fountain five or six feet high. It stopped in an instant, and commenced settling down—twenty, thirty, forty feet-until we concluded that the bottom had fallen out, but the next instant, without any warning, it came rushing up and shot into the air at least eighty feet, causing us to stampede for higher ground. It continued to spout at intervals of a few minutes for some time, but finally subsided and was quiet during the remainder of the time we stayed in the vicinity.

We followed up the Madison five miles, and there found the most gigantic hot springs we had seen, They were situated along the river bank, and discharged so much hot water that the river was blood warm a quarter of a mile below. One of the springs was two hundred and fifty feet in diameter, and had every indication of spouting powerfully at times. The waters from the hot springs in this valley, if united, would form a large stream, and they increase the size of the river nearly one half. Although we experienced no bad effects from passing through the “Valley of Death,” yet we were not disposed to dispute the propriety of giving it that name. It seemed to be shunned by all animated nature. There were no fish in the river, no birds in the trees, no animals – not even a track – anywhere to be seen, although in one spring we saw the entire skeleton of a buffalo that had probably fallen in accidentally and been boiled down to soup.

Leaving this remarkable valley, we followed the course of the Madison, sometimes through level valleys, and sometimes through deep cuts in mountain ranges, and on the fourth of October emerged from a canyon, ten miles long with high and precipitous mountain sides, to find the broad valley of the Lower Madison spread out before us. Here we could recognize familiar landmarks in some of the mountain peaks around Virginia City. From this point we completed our journey by easy stages, and arrived at home on the evening of the eleventh. We had been absent thirty-six days – a much longer time than our friends had anticipated and we found that they were seriously contemplating organizing a party to go in search of us.


— Excerpt from C. W. Cook , “The Valley of the Upper Yellowstone,” The Western Monthly 4(19)60-67 (July 1870).

— Image Coppermine Photo Gallery.

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