Fanciful descriptions of places and events in Yellowstone Park apparently began in early in the 1800s when mountain men spun tall tales around their campfires to amuse each other. Bus drivers continue the tradition today as they drive their charges between sights. The tradition probably peaked at the dawn of the the 20th Century when carriage drivers tried to maximize their tips by telling tall tales. These tales were such an important part of the Yellowstone experience that travel writer Reau Campbell included a chapter on them in his 1909 travel guide. Here it is.
I think the Yellowstone Park was so far west that it escaped any semblance of a legend, but nothing can ever be too far west to escape a joke. There are in the Park precipitous cliffs in plenty, but none from which forlorn Indian maidens have deliberately and with malice aforethought thrown their more or less tawny and symmetrical selves into the depths below, because their perverse papas insisted on the acceptance of some peculiarly painted chief as against the already, heretofore, selected young athlete of a Hiawatha, who had brought beads and feathers along with his pretty and unpronounceable love words whispered on the dark side of the tepee.
Hence this chapter must be more of the joke than the legend, and as a matter of fact the Yellowstone Park was regarded as a joke in the first place. It was so considered from the time John Colter told his story till Jim Bridger related his yarns, and it was long afterwards found out that they were true stories after all.
Jim Bridger had seen the hot springs and the geysers and he knew no one would believe even the truth, and, further, he knew that any story he might tell was not likely to be disproved, so he mixed his stories up, fact and fiction in equal parts with good grounds for both sides of the story.
The story of catching a fish in the cold water of the lake and cooking it in a hot water pool alongside originated with Mr. Bridger, only the old man’s version was that he caught the fish in deep water that was hot near the surface and the fish was cooked on his way out. The truth is, any one may, at many places in the Park, catch a fish, and without moving, or taking the fish off the line, cook it in a nearby hot water pool. One place like this is in the Yellowstone Lake at the Thumb Lunch Station.
Shakespeare says: “Travelers ne’er do lie, but folks at home condemn’ em —and Mr. Bridger was no exception to that rule, but his fault was mostly in exaggeration; he was not content to tell of the petrified trees, but must add petrified grass, petrified flowers and even petrified birds still singing petrified songs in the petrified trees, and his horses and mules had rather a hard feed on the brittle grass turned to stone. When Mr. Bridger came to show these things, behold! the petrified trees were there to prove that he had not prevaricated (“not to use a shorter and harsher word”).
The story of the transparency or rather mirror-like composition of Obsidian Cliff was one of Mr. Bridger’s exaggerations. He told of this mountain of volcanic glass and illustrated it with a hunting incident of his own; he saw near the cliff what seemed to be an elk quietly feeding along its rugged sides; he just naturally fired at it, once, then again and again, but the elk never moved; he crept up cautiously without disturbing the animal, then he found out that he had been seeing right through a glass mountain and the elk was on the other side of it, and it was not only not plain everyday glass, but of telescopic quality, and the elk he shot at was twenty-five miles away.
A latter day story of Obsidian Cliff that has more of the element of probability, is that the engineers on the Circuit Road found the composition so hard that it was impossible to drill into a part of the cliff jutting into the way of the road, and they could not blast it out, so they built fires against it, then threw cold water over the sides and the glass “broke away in great chunks,” so the narrator told me.
A newcomer to the Park region once asked Mr. Bridger how long he had been there? “Why,” said the old man, “do you see that butte over there? Well, when I came here that butte was a hole in the ground.”
All others came after, but their stories were as full of local color. Bridger started the alum creek “puckering yarns,” but E. C. Culver, the popular train agent and lecturer, put on a polish that made the old stories look like new. He, Mr. Culver, was going through the Livingston-Gardiner train one day delivering his usual lecture about in these words:
We first pass through the Lower Canyon of the Yellowstone. Only a short ride, when we enter Paradise Valley, in which we ride for about twenty-five miles; the Absaroka range of mountains on our left are from eight to ten thousand feet high, the snow remaining frequently through the month of July.
After leaving the beautiful valley we soon enter the middle of ‘Yankee Jim’ Canyon, so called because James George, better known as ‘Yankee Jim,’ came here in the early seventies and built the first wagon road to the Yellowstone Park. He is now an old man, still resides in the Canyon and is a famous storyteller. He tells of having a fine pair of field glasses and a good gun. In the cool of the evening he takes his glasses and looking up the mountainside he sees a bear, a deer, or an elk; taking his gun he shoots it, when it rolls down the mountainside to his feet. The distance is so long and the friction so great that in rolling down it tans the hide and cooks the meat; this is the way he lives.
You smile with incredulity. Don’t you know you are entering Wonderland, where you must be sure to have your driver point out to you the most remarkable geyser in the world, for it throws up hot blocks of ice.
On your fourth day’s coaching from Mammoth Hot Springs you will have a beautiful ride across Hayden Valley, crossing Alum Creek. You know alum will pucker and shrink anything, which comes in contact with it. A long time ago a man came along there driving four very large horses with a big wagon and he forded this creek; when he came out on the opposite side he found the alum water had shrunken his outfit to four Shetland ponies and a basket phaeton.
A lady from Chicago heard of this wonderful water and immediately went there wearing number eight shoes, bathed her feet twice and went away wearing number ones.” In telling a party about it there happened to be a Chicago lady in the party who sarcastically advised the narrator to go and soak his head in that creek.
Jim Bridger told of mountain streams having their source in the snow of the summit and ran down so fast that the water became hot from friction by the time it reached the foot of the mountain. As a matter of fact, the stones in the bed of the Yellowstone River below the Great Falls, where the cold water runs very rapidly, are hot, so hot that one can hardly bear the contact with the hand.
“Slim,” a driver (I don’t know his other name, but he was a jolly good fellow), told me that when he came to the Park that Beaver Lake “was just crowded full of beavers, but they took so many of them to Washington that there wasn’t hardly any left now.”
At the risk of being caught in some sort of joke, I just naturally inquired why they wanted to send beavers to Washington. “Oh,” Slim said, “they wanted ’em for the theological garden.” I had not thought of such a contingency, and at first I was inclined to be wroth at the idea of removing any animals from the Park, but Slim’s explanation tended to soothe my somewhat enraged feelings.
Larry Matthews was the champion jokester of the Park for years at Norris and the Upper Basin.
“Larry” was a constant source of wonderful stories, a well of information.
Larry told me that the night Bob Ingersoll died, every geyser in the Park went into most violent eruption.
I heard a grouchy old fellow complain to Larry one day about the turkey they had for lunch, and in accents wild asked Larry where they came from. Larry whispered as low as the “groucher” had talked loud, “They came over in the Mayflower and walked here.”
Larry had amiability and wit combined. He could all in the same moment tell you a funny story and turn on a geyser.
There are laughing waters, many, but not a hint of romantic story, not a Minnehaha anywhere.
— Excerpt from Reau Campbell, “Jokes and Legends.” Pages 80-83 in Campbell’s New Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of the Yellowstone Park. H.E. Klamer, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Park, 1909.
— Image of the Oregon Short Line brochure cover is from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.
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