As a Methodist circuit rider, Edwin J. Stanley traveled extensively throughout Montana in the late 1800s. Following a trip to Yellowstone Park in 1873, Stanley published a series of letters about his experiences there in what he described as “a leading newspaper of the West.” In 1882, he published a compilation of those letters in his book, Rambles in Wonderland.
Stanley supplemented his observations with extensive reading so his book provides a comprehensive summary of what people knew about the park then. Here’s a condensed version of his description of the Upper Geyser Basin.
There are hundreds of springs in the basin, all differing more or less in some particular. There are about twenty regularly acting. On a calm, clear morning, at or just before sunrise, when all the springs are sending up their columns of steam of every magnitude, and all boiling and fussing and splashing away, as if trying each to attract the greatest share of attention, and while one or two of the larger geysers are piercing the heavens with their stupendous columns, the basin presents a lively and interesting spectacle.
The eruptions as witnessed by moonlight are truly sublime, though deprived of much of their glory, as it is difficult to distinguish between water and steam. Some of the party built bonfires and watched the eruptions by firelight, which were very fine, giving the rising volumes the appearance of fiery liquid hurled forth from the crater of a volcano.
It is not the most quiet and agreeable place for sleeping. One is frequently disturbed during the night by the alarming detonations and subterranean thunder, making an almost constantly rumbling noise as of heavy machinery in motion, the come and go of ponderous freight trains, the hiss and rush of escaping steam, and the loud plash of falling torrents, as the geysers, the ever vigilant sentinels on the outposts of old Pluto’s infernal regions, sound the alarm and spout forth in the darkness. This is more sensibly realized by sleeping on the ground, and, rest assured, the sensations are not always of the most desirable character.
A Catholic priest was standing near a hot spring, when the crust gave way, and let him into the seething caldron. The accident would doubtless have proved fatal, but that a strong man who was at his side, and happened to be standing on solid ground, seized him by the collar and saved him from a horrible death. Though he escaped without any injury whatever, imagine his surprise at the appearance in an Eastern paper of a vivid account of his untimely death, together with an illustration showing a party of men dragging the lifeless body of a monk “all shaven and shorn,” and attired in priestly robes, from one of the geysers! He still asserts that it is a mistake, notwithstanding the statements of the newspapers to the contrary.
Whenever railroads come within reach, or even passable wagon and stage roads are completed through the Park, this will become a favorite place of resort for people from every part of the world, though I prefer going in true pioneer style on horseback, with a pack-horse on which to carry provisions and baggage. A wagon-road is now completed from Virginia City up the Madison to the Lower Basin. But don’t go until you can make the grand rounds, for the geysers, in all their glory, are only part of the wonders of the National Park.
While here we met with persons from various portions of the Territory, among them a number of friends; and quite a sociable time we had the two evenings spent in the basin. After the sight-seeing of the day was over, we gathered around our brilliant camp-fire, and passed the time relating incidents and anecdotes of a pleasant character; while Miss Clark, a young lady from Chicago, with vocal gifts that all admired, charmed us with some excellent music, presenting quite a contrast as the charming melodies floated out upon the nightwind, and mingled with the hissing reports of a hundred noisy, spouting springs, the wild, weird appearance of everything adding greatly to the novelty of the surroundings.
— Exerpt condensed form Chapter 13 (pages 118-123) in Edwin J. Stanley, Rambles in Wonderland or Up the Yellowstone. New York: Appleton and Company, 1883.
— Illustration from the book.
— You might also enjoy:
- Edwin J. Stanley’s description of Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Robert Strahorn’s tale, “Building Fires to Light Up Grotto Geyser.”
For more descriptions click “Geysers” under the Categories button above.