A Tale: Gathering a Specimen From a Boiling Spring— N.P. Langford, 1870

When the famous Washburn Expedition of 1870 explored the area that later became Yellowstone National Park, they wanted to bring back specimens to prove that the geological wonders they reported weren’t just tall tales. Locating remarkable features like geysers, hot springs and paint pots wasn’t hard, but collecting tangible evidence could be dangerous.  Here’s Nathaniel P. Langford’s description of gathering a specimen.


gathering a specimen

Entering the basin cautiously, we found the entire surface of the earth covered with the incrusted sinter thrown from the springs. Jets of hot vapor were expelled through a hundred natural orifices with which it was pierced, and through every fracture made by passing over it. The springs themselves were as diabolical in appearance as the witches’ caldron in Macbeth, and needed but the presence of Hecate and her weird band to realize that horrible creation of poetic fancy.

They were all in a state of violent ebullition, throwing their liquid contents to the height of three or four feet. The largest had a basin twenty by forty feet in diameter. Its greenish-yellow water was covered with bubbles, which were constantly rising, bursting, and emitting sulphurous gas from various parts of its surface. The central spring seethed and bubbled like a boiling caldron. Fearful volumes of vapor were constantly escaping it.

Near it was another, not so large, but more infernal in appearance. Its contents, of the consistency of paint, were in constant, noisy ebullition. A stick thrust into it, on being withdrawn, was coated with lead-colored slime a quarter of an inch in thickness. Nothing flows from this spring. Seemingly, it is boiling down.

A fourth spring, which exhibited the same physical features, was partly covered by an overhanging ledge of rock. We tried to fathom it, but the bottom was beyond the reach of the longest pole we could find. Rocks cast into it increased the agitation of its waters. There were several other springs in the group, smaller in size, but presenting the same characteristics.

The approach to them was unsafe, the incrustation surrounding them bending in many places beneath our weight—and from the fractures thus created would ooze a sulphury slime of the consistency of mucilage.

It was with great difficulty that we obtained specimens from the natural apertures with which the crust is filled—a feat which was accomplished by one only of our party, who extended himself at full length upon that portion of the incrustation which yielded the least, but which was not sufficiently strong to bear his weight while in an upright position, and at imminent risk of sinking into the infernal mixture, rolled over and over to the edge of the opening, and with the crust slowly bending and sinking beneath him, hurriedly secured the coveted prize.


— Excerpt and illustration from Nathaniel P. Langford, “The Wonders of the Yellowstone,” Scribner’s Monthly 2(1):1-27 (May 1871).

— To see other stories by this author, click “Langford” under the Categories button.

— An abridged version of Langford’s 1905 book, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park—Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870, is available in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.

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