GRANITE PEAK PUBLICATIONS: Accompanying travelers to the national park since 2002

One hundred thirty years ago in Yellowstone Park

Let’s celebrate March, Women’s History Month, with an excerpt from a Yellowstone story written by Margaret Andrews Allen. In 1885 her family visited Upper Geyser Basin in a horse-driven wagon. Camping near Castle Geyser, they all set out the morning after arrival to see the geysers.

“First, of course, we visit Old Faithful, the Clock of the Valley, hardly varying five minutes in its hourly eruptions. Its low, broad cone of scale-like layers is firm as the solid rock. No thought of danger here. Everything gives us the idea of regularity and order. We are in position, the curtain rises, and the play begins. The eruption is fine, the geyser sending up a solid column of water, with clouds of hot steam, for over a hundred feet. But it is soon over, and we add to our experience by drinking of the hot sulphur water it has left in all the little hollows of the crust. This is merely to add to our experience, for the taste is far from agreeable. This geyser is the great resource of hurried tourists, from its regularity. We met many parties who had seen only this one—and that one alone is well worth seeing. But what one is sure of seldom fascinates. The freaky ones are most sought after and admired.

“We cross the rushing Firehole, and I shall leave it for the guide-book to tell the variety of craters and pools, extinct and active geysers and formations, all the way from Cauliflower to Coral. We come back to our tent already feeling like old residents, ready to initiate ignorant new-comers.

“We have seen various men pass with mysterious bags on long poles, and, on questioning one of our neighbors (a very old resident, for she has been here a month) we find it is merely the family washing. The bag contains soap and clothes, and is to be hung in a boiling spring, when, in a few hours, the dirt will be boiled out. We follow suit, and immediately our bag of clothes is hanging in a lovely little blue pool not far from our tent.

“But we have a ham in our wagon; why should not that be cooked in the same way? The Devil’s Well [Crested Pool] is near, and soon our ham, in a strong sack fastened to a pole, is cheerfully bubbling away. In about two hours it is well done, and lasts us the rest of the journey. Our potatoes are not so successful, for our bag breaks, and down they go to whoever the owner of the well may be, for a perpetual potato-soup.

“At dinner, our neighbor, the Castle, starts an eruption, and immediately the whole valley is in turmoil, rushing hither and thither for a good view. But the geyser changes its mind, the clouds drift up, a drizzling rain begins, and we are settling down for a quiet afternoon in our tent when suddenly, with rumble and roar, the deceitful Castle shoots a column of water into the air and everything is dropped for the show.

Castle Geyser black-and-white photo

“Our neighboring campers are already climbing the sides of the cone, about twenty feet above the road, to have a look inside, and we follow their example. Then stones are thrown in and shot out instantly. I bethink me of our dish-towels, and in they go. In another minute they are fifty feet in the air, and dashed down far on the other side; for a strong wind has risen and driven the water and steam in a great curve to the south. After three such baths they are clean. We have seen the only poetical washing-day in our lives. We wish all were like it. It is not turning the geyser to a base use: it is merely idealizing washing.”

Of course, the thousands of visitors to geyserland today do not use the pools and geysers to wash their clothes and dishes. But think how it must have lightened the load of “woman’s work” for the few days Ms. Allen was in Yellowstone. Times have changed!

Ms. Allen’s entire story will be reproduced in Granite Peak Publications’ upcoming collection, with the working title of Magnificent Playground.

Castle Geyser photo from 1996 by Leslie Kilduff, appears on page 99 of Yellowstone Treasures, Updated Fourth Edition.

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