The Wonders of Yellowstone

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"The Wonders of Yellowstone"

Journal article

By: Nathaniel Pitt Langford

Date: May, 1871

Source: Langford, Nathaniel P. "The Wonders of Yellowstone." Scribner's Monthly 2 (May 1871): 10.

About the Author: Nathaniel Pitt Langford (1832–1911) was born, raised, and educated in the state of New York. He was a stonemason before traveling west to the general vicinity of what is now known as the state of Montana. Langford conducted numerous governmental expeditions into the Rocky Mountains during the last half of the nineteenth century. Known as "National Park" Langford because of his advocacy to preserve public lands, he was a leading member of an 1870 expedition (along with Henry Washburn and Gustavus Doane) that explored the Yellowstone area. This pioneering endeavor helped to popularize the beauty of the park. Two years later, their effort helped to pass a bill signed by President Ulysses S. Grant that created Yellowstone National Park. Thereafter, Langford became the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, holding the position for five years.


Langford wrote a story called "The Wonders of the Yellowstone" based on his 1870 experiences with the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of the Yellowstone area. Later that same year, Scribner's Monthly magazine acquired Langford's story and published it in May 1871. Considered the first credible account of the Yellowstone area, Langford's article intrigued readers with stunning tales of fascinating geological features such as high-shooting geysers, majestic waterfalls, awesome mountain peaks, spectacular canyons, and dangerously boiling streams. Encouraged by heightened interest in the region from the Easterners who read his writings, Langford publicized the area as a site that should be reserved as a recreational area. He actively promoted the development of a railroad track by the Northern Pacific Railroad (along with hotels and other buildings) along the proposed Yellowstone route. Through the efforts of Langford and others, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in the United States.


I had indulged, for several years, a great curiosity to see the wonders of the upper valley of the Yellowstone. The stories told by trappers and mountaineers of the natural phenomena of that region were so strange and marvelous that, as long ago as 1866, I first contemplated the possibility of organizing an expedition for the express purpose of exploring it. During the past year, meeting with several gentlemen who expressed like curiosity, we determined to make the journey in the months of August and September….

From the summit of a commanding range, which separated the waters of Antelope and Tower Creeks, we descended through a picturesque gorge, leading our horses to a small stream flowing into the Yellowstone. Four miles of travel, a great part of it down the precipitous slopes of the mountain, brought us to the banks of Tower Creek, and within the volcanic region, where the wonders were supposed to commence. On the right of the trail our attention was first attracted by a small hot sulphur spring, a little below the boiling point in temperature. Leaving the spring we ascended a high ridge, from which the most noticeable feature, in a landscape of great extent and beauty, was Column Rock, stretching for two miles along the eastern bank of the Yellowstone. At the distance from which we saw it, we could compare it in appearance to nothing but a section of the Giant's Causeway. It was composed of successive pillars of basalt overlying and underlying a thick stratum of cement and gravel resembling pudding-stone. In both rows, the pillars, standing in close proximity, were each about thirty feet high and from three to five feet in diameter. This interesting object, more from the novelty of its formation and its beautiful surroundings of mountain and river scenery than anything grand or impressive in its appearance, excited our attention, until the gathering shades of evening reminded us of the necessity of selecting a suitable camp. We descended the declivity to the banks of Tower Creek, and camped on a rocky terrace one mile distant from, and four hundred feet above the Yellowstone….

Our journey the next day still continued through a country until then untraveled. Owing to the high lateral mountain spurs, the numerous ravines, and the interminable patches of fallen timber, we made very slow progress; but when the hour for camping arrived we were greatly surprised to find ourselves descending the mountain along the banks of a beautiful stream in the immediate vicinity of the Great Falls of the Yellowstone. This stream, which we called Cascade Creek, is very rapid. Just before its union with the river it passes through a gloomy gorge, of abrupt descent, which on either side is filled with continuous masses of obsidian that have been worn by the water into many fantastic shapes and cavernous recesses. This we named "The Devil's Den." Near the foot of the gorge the creek breaks from fearful rapids into a cascade of great beauty. The first fall of five feet is immediately succeeded by another of fifteen, into a pool as clear as amber, nestled beneath overarching rocks. Here it lingers as if half reluctant to continue its course, and then gracefully emerges from the grotto, and, veiling the rocks down an abrupt descent of eight-four feet, passes rapidly on to the Yellowstone. It received the name of "Crystal."

The Great Falls are at the head of one of the most remarkable cañons in the world—a gorge through volcanic rocks fifty miles long, and varying from one thousand to nearly five thousand feet in depth. In its descent through this wonderful chasm the river falls almost three thousand feet. At one point, where the passage has been worn through a mountain range, our hunters assured us it was more than a vertical mile in depth, and the river, broken into rapids and cascades, appeared no wider than a ribbon. The brain reels as we gaze into this profound and solemn solitude. We shrink from the dizzy verge appalled, glad to feel the solid earth under our feet, and venture no more, except with forms extended, and faces barely protruding over the edge of the precipice. The stillness is horrible. Down, down, down, we see the river attenuated to a thread, tossing its miniature waves, and dashing, with puny strength, the massive walls which imprison it. All access to its margin is denied, and the dark gray rocks hold it in dismal shadow. Even the voice of its waters in their convulsive agony cannot be heard. Uncheered by plant or shrub, obstructed with massive boulders and by hutting points, it rushes madly on its solitary course, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the rocky firmament. The solemn grandeur of the scene surpasses description. It must be seen to be felt. The sense of danger with which it impresses you is harrowing in the extreme. You feel the absence of sound, the oppression of absolute silence. If you could only hear that gurgling river, if you could see a living tree in the depth beneath you, if a bird would fly past, if the wind would move any object in the awful chasm, to break for a moment the solemn silence that reigns there, it would relieve that tension of the nerves which the scene has excited, and you would rise from your prostrate condition and thank God that he had permitted you to gaze, unharmed, upon this majestic display of natural architecture. As it is, sympathizing in spirit with the deep gloom of the scene, you crawl from the dreadful verge, scared lest the firm rock give way beneath and precipitate you into the horrid gulf….

We spent the next day in examining the wonders surrounding us. At the base of adjacent foothills we found three springs of boiling mud, the largest of which, forty feet in diameter, encircled by an elevated rim of solid tufa, resembles an immense caldron. The seething, bubbling contents, covered with steam, are five feet below the rim. The disgusting appearance of this spring is scarcely atoned for by the wonder with which it fills the beholder. The other two springs, much smaller, but presenting the same general features, are located near a large sulphur spring of milder temperature, but too hot for bathing. On the brow of an adjacent hillock, amid the green pines, heated vapor issues in scorching jets from several craters and fissures. Passing over the hill, we struck a small stream of perfectly transparent water flowing from a cavern, the roof of which tapers back to the water, which is boiling furiously, at a distance of twenty feet from the mouth, and is ejected through it in uniform jets of great force. The sides and entrance of the cavern are covered with soft green sediment, which renders the rock on which it is deposited as soft and pliable as putty.

About two hundred yards from this cave is a most singular phenomenon, which we called the Muddy Geyser. It presents a funnel-shaped orifice, in the midst of a basin one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, with sloping sides of clay and sand. The crater or orifice, at the surface, is thirty by fifty feet in diameter. It tapers quite uniformly to the depth of about thirty feet, where the water may be seen, when the geyser is in repose, presenting a surface of six or seven feet in breadth. The flow of this geyser is regular every six hours. The water rises gradually, commencing to boil when about half way to the surface, and occasionally breaking forth in great violence. When the crater is filled, it is expelled from it in a splashing, scattered mass, ten or fifteen feet in thickness, to the height of forty feet. The water is of a dark lead color, and deposits the substance it holds in solution in the form of miniature stalagmites upon the sides and top of the crater….


The idea of the Yellowstone area becoming a national park was considered in the United States during the period of 1865 to 1869. However, such talk did not become serious until after the Washburn Expedition of 1870. The explorers involved with the expedition brought back scientific data and material objects of the beautiful features within Yellowstone. More importantly, however, the expedition brought back Langford, who kept a very detailed diary of his experiences on the trip. He wrote about his experiences in Scribner's Monthly, lectured on the Yellowstone area throughout the United States, and lobbied in the U.S. Congress for legislation to create the country's first national park in the Yellowstone area. It was Langford—above anybody else—who brought the subject of a national park at Yellowstone up for national consideration.

Such vivid descriptions helped others to visualize the wonders of Yellowstone. In particular, his account helped convince Ferdinand V. Hayden to take action to make Yellowstone a national park. At this time, Hayden managed the U. S. Geological Survey of the Western Territories. While attending a lecture at Lincoln Hall in Washington, D.C., he heard Langford speak on the "Recent Explorations on the Yellowstone." After hearing the lecture, Hayden convinced the U.S. Congress (with the help of his political ally James G. Blaine, the Speaker of the House) to authorize a government expeditionary survey of the Yellowstone area for the summer of 1871.

The Hayden Expedition, as it was named, became the most extensive and costly expedition into the remote Yellowstone area that had been attempted so far. Hayden himself led a group of distinguished natural resource scientists, along with painters, photographers, and a group of military men. The Hayden Expedition produced additional scientific evidence and first-time photographic evidence concerning the beautiful natural resources within Yellowstone. Artwork by Thomas Moran and photographs by William Henry Jackson helped to show the American public and members of the U.S. Congress that efforts should be taken to preserve the area in its natural state.

On December 18, 1871, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas introduced Senate Bill 392 and William Clagett, the congressional delegate from the Montana Territory, introduced House Bill 764—both bills proposing that Yellowstone become a national park. At that time, Langford and Hayden, both employed by the railroads, visited members of Congress in their efforts to gain approval of the bills. The House passed its bill on February 27, 1872 and the Senate passed its bill on January 30, 1872. Then, on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act to create Yellowstone National Park, a scenic area in the northern Rocky Mountains consisting of 2,219,791 acres (898,317 hectares) of wilderness.

With ideas to preserve nature, promote tourism, and various other ecological and economic reasons, Congress followed the success of Yellowstone with the establishment in the 1890s and early 1900s of the national parks of Sequoia, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier. Without the means to manage the newly created national parks, the National Park Service was created in 1916 as a part of the Department of the Interior. Most importantly, the writing of Langford about the "Wonders of Yellowstone" helped to establish the country's national park system, thus preserving millions of acres of public lands and saving untold numbers of scenic, historic, and recreational locations throughout the United States.



Meyer, Judith L. The Spirit of Yellowstone: The Cultural Evolution of a National Park. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

Web sites

Barry Mackintosh, National Park Service. "The National Park Service: A Brief History." 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. "Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place." 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

National Park Service. "Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment." 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

The University of Virginia. "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone." 〈∼MA96/RAILROAD/ystone.html〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

Wyoming Tales and Trails. "Washburn and Hayden Expeditions." 〈〉 (accessed November 22, 2005).

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The Wonders of Yellowstone

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