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Emma Cowan

Most of the women who visited Yellowstone Park in the 1870s were Montana Pioneers. For them, camping out in the wilderness was no big deal. After all, they had already crossed the plains in a covered wagon, or come up the Missouri River on a crowded steamboat.

Emma Cowan was such a pioneer. She was 10 years old when came to Montana in a covered wagon with her parents during the gold rush of 1864. Shortly after she arrived in Virginia City, Emma began hearing about the wonders of the upper Yellowstone. One day her father brought home a man who told marvelous stories.

Emma said of the stories, “My fairy books could not equal such wonderful tales. Fountains of boiling water, crystal clear, thrown hundreds of feet into the air, only to fall back into pools of their own forming; pools of water in whose limpid depths tints of various rainbows were reflected; mounds and terraces of gaily colored sand.”

Emma and her family thought the stories were just fantasies, but she said, “As I grew older and found truth in the statements, the desire to some day visit this land was ever present.”

Emma’s first trip to Yellowstone Park was a visit to Mammoth Hot Springs in 1873 with her parents. She didn’t say a lot about it, but the normal starting point for such a trip would have been Bozeman, a thriving trade center and agriculture town about 75 miles from the park.

After they left Bozeman, travelers usually would spend their first night at the Bottler brothers’ ranch—a one-day ride from Bozeman. Bottlers’ ranch was located halfway to Mammoth Hot Springs, which made it an ideal stopping point for early travelers heading to the park.

After a night at Bottlers, Emma’s family would have gone to Mammoth Hot Springs over a new road through Yankee Jim Canyon. Emma said this road was scarcely more than a trail, but “by careful driving, unhitching the horses, and drawing the wagon by hand over the most dangerous places, we made it safely.”

The road was so bad, Emma said, that just a few weeks before a man, who was taking his crippled wife to Mammoth to soak in mineral waters that he hoped would cure her, didn’t even try to travel by wagon. Instead, he carried her on an Indian-style travois.

Although the park was only a year old in 1873 when Emma and her family visited there, Mammoth Hot Springs had already become a tourist destination. When her family arrived, Emma said, “We found an acquaintance or two, a number of strangers, a small hotel and a bath house.”

At Mammoth, tourists could hire guides to take them into the roadless wilderness to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Falls, and, most important, the Grand Geysers. Here they could also buy supplies that included such luxuries as canned fruit, baked bread, fresh milk, and butter.

Visitors could either camp nearby, or pay $20 a week to the hotel for room and board. In addition, they could pay five dollars for twice-daily baths in tin tubs that had been coated with a porcelain like finish by the mineral waters. Visitors often made their own souvenirs by leaving items in pools where mineral waters encrusted them.

Emma and her family stayed at Mammoth for two weeks seeing nearby sights, soaking in hot baths, and making souvenirs. But they decided not to visit the geysers. That would have required an arduous seventy-five mile trip on horseback because there were no roads across the park.

Several parties returned from the geysers during Emma’s stay, and their accounts intrigued her. People often told her that words couldn’t convey the wonders they had seen. “You must see them for yourself,” they told her.

Emma’s interest was piqued. When she got home she learned everything she could about the geysers from magazines, newspapers, and friends’ accounts.

In 1877 Emma’s wish to see the geysers came true. But the adventure was even more that she expected when Indians shot her husband and took her captive.

Coming Soon: “Doughnuts Fried in Bear Grease, Sarah Tracy — 1874”

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