After the 1862 gold strike in Bannack, Montana, prospectors scoured every canyon and gully looking for pay dirt. That included the region that would become Yellowstone National Park.
These men told about the wonders they had seen—mountains of glass, towering waterfalls, and fountains of boiling water, but, at first, people dismissed their reports as tall tales. Soon it became clear that there really were marvelous things in the area, so a group of government officials and businessmen decided to mount an expedition to document them. The result was the famous Washburn Expedition of 1870.
Of course, documenting the wonders included gathering specimens—task that could be downright dangerous. Here’s a description of just how dangerous it could be, written by one of the expedition’s principle chroniclers, Nathaniel P. Langford.
Washburn and I passed over a low divide, which, I think, must be the main range of the Rocky Mountains. Just beyond is another brimstone basin containing forty or fifty boiling sulphur and mud springs. A small creek runs through the basin—and the slopes of the mountains on either side showed unmistakable signs of volcanic action beneath the crust.
A considerable portion of the slope of the mountain was covered with a hollow incrustation of sulphur, lime, or silica, from which issued in many places hot steam. We found many small craters from six to twelve inches in diameter — from which issued the sound of the boiling sulphur or mud. In many instances we could see the mud or sulphur water.
The water was too hot for us to bear the hand more than two or three seconds. It had overflowed the green spaces between the incrustations, completely saturating the ground. In many places the grass had grown—forming a turf compact and solid enough to bear the weight of a man ordinarily. But when it gave way the underlying deposit was so thin that it afforded no support.
While crossing one of these green places, my horse broke through—and sank to his body as if in a bed of quicksand. I was off his back in an instant and succeeded in extricating the struggling animal. The fore legs of my horse, however, had gone through the turf into the hot, thin mud beneath.
General Washburn was a few yards behind me on an incrusted mound of lime and sulphur, which bore us in all cases. He had just before called to me to keep off the grassy place. Now he inquired of me if the deposit beneath the turf was hot. Without making examination I answered that I thought it might be warm.
Shortly afterwards the turf again gave way—and my horse plunged more violently than before, throwing me over his head. As I fell, my right arm was thrust violently through the treacherous surface into the scalding morass. It was with difficulty that I rescued my poor horse—and I found it necessary to instantly remove my glove to avoid blistering my hand.
The frenzied floundering of my horse had in the first instance suggested to General Washburn the idea that the under stratum was hot enough to scald him. General Washburn was right in his conjecture. It is a fortunate circumstance that I today rode my light-weight pack horse. If I had ridden my heavy saddle horse, I think that the additional weight of his body would have broken the turf—and that he would have disappeared in the hot boiling mud—taking me with him.
— Text and ilustration from Langford’s book, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park, 1870.
— You can read a condensed version of Langford’s The Discovery of Yellowstone Park in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.
— To see more stories by this author, click on “Langford” under the “Categories” button to the left.
— For more stories about the Washburn Expedition, click on “Washburn” under the “Categories” button to the left.