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The Washburn Expedition of 1870 convinced the public that there really were wonders on the upper Yellowstone. Stories of towering waterfalls, mountains of glass, a crystal-clear inland sea, and fountains of boiling water could no longer dismissed as “tall tales.” Prominent government officials and businessmen whose word couldn’t be doubted said they were there.

Just as important the as credibility of members of the Washburn Expedition was their writing skill. Several expedition members  wrote articles about the trip for the Helena Herald that were reprinted around the world.

N.P. Langford and Truman Everts published articles in Scribner’s Monthly that also brought national attention. The illustrations that accompanied those articles where artists’ fanciful imaginings based on verbal descriptions. The images with Langford’s article were by Thomas Moran, whose later paintings of Yellowstone gave him world fame. Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson, whose work influenced the decision to make the area a national park, went to the upper Yellowstone with the Hayden expedition in 1871.

Two members of the Washburn Expedition left pencil sketches of what they saw, Charles Moore, a private in the military escort, and Walter Trumbull, the son of U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. Trumbull also published an account of his Yellowstone experience in the Overland Monthly. His written description and sketches of the Yellowstone Falls provide an interesting opportunity to test the adage, “A picture in worth a thousand words.”

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We reached the falls of the Yellowstone on the morning of August 30th. These falls, two in number, are less than half a mile apart. From the lake to the upper falls, a distance of about twenty miles, the river flows, with the exception of a short series of rapids having a moderate current, through an open, undulating country, gently sloping toward the stream..

Here and there are small groves, and the timber is quite thick a mile away from the river. A quarter of a mile above the upper falls the river breaks into rapids, and foams in eddies about huge, granite boulders, some of which have trees and shrubs growing upon them.

Above the rapids, the river is about 150 yards wide, but, as it approaches the falls, high, rocky bluffs crowd in on both sides, forcing the water into a narrow gorge, which, at the brink of the falls, is about thirty yards wide.

The most convenient and desirable place from which to view the falls is from a ledge, easily reached, which juts into the river a considerable distance, just below the falls, and a few feet lower than their brink. It is so close that occasional drops dampen one’s face.  The height of the upper falls is 115 feet. The ledge is irregular, the water being much deeper on the west side than on the east. Great rocks project in the face of the fall, tearing and churning the waters into foam, with here and there a little strip of green, which contrasts beautifully with the surrounding silvery whiteness of the water.

Between the two falls, the river flows quietly in a wide channel, between steep, timbered bluffs, four hundred feet high. Just above the lower falls the bluffs again converge; the one from the west stretching out as if to dam up the river, which has, however, forced its way through a break, forty yards wide. The rocky cliffs rise perpendicularly from the brink of the falls, to a height of several hundred feet. The rocky formation is of a shelly character, and slightly colored with flowers of sulphur. The plunge of the water is in the direct course of the stream, and at the brink of the falls, it appears to be of uniform depth. It clears its bed at a bound, and takes a fearful leap of 350 feet.

The volume of water is about half as great as that which passes over the American Fall, at Niagara, and it falls more than twice the distance. The adjacent scenery is infinitely grander. Having passed over the precipice, the clear, unbroken, greenish mass is in an instant transformed by the jagged edges of the precipice into many streams, apparently separated, yet still united, and having the appearance of molten silver.

These streams, or jets, are shaped like a comet, with nucleus and trailing coma, following in quick succession; or they look like foaming, crested tongues, constantly overlapping each other. The outer jets decrease in size as they descend, curl outward, and break into mist. In the sunlight, a rainbow constantly spans the chasm. The foot of the falls is enveloped in mist, which conceals the river for more than a hundred yards below.

These falls are exactly the same in height as the Vernal Falls in the Yosemite Valley, but the volume of water is at least five times as great. I think I never saw a waterfall more beautiful than the Vernal, and its surroundings are sublime. Its Indian name is said to mean “Crown of Diamonds;” and it certainly deserves the name. I remember sitting on the rocky ledge just at the edge of the falls, and with an opera-glass watching the water as they plunged downward, breaking into myriads of drops; each drop, like a lens, gathering prismatic tints from the shining sun, and flashing like diamonds of the purest brilliancy.

The lower fall of the Yellowstone reminds me of the Vernal Fall, on the Merced.  Though nothing, perhaps, can equal the sublime scenery of the Yosemite, yet that only excels the lower falls of the Yellowstone, and the grand canyon which extends for many miles below them.

Below the falls, the hills gradually increase in height, while the river descends in a succession of rapids through the canyon. At the falls, the canyon is not more than twelve hundred feet deep, but a few miles lower down it is nearly eighteen hundred feet deep. Its average thick a mile away from the river. A quarter of a mile above the upper falls the river breaks into rapids, and foams in eddies about huge, granite boulders, some of which have trees and shrubs growing upon them.

Above the rapids, the river is about 150 yards wide, but, as it approaches the falls, high, rocky bluffs crowd in on both sides, forcing the water into a narrow gorge, which, at the brink of the falls, is about thirty yards wide.

The most convenient and desirable place from which to view the falls is from a ledge, easily reached, which juts into the river a considerable distance, just below the falls, and a few feet lower than their brink. It is so close that occasional drops dampen one’s face. The height of the upper falls is 115 feet. The ledge is irregular, the water being much deeper on the west side than on the east. Great rocks project in the face of the fall, tearing and churning the waters into foam, with here and there a little strip of green, which contrasts beautifully with the surrounding silvery whiteness of the water.

Between the two falls, the river flows quietly, in a wide channel, between steep, timbered bluffs, four hundred feet high. Just above the lower falls the bluffs again converge; the one from the west stretching out as if to dam up the river, which has, however, forced its way through a break, forty yards wide. The rocky cliffs rise perpendicularly from the brink of the falls, to a height of several hundred feet. The rocky formation is of a shelly character, and slightly colored with flowers of sulphur.

The plunge of the water is in the direct course of the stream, and at the brink of the falls, it appears to be of uniform depth. It clears its bed at a bound, and takes a fearful leap of 350 feet. The volume of water is about half as great as that which passes over the American Fall, at Niagara, and it falls more than twice the distance.

The adjacent scenery is infinitely grander. Having passed over the precipice, the clear, unbroken, greenish mass is in an instant transformed by the jagged edges of the precipice into many streams, apparently separated, yet still united, and having the appearance of molten silver. These streams, or jets, are shaped like a comet, with nucleus and trailing coma, following in quick succession; or they look like foaming, crested tongues, constantly overlapping each other. The outer jets decrease in size as they descend, curl outward, and break into mist. In the sunlight, a rainbow constantly spans the chasm. The foot of the falls is enveloped in mist, which conceals the river for more than a hundred yards below.

These falls are exactly the same in height as the Vernal Falls in the Yosemite Valley, but the volume of water is at least five times as great. I think I never saw a waterfall more beautiful than the Vernal, and its surroundings are sublime. Its Indian name is said to mean “Crown of Diamonds;” and it certainly deserves the name.

I remember sitting on the rocky ledge just at the edge of the falls, and with an opera-glass watching the waters as they plunged downward, breaking into myriads of drops; each drop, like a lens, gathering prismatic tints from the shining sun, and flashing like diamonds of the purest brilliancy. The lower fall of the Yellowstone reminds me of the Vernal Fall, on the Merced. Though nothing, perhaps, can equal the sublime scenery of the Yosemite, yet that only excels the lower falls of the Yellowstone, and the grand canyon which extends for many miles below them.

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— Excerpt from “The Washburn Expedition”  by Walter Trumbull, Overland Monthly, May-June 1871.

— Images from the Coppermine Photo Gallery.

— For more stories about the Washburn Expedition, click on “Washburn” under the “Categories” button to the left.

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