Mammoth Hot Springs was the first major feature Thomas Moran encountered when he toured Yellowstone Park in 1871 with the Hayden Expedition. Moron’s diary entries for the three days he spent at Mammoth contain not a word of description. Apparently he was content relying on his watercolor sketches.
Of course, many travelers did offer written descriptions of the springs. Here’s one by Edwin J. Stanley, a writer, historian, and Methodist minister, who visited Yellowstone Park in 1873.
I came suddenly out in full view of the far famed Hot Springs. Having read glowing descriptions of the place, and being rather despondent from the fatigue of travel, I felt somewhat disappointed, and feared my expectations would not be fully met; but all such impressions vanished at first view of the strangely-beautiful scene, and I felt that the half had not been told, though the sun was obscured by clouds, depriving me of much of the inspiration that the first view would otherwise have furnished.
The proprietors of the place, two young gentlemen from Bozeman, anticipating the value of these springs as a place of resort for pleasure-seekers and invalids, had taken possession of them before the passage of the bill including them in the National Park, and styled them the Mammoth Hot Springs. But Dr. Hayden, the United States Geologist, doubtless moved by the first impression made upon his mind on arriving here, gave them the title of White Mountain Hot Springs.
Both titles are quite appropriate, considering their mammoth proportions—surpassing anything of the kind yet discovered—and the vast mountain of white and yellowish deposit made from the mineral solutions contained in the immense volumes of water gurgling up from scores of boiling fountains. This immense calcareous formation, with its numberless and intricate phenomena, baffling all attempts at description, is the chief object of interest here.
The first impression on beholding it is that of a snowy mountain beautifully terraced, with projections extending out in various directions, resembling frozen cascades, as though the high, foam-crested waves, in their rapid descent over the steep and rugged declivity, were suddenly arrested and congealed on the spot in all their native beauty. There are fifty or sixty of these springs of greater and smaller dimensions, extending over an area of about a mile square; though there are remains of springs of the same kind for miles around, and mountains of the same deposit overgrown with pine-trees, perhaps hundreds of years old.
Most of the water is at boiling heat, and contains in solution a great amount of lime, sulphur, and magnesia, with some soda, alumina, and other substances, which are slowly deposited in every conceivable form and shape as the water flows along in its course down the mountain-side.
On each level, or terrace, there is a large central spring, which is usually surrounded by a basin of several feet in diameter, and the water, after leaving the main basin at different portions of the delicately-wrought rim, flows down the declivity, step by step, forming hundreds of basins and reservoirs of every size and depth, from a few inches to six or eight feet in diameter, and from one inch to several feet in depth, their margins beautifully scalloped with a finish resembling bead-work of exquisite beauty. The character of the formation depends upon the temperature and flow of the water, as well as upon the character of prevailing minerals at that particular place. Where the water flows slowly, and with but slight ebullition, the smaller basins and terraces are formed, one below the other, with their delicate partitions and beautifully-fringed borders; and where the volume and momentum are greater, the basins are larger and deeper, and the ornamentation proportionately coarser.
Where the water flows quite rapidly, the pools are filling up, leaving the deposit in wave-like forms, just like water congealed when flowing over a cascade. Underneath the sides of many of the basins are beautifully-arranged stalactites, formed by the dripping of the water; and, by digging beneath the surface at places where the springs are inactive, the most delicate and charming specimens of every character and form can be obtained—stalactites, stalagmites, grottoes, etc., all delicately arranged as the water filtrates through the crevices and perforations of the deposit. The larger pools, before the erection of bathing-houses, afforded a splendid opportunity to enjoy the luxury of bathing, as water of any temperature desirable could be secured. The sides of the mountain for hundreds of yards in extent are covered with this calcareous incrustation, formerly possessing all the ornamental attractions of the springs now in action. It is a scene sublime in itself to see the entire area with its numerous and terraced reservoirs, and millions of delicate little urns, sparkling with water transparent as glass, and tinged with many varieties of coloring, all glistening under the glare of a noonday sun. But the water is constantly changing its channel, and atmospheric agencies have disfigured much of the work, leaving a great portion of it only the resemblance of an old ruin.
Every active spring or cluster of springs has its succession of little urns and reservoirs extending in various directions. The largest spring now active, situated about half-way up the mountain on the outer edge of the main terrace, has a basin about twenty-five by forty feet in diameter, in the centre of which the water boils up several inches above the surface, and is so transparent that you can, by approaching the margin, look down into the heated depths many feet below the surface. The sides of the cavern are ornamented with a coral-like formation of almost every variety of shade, with a fine, silky substance, much like moss, of a bright vegetable green, spread over it thinly, which, with the slight ebullition of the water keeping it in constant motion, and the blue sky reflected in the transparent depths, gives it an enchanting beauty far beyond the skill of the finest artist. Here all the hues of the rainbow are seen and arranged.so gorgeously that, with other strange views by Which one is surrounded, you almost imagine yourself in some fairy region, the wonders of which baffle all attempts of pen or pencil to portray them.
Besides the elegant sculpturing of this deposit, imagine, if you can, the wonderful variety of delicate and artistically-arranged colors with which it is adorned. The mineral-charged fluid lays down pavements here and there of all the shades of red, from bright scarlet to rose-tint, beautiful layers of bright sulphur-yellow, interspersed with tints of green—all elaborately arranged in Nature’s own order. Viewed from the Tower Creek trail, which passes at the base, this section of the mountain has a very architectural appearance.
But descending the mountain from which we first beheld the springs, and where we left the reader, we come to the first level, or terrace, the base of the principal formation. There are several springs, the water of which is used by the scores of invalids already flocking here to be healed of their maladies. Here, also, are the small bath-houses erected by the proprietors, for the use of which a handsome sum is generally exacted. The medicinal properties of each fountain seem to be different, and the invalid can use that best adapted to his case. Just over there to our right, in the mouth of a little gorge, coming down from the mountain, by the side of the sparkling brook of snowwater, among the pine-trees, where the smoke is curling up from many fires, are the camps of the tourists and invabds who have come hither, and are abiding in rudely-constructed cabins, some in tents, enjoying all the luxuries of camp-life. Rather a motley, though quite a lively, group. Some remarkable cures have been effected here, mostly of diseases of the skin, and rheumatism. But I think that the invigorating mountain-air and the healthful influence of camp-life have much to do with many cures that are effected, as these are known to be wonderful remedies in themselves for many of the ills which flesh is heir to.
— From Edwin James Stanley, Rambles in Wonderland, Or Up The Yellowstone, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883. pages 54-58.
— Coppermine Photo Gallery Image.
— You might also enjoy Edwin J. Stanley’s “Guiding the Nez Perce Through Yellowstone Park.”