Water and spray shoots up into a dark blue sky with white steam floating off to the left.
Sawmill Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2021)

As I read early tourist accounts of Yellowstone National Park, I am always struck by how much has changed and how much stays the same. This is particularly true of how visitors talk about their experiences of the park. On the one hand, Yellowstone is a far more developed and crowded place these days. But like the earliest tourists, today’s visitors still find wonder and amazement in the park’s outstanding natural features. The account of Harry J. Norton, published in 1873, was one of the first tourbooks recounting the Yellowstone experience for a general audience, and it still can be a useful guide today for what the park has to offer contemporary visitors.

Harry Norton’s 1872 Yellowstone Tour

At the end of summer in the first year of the national park, Harry J. Norton joined an “impromptu” tourist excursion to Yellowstone. This “Geyser Exploring Party,” as they called themselves, left from Virginia City, Montana, in early September, 1872, and approached the new park from the west, following the Madison River up to the Firehole River. As they passed through the “second Madison cañon” Norton remarks on the “indescribable beauty and grandeur” of the scene.

First impressions of the park, though, soon yielded to more dramatic wonders. Upon entering the geyser basins along the Firehole River, Norton counsels to “Look cautiously, tread carefully—for we are now in the enchanted land, surrounded on every side with mystery and marvel.” This chaotic scene, Norton and his companions surmised, boiled up from a sinister underworld. The hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and other thermal features of the region, they decided, must share a single subterranean water source, “creating a common sympathy and a common diabolism.” They were treading on the fragile coverings of hell itself.

Large pool of steaming water with dark clouds overhead.
Hot spring, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

After leaving the thermal basins, the party traveled eastward to experience the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where the breathtaking sight of the canyon and its waterfalls escaped description, a scene that, according to Norton, “is beyond the conception of the most vivid imagination—language is inadequate to express the unapproachable picture presented—the eye only can photograph the gorgeous scene.” But like so many visitors before and since, he attempts to reduce such ineffable beauty to words. 

The bright sunlight pours over the immense barrier with all its dazzling rays against the imprisoning walls, and reflecting from side to side, is melted into an amber flood of mellow light; while the beautiful surroundings, canopied o’er by the soft blue dome of an autumnal sky, give forth Nature’s warmest, kindliest smile to her ardently worshipping children.”

A climb down to the frightening perch at the brink of the Lower Falls overwhelmed him in sublime experience framed in Christian terms:

Never did mortal eye behold a sight of more sublime magnificence, as within three paces of the roaring cataract we peered into the abyss below.  Never did Divine ingenuity carve out a more superb frame for a more lovely river than is here before our vision.  Like an immense sheet of silver foil, the waters spread out and hang tremblingly over the appalling chasm—for a moment frantically clinging to the cliff, as if afraid to trust the Deity who has marked out its weird pathway, and then reassured by an abiding faith in Him ‘who doeth all things well,’ it trustingly falls into the extended arms of the mighty cañon, far, far beneath, where it again glides onward to the great Missouri.”

Later, Norton says of the Canyon that “the whole scene is clothed with a splendor that speaks of Divinity.” This divine nature of Yellowstone, in Norton’s estimation, ranks alongside the mythical fall of humanity in its significance. As he later departed the park, Norton asserts that “with the single exception of the fall of Adam, Yellowstone furnishes more food for thought than any other we have knowledge of.”

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Photo by Melanie R. Bremer, 2006)

Before leaving Yellowstone, the Exploring Party moved north to “White Mountain Hot-Spring” (later known as Mammoth Hot Springs). There they found a health spa resort well underway. “The water flowing from these springs is said to possess great medicinal qualities,” Norton reports, “and on that account alone they have this season been visited by scores of invalids.  At the time of our visit some fifteen or twenty persons were there doing penance for past indiscretions by a glorious exile and hot-water baths three times a day.” Much like the first federally protected reserve in Arkansas, Yellowstone was becoming a place for healing bodily infirmities as well as a place for divine ruminations.

A redemptive boosterism

Norton’s book ends with a bit of Montana boosterism, even though the park was mostly in Wyoming Territory. He remarks, “In closing, we cannot help congratulating the people of Montana on holding the key of access to this most wonderful region, a region that at no distant day will attract the tourists of both continents, and direct the attention of the scientific world to our mountain land.”  It was the people of Montana, Norton insists, who were responsible for giving to the American public “a museum of wonders so grand that the collections of the outside world combined cannot surpass it in all that is magnificent, beautiful, and interesting.” But this superlative place, Norton argues, needed development. He advocates building “[rail]roads to and through it, and otherwise making its visitation convenient for tourists.” Anticipating the priorities of later partisans for development, the convenience of tourist visitors takes precedence in Norton’s vision of Yellowstone’s future.

Conveniences for future visitors, though, will yield more than just economic rewards. More accessibility for Yellowstone’s visitors, according to Norton, means more occasions for others to “throw the ‘diamond hitch’ over their share of godliness and greenbacks.” As he sees it, Yellowstone holds economic opportunities, but it also offers moral healing for lost souls navigating the “the intricate wilderness of sin and temptation” of their everyday lives. ♨

[Reference: Harry J. Norton, Wonder-Land Illustrated; or, Horseback Rides through the Yellowstone National Park (published 1873 in Virginia City, Montana, by Harry J. Norton)]

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