OLD FAITHFUL INN

            After leaving Grand Coulee Dam, we drove south along shimmering blue Banks Lake (a Grand Coulee reservoir) to Coulee City, then turned east on hwy 2, taking us to Spokane and Interstate 90.  We stayed at a Best Western in Coeur d’Alene that night.  Next morning we continued along I-90.  Now, the scenery became more mountainous and scenic—well, as scenic as interstates ever get.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we made few stops en route to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed at the Hampton.

            Already the differences between the world of the old national park lodges and the world of chain lodges was beginning to be more and more marked in our minds: small bedrooms and large lobbies compared to small lobbies and large bedrooms; serenity compared to electronic noise; camaraderie compared to isolation; deep thoughts about life compared to electronic stifling of thought—not coincidentally, TVs everywhere to no TVs at all.

Historic North Entrance gate to Yellowstone National Park

            Next day, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the famous Gardiner Gate at the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Virginia Cascade, en route to Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK       

            Before 1872, there was not in the entire world such a thing as a “national park.”  For almost three quarters of a century, reports of its wonders had occasionally trickled out, but no one believed them.  Not until 1870, when Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson not only saw those wonders but returned with proof: Moran’s stunning panoramic paintings and Jackson’s memorable and convincing photographs.   On the premise that it was useless to developers, the bill for its preservation passed almost unanimously.  It was signed into law by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

            But creating a national park and protecting it proved to be two different things.  Gradually, conditions deteriorated to the point where the park’s very survival was at risk.  At this critical point, George Bird Grinnell (influential editor of Forest and Stream and close friend of young Teddy Roosevelt) and General Phil Sheridan (hero of the great Civil War poem, “Sheridan’s Ride”) joined forces; since the government refused to protect the park, Sheridan sent his cavalry in—thirty years later, they were still there.

            Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883, John Muir in 1888, Rudyard Kipling in 1889.  By then most everyone was calling the park “Wonderland.”  On April 24, 1903, Roosevelt, on a transcontinental 14,000-mile speaking tour, spent two weeks in Yellowstone.  Dedicating the new entrance arch in Gardiner, Montana, TR said,

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world. . . .  Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved.

                                                                        —(Duncan and Burns, 92).

Old Faithful Geyser

            Yellowstone’s iconic symbol is Old Faithful Geyser—most appropriate since, with over 10,000 hydrothermal features, the park offers the largest concentration of geysers (over 300) and geothermal activity on earth.  1,700-foot-deep Yellowstone Canyon is by itself one of the greatest natural wonders on earth; and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet.  But Yellowstone is also perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife sanctuary, with grizzlies, black bears, elk, moose, wolves, bison, and so much more.

            In short, 2,200,000 acre Yellowstone is the parent stock for all the national parks around the world that have come into being during the last 138 years. 

THE STORY OF OLD FAITHFUL

            Have you ever noticed that it is the best-known, most famous, subjects that prove the hardest to get your arms around?  Just so, it is for Old Faithful Inn, without question the best known hotel in national park history.  Strangely enough it is just as much an international icon as Old Faithful Geyser itself.

            Over 3,000,000 tourists from all over the world swarm Yellowstone each year, almost all during the short summer season—so they come at the rate of almost a million a month.  And it appears that no one dares to come here without worshiping at the shrine of both Old Faithfuls.  Who’d believe they’d been to Yellowstone without photographic proof that they’d actually stood there in front of those two semi-immortal entities?

            So how did the lodge get here in the first place?

            Well, in the early days they could get by with just tents.  But all that changed in 1883 when railroad tracks reached the North Entrance in Gardiner.  Park administration continued to complain about the failure of tourists to stay long enough to see much; but the reason was obvious: they had to find lodging somewhere by nightfall.

            The breakthrough came in 1901 when Northern Pacific Railroad sold its controlling stock in Yellowstone Park Association to the Yellowstone Transportation Company; Harry Child was named president.  Up till then, the park had lacked a focal center, a final authority.  Child would rule supreme in Yellowstone for the rest of his life.  Almost immediately, he set about searching for an architect he could count on, not just for a building or two, but for the long haul.  He found that in the person in a self-taught architect by the name of Robert Reamer.

            Reamer journeyed to Yellowstone in 1903 via a career trajectory beginning in Ohio, and continuing through Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and California.  When Child first heard of him, Reamer was making a name for himself in San Diego, especially in terms of his projects for the already legendary del Coronado Hotel (first opened in 1888).  It proved to be a perfect fit: Child and Reamer worked together for the rest of Reamer’s life.

            Old Faithful not only was Reamer’s first major project, it would remain his life’s greatest achievement.  Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1903 visit to the park, upon seeing Reamer’s designs for park hotels, expressed his delight.  Northern Pacific Railroad came up with $100,000 to construct it.

Interior of Old Faithful Inn

            Reamer designed the iconic core of the hotel in 1903, the East Wing in 1913-14, and the Y-shaped West Wing in 1927; eventually providing 327 rooms for guests.  The seven-story stair-stepped-inn is striking enough from the outside, but Reamer’s biographer, Ruth Quinn, maintains that the píece de résistance has to be the lobby:

                        For most visitors the lobby stands as the structure’s distinguishing feature.  From its polished maple floor to the peak of its log paneled ceiling, it measures more than 76 feet in height.  The lobby of Old Faithful Inn is a maze of twisted branches, inviting staircases, and welcoming balconies described by one historian as rusticity gone berserk!  Upon viewing the lobby, many are drawn beyond, to experience it—to touch its enormous stone chimney, to stroke a beautifully polished log, to inhale the scent of the wood, to listen to the creak of the stairs and the chatter of admirers.  This is a building to delight the senses.  It is a public space with a strong sense of place where many feel at home.  All eyes are carried upward, one gapes and wonders, Who could have imagined this? (Quinn, 1).

            Old Faithful Inn would become the template, the inspiration, for other great park hotels such as El Tovar, East Glacier, Many Glacier, Prince of Wales; Crater Lake, and Ahwahnee.  It would be reproduced life-size for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and is the inspiration behind Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

            Though it has been loved to death from the start, almost we lost it during the 1970s.  Barnes notes that “Rotting logs, worn shingle siding, and a deteriorating roof were the obvious problem. . . .  There were joints coming apart, the roof was collapsing in sections, logs were falling off the building.”  The NPS seriously considered demolishing it, but the public was outraged at the very thought! (Barnes, 24).

            It took ten years and over $7,000,000 to fix the problems and shore it up for the next half century.  Periodic earthquakes are always a problem since Yellowstone itself is the world’s most active volcano.

            The entire world watched with bated breath, however, in 1988, when it appeared certain Old Faithful Inn was doomed.  In that terrible forest fire, when almost a third of the park burned over, only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the lodge for posterity.

* * * * *

Exterior of Old Faithful Inn

            Over the years we’d been to Old Faithful Geyser and Inn many times, but had never stayed here.  Since it’s booked a year in advance, it was not easy to get rooms in the Inn itself.  Turns out we didn’t spend much time in our bedrooms, because the hotel itself is so fascinating.  Especially the people-watching.  The clock everyone watches is the one that tells everyone when Old Faithful Geyser is due to erupt (the intervals used to be about an hour long, but since the last big earthquake, it has extended to about an hour and a half).  About fifteen minutes before it’s due, the tide goes out; five minutes before, the inn is all but deserted.  When it’s over, the tide surges in again—but in one long sustained tsunami.  And the cycle is faithfully repeated night and day.  The poor Inn never sleeps.  One clerk told me, “I get here at 6 a.m., and chances are the lobby will be jammed already!”

            What’s most fun is to sit on the second floor mezzanine and watch the faces of people young and old as they stream in—especially the moment of shock when they freeze in motion and stare up and up in awe, jaws dropping.  It never fails.

            Since dinner reservations are so difficult to secure, our travel agent made ours over half a year ahead of time.  Eating in Reamer’s great dining room was a feast for the senses as well as for the food itself.

            Next morning, Bob and I took a tour of the Inn.  Our guide, in period costume, really made the old hotel live, telling us behind-the-scenes anecdotes and secrets most people would never know.  We learned that the last major quake stopped the great fourteen-foot clock and messed up the chimney in the huge fireplace—no one knows when they’ll be up and running again.

            But unlike sister park lodges, because of the continual tidal surges there is little serenity here—though, later in the evening, we came fairly close when a pianist played old standards and brought about the first lessening of the decibels since we’d arrived.  And breakfast was considerably quieter than dinner was.

            So we weren’t sorry to go.  Wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  But once was enough.  Perhaps Reamer’s next hotel would be quieter.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Robert Reamer’s Yellowstone Lake Lodge.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Splendid chapter on the hotel].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009). [The most definitive history of Yellowstone Park I’ve ever read].

                        The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable biography of the builder of Old Faithful Inn].

Scofield, Susan C, and Jeremy C. Schmidt, The Inn at Old Faithful (no p.: Crowsnest Associates, 1979).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Graphic Society, 2009). [Helpful].

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Have been camping in Yellowstone park a number of times in my life but hadn’t thought about checking out the inside of the Inn’s to see what they were like.

    • Dear Marilyn,

      Next time you go there, be sure and check inside–it’s quite an experience!

      Joe

  2. Hola Joe, estoy atrasada reading your blog, cause we were in a cruise for 10 days. We wold love to visit Yellowstone park, fantastick description, as only you do… Liked very much.

    • Dear Virtudes,

      Yes, Yellowstone is a one-of-a-kind place!

      Joe

  3. I have been there many, many a time… If you look way up in the lobby there is a small little cabin like structure near the roof… they used to have a string quartet way up there… also not all the dormers on the fron are real…well the dormer is real but they don’t all go to a room…

    • Belatedly, a reply to your Old Faithful response. Yes, it’s one incredible lodge! Dr. Joe


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