LAKE YELLOWSTONE LODGE

A poignant moment, as we left Old Faithful Inn: This wonderful National Park Lodges Tour that we’ve anticipated and planned for, for over a year, is nearing its terminus. How true the closing line in Dumas’ powerful novel, The Count of Monte Cristo—that all human wisdom is distilled in just two words: Wait and Hope. Indeed, for those like us who have reached the autumn of our lives—without new goals, new dreams, new directions, new places to see, new people to meet—our bodies would close shop on us. It is our dreams that energize each day’s awakening, and give us torque and joy.

Then it was time to leave. Actually, it was harder to leave than I thought it would be. Perhaps because of all I now knew about Robert Reamer, who’d dreamed up this magical place, who’d done the same with Lake Quinault Lodge, and transformed Lake Yellowstone Hotel—which I could hardly wait to see. After driving away from a place I now felt we knew personally, I (as navigator) read the entry in Barnes’ second book having to do with the Lake Hotel. What an incredible difference it makes to arrive at a hotel you already know inside out because of all her research, words, and photographs!

Yellowstone Falls

Soon we angled off to Artist’s Point on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Bob and Lucy had never been here before so, with them, we were able to experience vicariously that once-in-a-lifetime moment when someone first takes in the sights and sounds of those prodigious waterfalls thundering over their wide ledges into the abyss over a thousand feet below us. This incredible vista never fails to overwhelm us with its grandeur—and Bob and Lucy’s silence was testimony to how deeply it affected them.

By mid-afternoon it was time to head for another of the world’s most beautiful sights: twenty-mile long Yellowstone Lake, framed by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains (with peaks towering over 12,000 feet). At first, we missed the turn-off for the hotel—which is not surprisingly given the undeniable fact that it is publicized so little. As many times as we’d been to the park over the years, we’d not only not seen it—we’d not even heard about it! In fact, it hadn’t been included in Barnes’ first book at all (but Old Faithful Inn had). Only during the last year had I discovered it even existed.

Lake Yellowstone Lodge

Then we turned a corner—and there it was! Real after all. A very long wooden structure radiantly golden in the afternoon sun. As out of place stylistically yet paradoxically just as much at home as is true of the Stanley Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. As Robert L. Wheaton put it,

Lake Hotel represents a rare survivor of the large Colonial Revival-style hotels and resorts that once sprawled along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine and inland at mountain retreats. At Yellowstone National Park, it was a symbol of civilization in the wilderness. (Barnes, 32).

After driving up the sweeping drive to the porte cochere, we parked behind one of the hotel’s eight vintage White Motor Company motorbuses, painted yellow like the hotel of course. Inside, we walked into a scene that could not be more at variance with old Faithful’s were it on the moon. A grand hotel out of the Golden Age of a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the likes of Greenbriar Inn and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. And as serene:

Solitude seekers hike and pack into the far reaches of the park and lose themselves in its beauty. For those simply looking for a room to soothe the soul, far from the marvels at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, the butter-yellow and white Colonial Revival facade of Lake Hotel . . . simply beckons an attitude adjustment. (Barnes, 17).

THE LAKE HOTEL’S STORY

When Robert Reamer was hired on to be the equivalent of “court architect” for Harry Child in 1903, it was with the understanding that he would design everything Child entrusted to him—which turned out, meant everything! Virtually every building that has endured for the last century came about because of this collaboration of kindred spirits. More often than not, there were many concurrent projects going at once. Just so, it was with Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Northern Pacific Railroad wanted a hotel on Yellowstone Lake, but all they had was a plain-looking box with the ambiance and appeal of an Army barracks. Reamer’s job was to transform the ugly duckling into a swan.

Interior of Lake Yellowstone Lodge

During the 1903-1904 period, Reamer doubled the size of the facility, and by the introduction of twelve 50-foot-high ionic columns transported all the way from Chicago (these supported the porticos), dormers, false balconies, huge iron coach lamps, balustrades, verandas, enlarged windows, etc., he pulled off his miracle: transforming a plain box into an elegant hotel. By summer of 1904, the Lake Hotel had 210 rooms and the ability to accommodate 466 persons, and was advertised as the largest hotel in the park. Because its opening predated that of Old Faithful Hotel, it is considered today to be the oldest public lodging in the park.

Twenty years later, so popular had the hotel become that Reamer was asked to expand its size by adding 113 rooms, and 59 additional bathrooms. Inside, major changes took place: the dark redwood paneling was removed and replaced with light painted woodwork and plaster; “reed-style furniture ordered from San Francisco and large potted ferns replaced the heavy, wooden Colonial Revival ladder-back furniture, giving the hotel the feeling of an East Coast ‘summer resort’ . . . .” Not only that, but now Reamer also constructed a larger, four-hundred capacity, dining room, complete with large picture windows, curved bay window, and self-standing torchere lights.” Adjacent to it, in an inspired mood, Reamer constructed “a lounge solarium set between the columned portico and new porte cochere at the west end of the hotel. This beautiful sun-filled lounge seemed to be the architect’s final grand statement.” (Barnes, 24-28).

The hotel reached its peak beauty just as the Great Depression hit. It was closed down from 1933 – 1936, and only partially opened in 1937. By 1940, the decision was made to tear it down. That summer, the rear wing was demolished. What was left remained empty until 1947. “Neglected and unappreciated, the hotel stood like an aging grand dame with a saucy new era mocking its once stately beauty.” (Barnes, 32).

It was all down-hill from there. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased the derelict from the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company. During the last 30 years, gradually the hotel (now a National Landmark) has been restored to its former glory. Since 1995, it has been managed by XANTERRA.

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View of Yellowstone Lake from the Lake Lodge

Our own room on the second floor front looked out at the deep blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. After exploring the hotel, none of us wanted to leave the sunny lounge solarium. Nor, apparently did the hotel’s other guests. Since (as is generally the case with these old lodges) there was no TV in the rooms, families either explored the outdoors or relaxed, read, chatted, played board games, or spent money in the gift shop. Later on, we sat down in the large dining room, and took a long time to dine. Outside: the great windows we never tired of. Later, as darkness fell, the Lake String Quartet (a group of professional musicians from New York City, here for their fourth season) performed from a wide musical menu—from classical, semi-classical, easy-listening, pop, to jazz. The audience loved them!

Afterwards we retired. My head spun; I had the sniffles—the bug had got me too.

Next morning, we ate breakfast in that lovely dining room, then delayed our moment of leaving until check-out time. Afterwards, we drove over to another old facility (also managed by XANTERRA, the rustic Lake Lodge (built during the 1920s) and its 186 wooden cabins (away from the lake). The main lodge has a large lobby with two impressive gas fireplaces, a cafeteria dining area, and long veranda equipped with rocking chairs so comfortable neither Lucy nor Connie wanted to get out of them. As we drove out, just north of the Lake Hotel, a great bull buffalo grazing next to the road posed for photos.

CANYON HOTEL—PARADISE LOST

We must not close this series of Robert Reamer-designed hotels without bringing up a very sad story. In the fall of 1909, the Childs and Reamer boarded the steamship S. S. Mauritania for Europe. Once there, they studied European architecture in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Germany. On their return, his head whirling with visions of all the romantic architecture he’d studied, Reamer dreamed up his Xanadu: a great European-inspired hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Construction began in June of 1910, of the largest building ever to be constructed in the park. Thanks to Northern Pacific’s deep pockets, money was no object, and it showed. It cost half a million dollars—a staggering sum for the times.

Lake Lodge

It was 600-feet long by 100 wide, and contained 375 guest rooms—huge fireplaces added to the overall dramatic effect. The great three-story-high lounge was 200-feet long by 100-wide, and became renowned for its two spiral staircases, and grand staircase; the magnificent lobby was 85-feet high, 175-feet-long, and 100-feet-wide, complete with signature fireplaces. Twenty years later, so heavily booked was it that Reamer added a 96-room-wing to the already enormous hotel. The great masquerade balls and dances became the stuff of legend.

That Reamer knew he’d created a masterpiece is borne out by these words: I built it in keeping with the place where it stands. Nobody could improve upon that. To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence. (Quinn, 79).

But then the Great Depression hit, delaying completion of the 96-room-addition until 1935. By then it was all too clear that the euphoria of the Jazz Age would not return; nor would the wealthy clientele that filled great resort hotels like this for months at a time.

It remained a forlorn relic of that bygone age for 25 more years until it was demolished in August of 1960. But it did not perish ignominiously to the wrecking ball—somehow, it suddenly ignited and roared into an inferno.

Quinn’s requiem reads thus: “The Grand Canyon Hotel is second only to Old Faithful Inn in fame and recognition of Reamer’s talents. Numerous Yellowstone visitors today return with fond memories of lunches eaten, dances enjoyed, or summers engaged as employees at this grand hostelry. For those who experience it only vicariously through photographs, it is a romantic reminder of grander, gentler times.” (Quinn, 78).

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Jackson Lake Lodge

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [most informative!]

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable source for both the Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone hotels].

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

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].