Yellowstone – Upper Firehole Basin

For five miles along the desolate shores of Fire hole River the course is now taken in a region of mostly extinct geysers, yet with active hot springs and steam jets, and having ashes and cinders covering wide, spaces. Ahead is the largest collection of geysers in the world, with clouds of steam overhanging—the Upper Firehole Basin. Hot water runs over the earth, and the “paint pots” color the surface in variegated hues. Here are some forty of the greatest geysers in existence, in a region covering two or three square miles, all of them located near the river, and their outflow making its initial current. The basin is at seventy-three hundred feet elevation above the sea. When the author visited this extra-ordinary place the guide, halting at the verge, said: Now I have brought you to the front door of hell.” He was asked if there were any Indians about there, and solemnly replied : ” No Indian ever comes into this country unless he is blind ; only the white man is fool enough to come;” then after a moment’s pause he continued, “And I get paid for it, I do.” The great stand-by of this Upper Basin, and the geyser, that is first visited, is ” Old Faithful,” near its south-ern or upper end. This most reliable geyser, which always goes off at the time appointed, is a flat-topped and gently rising cone about two hundred feet in ameter, and elevated towards the centre about twenty feet. The tube is an orifice of eight feet by two feet wide in the centre of this cone, with water-worn and rounded rocks enclosing it. Steam escapes all the time, and the hard, scaly and laminated surface around it seems hollow as you walk across, while beneath there are grumblings and dull explosions, giving warning of the approaching outburst. Several mounds of extinct geysers are near, with steam issuing from one of them, but all have long since gone out of active business. Soon “Old Faithful” gives the premonitory symptoms of an eruption. The steam jet increases, and also the internal rumblings. Then a little sputt of hot water comes, hastily receding with a growl, followed by more steam, and after an interval more growling, finally developing into repeated little spurts of hot water, occupying several minutes. Then the geyser suddenly explodes, throwing quick jets higher and higher into the air, until the column rises in a grand fountain to the height of about one hundred and fifty feet, the stream inclined to the northward, and falling over in great splashes upon that side of the cone, dense clouds of steam and spray being carried by the wind, upon which the sun paints a rainbow. After some four minutes the grand jet dies gradually down to a height of about thirty feet, continuing at that elevation for a brief time, with quickly repeated impulses. When six minutes have elapsed, with an expiring leap the water mounts to a height of fifty feet, there is a final outburst of steam, and all is over. A deluge of hot water rushes down to the Firehole River; and thus “Old Faithful” keeps it up regularly every hour. The eruption being ended, you can look down into the abyss whence it came. Through the hot steam, rushing out with a strong draught, there is a view far down into the rocky recesses of the geyser. The water left by the eruption stands about in transparent shallow pools, and is tinted a pale blue. “Old Faithful’s” mound is built up of layers of geyserite—hard, brittle, porous, full of crevices, and having all about little basins with tarred-up rims that retain the water. This geyser is the favorite in the region, not only because of its regular performance, but possibly because its odors are somewhat less sulphurous than those emanating elsewhere.

The geysers of the Upper Basin contribute practically the whole current of the Firehole River, their outflow sending into the stream ten million gallons daily. Across the river to the northward, close to the bank, is the Beehive, its tube looking like a huge bird’s nest, enclosed by a pile of geyserite resembling a beehive, three feet high and about four feet in diameter. Nearby is a vent from which steam, escaping a few minutes before the eruption, gives notice of its coming. The water column shoots up two hundred feet, with clouds of steam, but it is quite uncertain, spouting once or twice in twenty-four hours, and usually at night. Behind the Beehive are the Lion, the Lioness, and their two Cubs, and to the eastward of the latter the Giantess. The Lion group has only uncertain and small action, while the Giantess is on the summit of a mound fifty feet high, with a depressed crater, measuring eighteen by twenty-four feet, and usually filled with dark-blue water. This is the slowest of all the geysers in getting to work, acting only at fortnightly intervals, but each eruption continues the greater.part of the day, with usually long-previous notice by violent boiling and internal rumblings. When it comes, the explosion is terrific, the column mounting two hundred and fifty feet, a perfect water-spout the full size of the crater, with a half-dozen distinct jets forced through it. To the northwest of the Lion and across the river is the Castle, so named from the castellated construction of its crater. It stands upon an elevation, the side towards the Firehole falling off in a series of rude steps. The tube is elevated about ten feet within the castle and is four feet in diameter. It is of uncertain eruption, sometimes playing daily and sometimes every other day, throwing a column of one hundred and fifty feet, falling in a sparkling shower, continuing about forty minutes, and then tapering off in a series of insignificant spurts. The Saw Mill is not far away, rather insignificant, its tube being only six inches in diameter, set in a saucer-like crater about twenty feet across; but its water column, thrown forty feet high, gives the peculiar sounds of a saw, caused by the action of puffs of steam coming out alternately with the water jets. It generally acts in unison with the Grand Geyser, a quarter of a mile northward, which goes off about once a day. The Grand Geyser in action is most powerful, causing the earth to tremble, while there are fearful thumping noises beneath. The water in the crater suddenly recedes, and then quickly spurts upward in a solid column for two hundred. feet, with steam rising in puffs above. The column seems to be composed of numerous separate jets, falling back with a thundering sound into the funnel. The outburst continues a few minutes, stops as suddenly as it starts, and is repeated six or eight times, each growing less powerful. Along the river bank nearby are the Wash Tubs, small basins ten feet in diameter, each with an orifice in the bottom. If the clothes are put in, the washing progresses finely until suddenly out goes the water, and with it all the garments, sucked down the hole. After awhile the basin fills again, and back come the clothes, though sometimes they are very dilatory in returning. The Devil’s Well, about fifty feet away, is usually accused of complicity in this movement. It is a broad and placid basin of hot water, with a beautiful blue tinge, in which tourists sometimes boil their eggs and potatoes. It is sentinelled by the Comet Geyser, exploding several times daily, but through an orifice so large that it does not throw a very high column.

The great geyser of this Upper Basin is the Giant. It has a broken cone set upon an almost level surface, with the enclosing formation fallen away on one side, the interior being lined with brilliant colors like a tessellated pavement. It is somewhat uncertain in movement, but usually goes off every fourth day. It gives ample notice, certain “Little Devils” ad-joining, and a vent in the side of the crater, boiling some time before it sends up the enormous column which plays ninety minutes. The outburst, when it starts, comes like a tornado, and the stream from it runs into and more than doubles the current of the river. The column is eight feet in diameter, rises two hundred and fifty feet at first, and is afterwards maintained at two hundred feet. There is a deafening noise, and the steam clouds seem to cover half the valley. The column goes up perfectly straight, and falls back around the cone with a deluge of hot water. The Catfish, a small geyser, is nearby, and to the northward a short distance is the Grotto. This is an odd formation, its crater perforated with orifices around a low, elongated mound, which point in different directions; and when it goes off at six-hour intervals, the eruption is by streams at an angle, giving a curious sort of churning motion to the water column, which rises forty feet, continuing twenty minutes. The Riverside has a little crater on a ter-raced mound just at the river’s edge, and is a small, irregular but vigorous spouter, throwing a stream sixty feet. The Fan has five spreading tubes, arranged so that they make a huge fan-like eruption, one hundred feet high in the centre, this display, given three or four times a day, continuing about fifteen minutes. The Splendid plays a jet two hundred feet high every three hours, continuing ten minutes, and may be spurred to quicker action. The Pyramid and the Punch Bowl are geysers that have ceased operations. The former is now only. a steam jet, and the latter, on a flat mound, is an elegant blue pool; elevated several feet, and having a serrated edge. The Morning Glory Spring, named from its resemblance to the convolvulus, is a beautiful and most delicately tinted pool. The investigators of these geysers have been able to get the temperature at a depth of seventy feet within the tubes, and find that under the pressure there exerted the boiling-point is 250°. Upon this fact is based the theory of the operation of the geyser. The boiling-point under pressure at the bottom of a long tube being much higher than at the top, the expansive force of the steam there suddenly generated drives out violently the water above it in the tube, and hence the explosive spouting.