Search

EYEWITNESS TO AN ACT OF GOD

Nov. 02, 1959
Nov. 02, 1959

Table of Contents
Nov. 2, 1959

Cord Rally
  • The classic cars and some fine-feathered relatives go home again to their native Auburn

Orange Hell
Spectacle
Man O' War
Automobiles
Pro Football
Horse Racing
Yellowstone
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

EYEWITNESS TO AN ACT OF GOD

A unique report by a nature writer and a photographer on the cataclysmic changes at Yellowstone National Park

The editors had planned to present in this space the first of several articles on the vital problems of conservation. An article by Peter Matthiessen, on the tragic history of American wildlife and our early conservation efforts was to have launched this study. It will now appear in a later issue. As it was being readied for the presses, Nature Writer John O'Reilly and Photographer Richard Meek returned from a western journey with an entirely new and sensational report of recent events in Yellowstone Park, where many of the greatest natural wonders of this country have undergone drastic changes resulting from the earthquake of last August. Penetrating into areas unvisited by any outsider since that cataclysmic upheaval, they brought back stories and pictures of new geysers, old geysers transformed and other hitherto-unseen phenomena which make Yellowstone, oldest and most famous of our national parks and birthplace of America's conservation effort, a more exciting place to visit than ever.

This is an article from the Nov. 2, 1959 issue Original Layout

At 11:38 p.m. on the night of August 17 a shift in the earth's crust deep under the Rocky Mountains triggered an earthquake which split a 7,000-foot mountain, sending millions of tons of rock down into the valley of the Madison River in southwestern Montana. The giant slide blocked the river and trapped or buried many campers, taking a toll of 10 lives, with 19 more persons missing and presumed dead.

The attention of the nation was focused on this disaster—on the rescue work, the search for those still buried beneath the slide and the further dangers imposed by the seven-mile lake formed by 85 million tons of rock piled across the valley in a wall 300 feet high. Amid this immediate concern for human life it was not at first realized that the earthquake which caused the tragedy was not a local phenomenon but actually affected some 550,000 square miles of the surrounding area. It was, in fact, the fourth most severe earthquake ever recorded in the United States.

While the avalanche roared down into the valley of the Madison even greater changes in the earth's face were taking place in other mountainous sections near the quake's epicenter. The greatest of these occurred in Yellowstone National Park, the first and most spectacular of America's chain of outdoor playgrounds. Following the earthquake, roads were kept closed to visitors while heavy road-building machines were thrown into the work of moving thousands of tons of earth and rock. A fortnight ago fragmentary reports appeared, indicating there had been major alterations in this most famous American vacation land. Photographer Richard Meek and I went to Yellowstone immediately to find out just what effects the earthquake had had on this historic area.

During our very first day in the park, it dawned on me that Meek and I were witnessing the kind of primeval convulsion which, eons ago, had created the wonders which millions of tourists have so long admired. The face of the earth was being reshaped at Yellowstone—more drastically, perhaps, than at any time in recorded U.S. history.

Dozens of mountains had sent massive rock slides down into the canyons. Boulders as big as automobiles had bounced and rolled like marbles down the mountainsides, cutting swathes through the forests, tumbling across roads and into streams. Highways had cracked and shifted. The underground plumbing system of the greatest thermal region in the world had been fouled and twisted, causing all sorts of changes in the spouting geysers.

And the upheaval was still going on. Brand-new geysers were sending boiling mud and steam into the air. Old thermal springs were bursting into renewed activity, and a few geysers, active for years, had ceased to spout. Occasional plumes of steam rising from the forest testified to the continued activity that was changing the park before our eyes.

Here are some of the major disruptions that happened during the initial shock, the major aftershocks and the lesser tremors that are still occurring as the mountains gradually adjust themselves to the new fractures in the earth's crust:

•Sapphire Pool, in Biscuit Basin, a clear, blue pool that boiled over periodically before the quake, suddenly became violently active and now explodes at irregular intervals to send columns of boiling water 175 feet in the air, with clouds of steam rising several hundred feet higher.

•Grand Geyser, formerly one of the most spectacular in the park, erupted once after the quake and hasn't erupted since.

•Sylvan Springs, a mile and a half off the highway, produced a brand-new mud volcano on a wooded slope. Its crater is 75 by 50 feet and it churns and pumps continually, throwing out gray, soupy mud and bouncing the tree trunks that fall into it up and down.

•Fountain Paintpot, in the Lower Geyser Basin, demonstrates greatly increased thermal activity. The Paintpot is bubbling and boiling, with new fumaroles sending out smoke and with white plumes emerging from cracks in the nearby parking lot.

•Mount Holmes, a 10,300-foot mountain, lost part of its northeast face in a rockslide 3,000 feet high and a mile wide at the bottom.

•Secret Valley, between Madison Junction and Norris, disgorged a mud slide which came down the mountain and spread out through the forest.

•Obsidian Cliff, between Mammoth and Norris, gave way, covering the road with fragments of volcanic glass. The new face of the cliff, jagged and shiny, now glistens brightly new in the sunlight.

These are only a few of the more dramatic results of the quake. In the course of our week-long stay, traveling around the park and hiking into the woods with some of the first surveying parties to penetrate these areas, we saw many more.

The most astonishing of the new developments is the activity of Sapphire Pool. Before the quake the water in this 30-foot crater was a beautiful blue. During its miniature eruptions it sent small quantities of water gurgling out among odd-shaped limestone deposits called "biscuits."

It continued this activity for several weeks after the initial quake. Then, following one of the aftershocks on September 5, the pool began erupting violently. In 72 major eruptions at about two-hour intervals it sent boiling water 75 to 150 feet high. This action stopped on September 13, and the pool subsided to a violent boiling until September 29. At 6:35 p.m. on that date another tremor occurred and Sapphire went into action again. Since then it has continued to erupt at intervals of 30 minutes to one and a half hours.

During my investigation of earthquake results in the park I spent parts of three days watching the fascinating behavior of Sapphire. The great limestone mound in which the crater is located was scoured by the hot floods of successive eruptions. "These limestone biscuits around the pool used to be a beautiful green," explained Robert N. McIntyre, the chief park naturalist. "Now you can see that the big eruptions have burned them to a dull gray and the limestone layers over the whole mound are being flaked off."

Steam rose from the water as the pool slowly filled before each major outbreak. I watched a number of these but none was as great as the eruption I was to see at 3 p.m. on October 18.

At that time I was standing about 75 feet from the rim of the crater, a distance that had proved safe during previous eruptions. Meek had his camera set up considerably farther away. There was an eruption of some 30 feet and then Sapphire remained quiet for three-quarters of an hour. Water bubbled in the crater and small plumes of steam rose over the rim. Suddenly there was a loud sound, a great thump. The ground vibrated enough to buckle my knees. Then the whole pool seemed to rise, with jets of water shooting high into the sky. A wall of boiling water rolled toward me.

Feet got the better of curiosity. I turned and started sprinting down a path of cinders which had been put there for closer access to the pool. I could hear the hissing wall of water close behind. Glancing skyward I could see nothing but white steam. Looking down as I ran I saw fingers of bubbling water boiling up onto the cinder path from either side. Running this gauntlet, I at last reached the safety of a boardwalk.

Breathless, I turned and looked back. The entire mound was awash with hot water. It covered places which had not been covered by previous eruptions. It cascaded in sizzling waterfalls into the craters of other thermal pools and it was still steaming when it washed into the Firehole River 100 yards away. The eruption had sent water jets at least 175 feet into the air—probably higher.

George D. Marler, the park naturalist who has made a two-year study of the park's thermal basins, told me that in previous eruptions Sapphire had thrown out 30 to 50 tons of water each time. This eruption obviously threw out a good deal more.

McIntyre and his aides are keeping a chart of the pool's surges and by next spring expect to have wooden walks established at a safe distance for visitors. If Sapphire continues its violent activity, it will be one of the prime attractions of the park.

Another day we joined Ranger Naturalists Robert Alan Mebane and Richard Frisbee on a hike to see what had happened at Sylvan Springs, a thermal basin some distance from the road. After walking for a mile and a half through the woods and across a marshy meadow, we came to a small valley. It was a place, the park men said, that had shown some activity before. Now it looked like an illustration for Dante's Inferno.

On one slope of the valley a small cone belched up gray, steaming mud. Near it was another cone which was filled with boiling, pale-greenish paste. From both sides of the valley sulphurous fumes issued from rock fissures. At one level spot bright-yellow water boiled in a circular pool. Up near the head of the valley big clouds of steam rose from other boiling pools.

As we climbed a ridge, we could see massive clouds rising from the forest. Making our way through the trees we came upon a violent mud geyser which had not existed before the quake. Large trees had fallen into a hole 75 by 50 feet, their roots and limbs tangled and steaming. As the pool rose and fell with a pumping action the mass of trees went up and down with it. Trees around the pool were covered with gray mud thrown there by previous bursts. It was evident that more trees would topple into the caldron as the heaving action ate away the banks. We named this brand-new steamer "The Mudslinger."

On other trips we inspected rock-slides and climbed up slopes to see how the big boulders had cut paths through the forest as they careened down from their mountain anchor ages. In some places the trees literally were pulverized by the weight of the moving rocks.

Miraculously, all these particular changes in the face of nature occurred without loss of human life, despite the fact that there were 18,000 visitors in the park the night the earth began to move. Superintendent Lemuel A. Garrison attributed this good fortune to two things: the fact that the earthquake occurred late at night when park roads were empty, and the quick and efficient work of the rangers and other park personnel in handling frightened visitors, quieting incipient panic and clearing a road the next morning for the thousands ready to flee. There was only one injury; a woman sprained her ankle during the nocturnal rush to get out of Old Faithful Inn.

"There was no panic," Garrison said. "We were a little itchy, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see nature at work."

The 750 guests who fled Old Faithful Inn when the big chimney crumpled were taken in buses to Old Faithful Lodge. Some spent the rest of the night in the buses. At the lodge there had been an employees' beauty contest during which they had selected Miss Old Faithful. The contest was just ending when the first shock was felt.

Rangers went among the visitors, explaining to them that no attempts would be made to leave the park until daylight. By that time the dust clouds from the avalanches had cleared and workmen were able to open up the road to the south so the exodus could get under way.

Many persons asleep in cabins thought, upon awakening, that the disturbance was made by bears rattling the doors in search of food. The wife of one ranger naturalist insisted that he get up and "chase that bear off the porch." Soon after the quake it became apparent that the bears had left along with the people. The rangers believe the bears were not driven out by the tremors but went away in search of people who would give them handouts.

"When the workmen were clearing a slide that blocked the road at the Cascades of the Firehole River they found a bear that had been trapped under the rocks," McIntyre said. "He had been under there for eight days. After they moved a boulder the foreman had them put a tree trunk down in the hole. The bear climbed up the tree and took off. I bet he's running yet."

Near Madison Junction there is a round pool of warm water which residents of the region outside the park believe has great therapeutic value. Although it is against park rules, they slip in at night to bathe. "On the night of the quake," Mclntyre said, "a man and his wife were bathing in the pool, and their two children were on the bank undressing. Suddenly their bathtub began to shake so violently they were almost thrown out of it. This crack you see here," he went on, pointing, "opened up right across the tub. The couple ran down to their car, which they had left behind those trees. They waited while they calmed down, and then they went back, put on their clothes and drove away."

McIntyre said no action against the family for violating park rules was contemplated. Nature, he thought, had punished them sufficiently.

At first there was apprehension that some of the famous trout streams in the park would be damaged by the earthquake. Those originating in the Mount Holmes area, including the Gardner River, Grayling Creek and Duck Creek, ran opaque-yellow for weeks. Now they are clearing up, but whether the fish have been affected will not be determined until next spring. The Madison cleared quickly and large trout are visible in its water.

I visited some of the areas where rockslides had felled great numbers of trees. McIntyre explained that they were worried about this huge pile of deadwood because insects breed in down timber and might cause large infestations of trees still standing. He said these areas would be watched for insect outbreaks. A forester also is making a survey of timber damage in the park.

The natural features of the park were not the only ones affected by the shocks. In the three-story stone administration building a crack rose from the ground to the roof. The offices are still being used, but all stone buildings may have to be replaced with steel-skeletoned ones.

Superintendent Garrison and other officials of the National Park Service look upon the earthquake as a costly natural disturbance, but one not without its blessings. "After a careful appraisal we have placed the damage to roads, buildings and other man-made installations in the park at $2,700,000," Garrison said. "We don't want to put it too high because we are taxpayers, too. The public apprehension resulting from the quake and some erroneous reports that came out at first have cost us about 200,000 visitors who would have come to the park if the earthquake had not occurred. On the other hand, it is the purpose of our national parks to interpret nature to the public. The results of this earthquake give us plenty of opportunities to interpret nature in one of its most violent moods."

Rockslides have been cleared from the roads and highway changes are being made in the interests of safety, but beside the roads fresh scars have been left untouched so that next summer's visitors may study the effects of an earthquake at first hand. McIntyre is in charge of a team of ranger naturalists who will work as far into the winter as possible on a survey of the changes in thermal activity. Many of these changes will be subjects for interpretive lectures by ranger naturalists.

As a result of the thermal studies some new walks for visitors have been installed and the locations of others are being staked out at safe distances from the enlarged geysers. In some instances the walks cannot be located until next spring, when the geysers involved have ceased their erratic behavior and settled down into a new spouting routine.

An astonishing amount of road clearing and repair already has been done. This was possible because, in addition to their regular equipment, park repairmen were able to draft a lot of other machines working on Mission 66 projects. Mission 66 is a 10-year program for the entire National Park System designed to provide adequate facilities for 80 million visitors a year by 1966.

All park facilities are now closed for the winter. Soon the heavy snows will set in to cover the scars left by the shifting earth. Next May, when the park reopens, the buildings will have been repaired, the walks through the thermal areas will have been rearranged and the park will be ready for business—with added attractions.

Next year's visitors, as well as all those who wrote and telephoned to ask after the welfare of Old Faithful, will find it still in operation at the same old stand. Park Naturalist Marler says Old Faithful's imperviousness results from the fact that it is a self-contained unit with its own private fissure reaching down into the earth. In any case, those who are worried about the nation's favorite geyser may turn the page to see how it looked last week—faithful as always.

PHOTORICHARD MEEKTUMBLED TREES in Yellowstone forest are strewn helter-skelter across churning witches' caldron of mud and steam opened by quake in vicinity of Sylvan Springs.PHOTORICHARD MEEKTUMBLED WATERS spread out over once-dry area after being tossed aloft at Sapphire Pool, where some of mightiest eruptions ever seen at Yellowstone have taken place.PHOTORICHARD MEEKWOODLAND HAVOC was wrought by boulder which thundered down the mountain, finally came to rest on bank of the Madison River. Dented highway has been repaired.PHOTORICHARD MEEKCLEPSYDRA GEYSER which has erupted continuously since the quake, sends up preliminary steam clouds. Walks beyond will be relocated to assure spectators' safety.PHOTORICHARD MEEKFOUNTAIN PAINTPOT has had a spectacular increase in smoking chimneys and bubbling craters. Nearby parking lot, now full of steaming cracks, will be abandoned.PHOTORICHARD MEEKTHE SAPPHIRE POOL, surrounded by its odd-shaped limestone "biscuits," seems its old self just before its boiling waters surge into a spectacular eruption (pages 76-77).THREE PHOTOSRICHARD MEEKOBSERVING ERUPTION OF OLD SAPPHIRE. O'REILLY STANDS BESIDE POOL (ABOVE) AS FIRST CLOUDS OF STEAM ARISE. IS SUDDENLY OVERWHELMED BY FURIOUS EXPLOSION AND TURNS TO RUN BEFORE A TOWERING WALL OF BOILING WATER AND SUPERHEATED STEAMPHOTORICHARD MEEKSTILL FAITHFUL. Yellowstone's best-loved geyser sends a plume of steam and water into the sky. A self-contained thermal unit, Old Faithful still performs on time.MAPMONTANA
WYOMING
IDAHO
WYOMING
MONTANA
WYOMING
GARDINER
YELLOWSTONE RIVER
GRAND CANYON OF THE YELLOWSTONE
YELLOWSTONE RIVER
YELLOWSTONE LAKE
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS
NORRIS
MADISON JUNCTION
WEST THUMB
1 MT. EVERTS
2 GOLDEN GATE
3 OBSIDIAN CLIFF
4 ANTLER PEAK
5 MT. HOLMES
6 MT. JACKSON
7 SECRET VALLEY
8 SYLVAN
9 VIRGINIA CASCADES
10 GIBBON CANYON
11 CASCADES OF THE FIREHOLE
12 FOUNTAIN PAINPOT AND CLEPSYDRA
13 FIREHOLE, HOT LAKE
14 SAPPHIRE POOL
15 OLD FAITH

MAJOR CHANGES AT YELLOWSTONE: Prepared with the assistance of Yellowstone Park's chief naturalist, this map shows what has happened to the park's best-known areas: (1) Earth slide near park headquarters. Administration building and others in headquarters area at Mammoth cracked. (2) Road obliterated here. (3) Cliff split. (4) Disfiguring rock-slides down face of mountain. (5) Massive avalanche on northeast face of Mount Holmes 3,000 feet high and a mile wide across the base. (6) Face ripped off Mount Jackson. (7) Mud slide through forest. (8) Brand-new geyser spouting mud and steam. (9) Road covered by slide. (10) Highway retaining walls shattered by slides. (11) Boulders plunged across road burying black bear (see page 76). (12) Shape of Paintpot changed; Clepsydra Geyser now activity around the clock. (13) Firehole Lake sank to new low level, with cracks opening around its shores. (14) Sapphire Pool now displaying violent and erratic behavior. (15) Old Faithful undisturbed by earthquakes and continues to erupt at intervals of 33 to 90 minutes, with an average interval of 64 minutes.