On this day in 1870, the “Old Faithful” geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming was discovered by the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. The geyser was the first in the park to receive a name; when the men discovered it, they were astonished by its frequent eruptions, hence the cheeky name, courtesy of Henry Washburn. A geyser is a natural spring that intermittently spews hot water and steam. Geysers are extremely rare; only a thousand have been identified worldwide and half of those are in Yellowstone National Park.
The Washburn Expedition of 1870 explored a region of northwestern Wyoming that would become “Yellowstone National Park” just two years later. The party was made up of Surveyor General Henry Washburn, politician and businessman Nathaniel P. Langford, and several other men, including a newspaper writer and Lt. Gustavus C. Doane, whose journals of the trip would become an important historical record. When they set off on their adventure, they were described as “under the weather,” having enjoyed the previous evening drinking until “night drew her sable curtain down.”
They set off with a large pavilion tent, a saddle horse for each man, five pack mules with supplies that included 40 days of rations and plenty of ammunition. Sioux lived in the region and other expeditions had encountered skirmishes. The party had an aneroid barometer, a thermometer, and plenty of pocket compasses.
The party discovered the geyser on just the second day of their travels, as they plodded along an area known as “The Firehole.” They were greeted by the sight of clear, sparkling water rising about 100 feet in the air, and someone in the party, no one remembered who, shouted, “Geyser, Geyser!” They observed the geyser throughout the day, noting that it spouted nine times at regular intervals, about every 74 minutes, which is how Henry Washburn came up with the name “Old Faithful.”
For a time, expedition parties to the park used the geyser as a laundry service: clothes were placed over the crater during quiescence and were summarily ejected “thoroughly washed” after the eruption. It was discovered that linens and cottons did fine, but that woolens were torn to shreds.
In his journal, Lt. Doane expounded upon the beauty of Yellowstone and Old Faithful, “Those who have seen stage representations of Aladdin’s Cave and the Home of the Dragon Fly, as produced in a first-class theatre, can form an idea of the wonderful coloring but not of the intricate frost work of this fairy like yet solid mound of rock growing up amid clouds of steam and showers of boiling water. One instinctively touches the hot ledges with his hands and sounds with a stick the depths of the cavities in the slope, in utter doubt in the evidence of his own eyes. The beauty of the scene takes away one’s breath. It is overpowering, transcending the visions of Masoleum’s Paradise, the earth affords not its equal, it is the most lovely inanimate object in existence.”