A ‘Dark and Stormy Night’ in Yellowstone Park from 1874

Early visitors to Yellowstone National Park display trophies from their elk hunt. (C.D. Loughrey Photo, c. 1888, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman)

Right around Halloween is a great time for sharing scary stories, so I decided to check my collection of tales from Yellowstone National Park for one to share here. I didn’t find anything about geyser ghosts and goblins, but I did locate a chilling tale by the Earl of Dunraven.

Dunraven was hunting in Yellowstone in 1874. (It was legal then.) When a storm came up, the Earl and his guides, Fred Bottler and Texas Jack Omohondro, decided to return to camp. But their companion, Dr. George Kingsley, decided to keep hunting a little longer. The storm grew worse as darkness fell. Here’s the Earl’s story about what happened next:

When Jack and I got in, we found camp in a sorry plight, everything soaked through—tents, bedding, and all, and our prospects for the night looked anything but cheerful; but by extending the hide of the wapiti stag between four trees, and hauling it out taut with ropes, we managed to make a tolerable shelter; and, taking from out of our cache some dry birch bark and splinters of fat pine, we lit a huge fire, and sat down to make some tea for supper.

About dusk, we heard a shot, and visions of fresh venison steaks floated before our eyes. About half an hour passed, but no venison and no Kingsley appeared, and then we heard another shot, and two or three minutes afterwards yet another.

By this time, it was getting quite dark, and we were puzzled to know what Kingsley could be firing at—unless, indeed, he was treed by a bear. After a short interval we heard the sound of his rifle again, evidently further off, and then it suddenly occurred to us that he was lost and making signals. We fired our rifles, and whooped, and yelled, and shouted, but all to no purpose. The sound of his rifle became fainter and fainter; —he was going in the wrong direction.

To be left out on such a night might cost a man his life, for it would have been hard for even an old experienced mountain man to have found material dry enough to make a fire; so Jack and Bottler started out into the blackness of the night and the thick fog to look for him, leaving me behind to heap logs on the fire, and occasionally emit a dismal yell to keep them acquainted with the whereabouts of camp.

For some time, I could hear the responsive shouts of the searchers, but after awhile they ceased, and nothing broke the horrid silence except the noises of the night and of the storm.

The heavy raindrops pattered incessantly on the elk hide; the water trickled and splashed, and gurgled down the hillside in a thousand muddy rills and miniature cascades. The night was very dark, but not so black but that I could dimly see white ghost-like shreds of vapor and great indistinct rolling masses of fog driving up the valley in the gale. The wind rumbled in the caverns of the cliffs, shrieked and whistled shrilly among the dead pine trees, and fiercely shook the frail shelter overhead, dashing the raindrops in my face.

Every now and then the fire would burn up bright, casting a fitful gleam out into the damp darkness, and lighting up the bare jaws and white skulls of the two elk-heads, which seemed to grin derisively at me out of the gloom; and then, quenched by the hissing rain, it would sink down into a dull red glow.

My dog moved uneasily about, now pressing close up against me, shivering with cold and fear, nestling up to me for protection, and looking into my face for that comfort, which I had not in me to give him—now starting to his feet, whimpering, and scared when some great gust smote the pine tree overhead, angrily seized and rattled the elk-hide, and scooping up the firebrands tossed them in the air.

The tall firs bowed like bulrushes before the storm, swaying to and fro, bending their lofty heads like bows and flinging them up again erect, smiting their great boughs together in agony, groaning and complaining, yet fiercely fighting with the tempest.

At intervals, when the gale paused for a moment as it were to gather strength, its shrill shrieking subdued to a dismal groan, there was occasionally heard with startling distinctness, through the continuous distant din and clamor of the night, a long, painfully-rending cr-r-r-rash, followed by a dull heavy thud, notifying the fall of some monarch of the woods, and making my heart quake within me as I uneasily glanced at the two tall hemlocks overhead that wrathfully ground their trunks together, and whose creaking limbs were wrestling manfully with the storm.

Strange and indistinct noises would come up from the vale: rocks became detached, and thundered down the far-off crags. A sudden burst of wind would bear upon me the roar of the torrent below with such clearness that it sounded as though it were close at hand. It was an awful night, in the strictest sense of the word. The Demon of the Tempest was abroad in his anger, yelling down the valley, dashing out the water-floods with his hands, laying waste the forest, and filling with dread the hearts of man and beast and every living thing.

There was not a star or a gleam of moonlight. It was very gruesome sitting there all alone, and I began to feel, like David, “horribly afraid.” I do not know how long I was alone; probably it was only for a short time—a couple of hours or so, at most— but the minutes were as hours to me.

Most dismal was my condition; and I could not even resort to the Dutch expedient for importing courage, to supply my natural allowance of that quality which had quickly oozed out of my cold fingertips. I had poured into a tin pannikin the last drain of whisky from the keg, and had placed it carefully to settle.

I knew that Kingsley would really want it, so I could not seek consolation in that way. I could not find even a piece of dry tobacco wherewith to comfort myself; I began to feel very wretched indeed; and it was truly a great relief when I heard the shouts of the returning party.

They brought in the lost man pretty well exhausted, for he had been out a long time exposed to the weather, had walked a great distance, and had fallen about terribly in the darkness. He had tried in vain to make a fire, and was wandering about without an idea of the direction in which camp lay.

He was indeed in real need of a stimulant, and when, in answer to his inquiring glance at the keg, I said that there was half a pannikin full, his face beamed with a cheerful smile. But alas! A catastrophe had occurred. A gust of wind or a falling branch had over-thrown all my arrangements, and when I arose to give him the pannikin, behold, it was bottom upwards and dry!

From the Earl of Dunraven, Hunting in the Yellowstone, New York: Outing Publishing Company, 1917. (Pages 174-177.) For more stories about early visitors to Yellowstone National Park, see M. Mark Miller’s Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.

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