Angering Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park with a load of dirty laundry in 1877

Early visitors to Yellowstone Park stand and watch as Old Faithful geyser erupts. (William Henry Jackson)

By M. Mark Miller

Today most Yellowstone tourists believe that nature is fragile. They wouldn’t collect a leaf or pick a flower for fear of causing irreparable damage. But early tourists shattered geological features to gather specimens, slaughtered animals for fun, and experimented with geysers.

They reported these things without the slightest embarrassment.

On a Sunday in the summer of 1877, Frank Carpenter was lolling around Old Faithful with his companions: Dingee, Arnold and Mr. Huston—and Frank’s sisters, Ida and Emma. They soon tired of quietly observing the Sabbath and decided to experiment with Old Faithful. Here’s Frank’s story.

We conclude that we will do our washing, since such an opportunity for “boiling clothes” will not be presented again soon.

Emma and Ida put their clothes in a pillowcase. Dingee took off his blouse and tied a large stone in it and I finished tying it with my handkerchief. Arnold also removed his jacket—and we repaired to the laundry—Old Faithful.

We hear the preparatory rumbling and the waters rise a few feet above the surface. Mr. Houston now gives the command to throw our garments into the water. The water goes down and remains low so long that we begin to feel uneasy. Dingee begins to lament his loss and to curse the man who “put us up to the job up.”

Mr. Huston remarks that it will be all right, and the next instant, with a rush and a roar she “goes off.” The clothes, mixed in every conceivable shape, shoot up to a distance of a hundred feet and fall with a splash in the basins below.

The water subsides, and we fish out the clothing, which, we find as nice and clean as a Chinaman could wash it with a week’s scrubbing. Dingee rejoices.

Wishing to experiment further, we collect an immense quantity of rubbish and drop it into the crater. We fill it to the top with at least a thousand pounds of stones, trees, and stumps. Now we sit down to await further developments.

At the exact time advertised, sixty-five minutes from the time of the last eruption, the earth begins to tremble. We hear the rush again. “Off she goes,” and away go rocks, trees and rubbish—to a height of seventy-five or eighty feet.

Old Faithful seems to have been angered by the unwarrantable procedure on our parts—or he wishes to show us that our attempts to check his power are futile. And he furnishes entertainment of unusual magnitude and duration.

Read more stories about Old Faithful like this one excerpted from The Wonders in Geyserland by Frank D. Carpenter in Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales, by M. Mark Miller.


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