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Yellowstone Experiment Creates Modern Day Time Capsule

The iconic vistas of Yellowstone, America's first national park, have become synonymous with the definition of the American landscape.
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The National Park Service turns 100 years old this month. Fifty-nine U.S. National Parks cover almost 52 million acres across 27 different states. Last year, they saw a record 305 million visitors. To recognize the centennial of the system protecting these American treasures, NBC News will feature stories from 10 national parks and recreation areas — from California's Yosemite to New York's Gateway.

The iconic vistas of Yellowstone, America's first national park, have become synonymous with the definition of the national landscape. It's unthinkable today for developers to pave over the park's wilderness, but in the 1870s the barely-settled West was anyone’s game.

Intrepid geologist Ferdinand Hayden invited photographer William Henry Jackson to document his 1871 expedition exploring northwestern Wyoming, and their efforts permanently changed the fate of the Yellowstone area.

Over six weeks that July and August, Jackson photographed what would become the park’s best known features — Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Yellowstone Lake — before most other Americans knew they existed. Seven months later, these images of the future landmarks would help convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in March 1872.

Bradly Boner, a photographer, set out to revisit the original sites of Jackson’s images in the 21st century. "I was very interested in seeing how this experiment of the national park… had panned out," said Boner.

While Boner encountered obstacles — washed away locations and crumbled rocks — he was more surprised by what remained unchanged. It was those moments that moved him the most.

"There were points where I would find individual rocks, like a bowling ball-sized rock, that was sitting in the same place," said Boner. "Those were the times where you almost feel like you’re looking at a museum or you’re staring through a window into the past."

Boner’s images of these same places are a visual affirmation of the success of Congress’ declaration. Yellowstone can still connect visitors to nature's vast sweep of time.

Click on the photos to view images full screen

Mirror Lake

Image: Trail between the Yellowstone and the East Fork rivers
Thursday, Aug. 24, 1871 No. 303. THE UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, with pack-train, en route upon the trail between the Yellowstone and the East Fork [Lamar River], showing the manner in which all parties traverse these wilds. BOTTOM: Due to the higher water level at Mirror Lake today, the spot where the Hayden Survey lined up in a pack train along the west shore is now submerged. Numerous blow-downs of mature lodgepole pine trees burned by wildfires and the lack of an established, maintained trail make for slow and arduous travel to the lake and across the Mirror Plateau. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

The Hayden Geological Survey traveled along a trail between the Yellowstone River and what is now the Lamar River on August 24, 1871.

The same spot along Mirror Lake is now submerged due to higher water levels. Lodgepole pines burned by wildfires scatter the west shore of the lake, making it challenging to now travel across the Mirror Plateau.

Lower Falls

Image: Yellowstone's Lower Falls
July 28-30, 1871 No. 239. THE LOWER FALLS. A near view, not far from the bottom of the canyon, and about 525 yards below the falls. BOTTOM: A path and stairway system now lead down the route Jackson used to access the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to photograph the Lower Falls from near today's Red Rock Point. Jackson's original photo point, only a few dozen feet lower from where this photograph was taken, has been washed out and is not safely accessible today. The overlook at the end of the Brink of Lower Falls Trail can be seen just to the right of the top of the falls. The volume of water pouring over the great falls of the Yellowstone fluctuates with spring and summer runoff flows, from more than 60,000 gallons per second at its peak to less than 5,000 gallons per second in late fall. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

A path and steps now lead hikers towards the bottom of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon for a view of Lower Falls. Boner photographed the waterfall from a few dozen feet above Jackson’s exact location because the actual position has been washed away and is no longer safely accessible.

Upper Falls Rapids

Image: Yellowstone's Upper Falls
July 28-30, 1871 No. 257. RAPIDS ABOVE THE UPPER FALLS of the Yellowstone, immediately above the falls, showing the narrow rock-bound channel. BOTTOM: The present-day overlook for park visitors at the brink of the Upper Falls frames the bottom edge of this contemporary photo of the rapids above the waterfall. The Yellowstone River becomes turbulent as it pours over a series of rapids for about a half mile before the Upper Falls, but is mostly calm and serene for the remaining 15 river miles above the falls to Yellowstone Lake. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

The Yellowstone River flows through a series of turbulent rapids just before it cascades to become Upper Falls. Today there is an overlook for visitors at the brink of the waterfall.

Tower Fall

Image: Yellowstone's Tower Falls
Wednesday, July 26, 1871 No. 233. TOWER FALLS, near view from near its base. About 200 yards above its entrance into the Yellowstone, [Tower Creek] pours over an abrupt descent of [132] feet. BOTTOM: The stones and boulders in Tower Creek as it flows away from Tower Fall* have been shifted by decades of spring runoffs. The columns of volcanic breccia, which give the cascade and creek their name, have crumbled over time; recent photographs indicate the large, broad column immediately to the viewer's right of the waterfall in Jackson's photograph fell in the late 1990s, obscuring the large boulder at the base of the falls and changing the course of the creek below. Other recent photographs indicate the taller spire above and behind it, known as Sulphur Rock, crumbled in the early to mid-2000s. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Spring runoffs over the years have moved the rocks and boulders surrounding Tower Creek. According to Boner, the large volcanic breccia visible to the right of the waterfall in Jackson’s image crumbled in the late 1990s, obscured the boulder at the base of the falls and changed the course of the creek.

Tower Creek

Image: Yellowstone's Tower Creek
Wednesday, July 26, 1871 No. 235. TOWER CREEK ABOVE TOWER FALLS BOTTOM: Fifty miles above Boteler's we reach the deep, wild, romantic gorge through which flows Tower Creek. It rises high up in the main divide, back of Mount Washburn, and flows for about ten miles through gloomy ca??ons. About 200 yards above its entrance into the Yellowstone the stream pours over an abrupt descent of 156 feet. The falls are about 260 feet above the level of the Yellowstone at the junction, and are surrounded by columns of volcanic breccia, (Nos. 235, 236, and 237,) rising from 50 to 100 feet above the falls, and extending down to their foot, standing like gloomy sentinels or like gigantic pillars at the entrance to some grand temple. They form the most conspicuous feature of the scenery, and suggest the name given to creek and falls. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Tower creek flows through a gorge surrounded by columns of volcanic breccia rising 50 to 100 feet, before joining the Yellowstone River.

Sulphur Spring

Jackson was taken by the splendor of the sulphur spring in Crater Hills when he photographed it on July 31, 1871. "The water is in a constant state of agitation, and seems to affect the entire mass, carrying it up impulsively to a height of four or five feet," wrote Jackson. "The decorations about the spring, the most beautiful scalloping around the rim, and the inner and outer surface, covered with a sort of pearl-like bead work, give it great beauty."

The same sulphur spring is now tucked away in Crater Hills, rarely visited as there is no official trail leading to the site and only the faint markings remain of an old wagon trail. The well preserved geyser continues to be active and will spout water about 15 feet high or more, according to Boner.

Bridge across the Yellowstone

The first bridge across the Yellowstone River was built early in 1871 for those heading to the Clark’s Fork "diggings," according to Jackson. The bridge was burned down in 1877 by members of the Nez Perce tribe as they were pursued by U.S. Army soldiers as they resisted relocation to reservation lands. It was repaired the following year and was in operation until 1905. A faint trail still leads to the foot of where the bridge once stood, and a foundation of stacked rocks is still visible on the east side of the river.

The Annie

Jackson photographed James Stevenson and Chester Dawes, two members of the survey team that set out to cover Yellowstone Lake on August 7, 1871. According to Jackson, the Annie was the first boat launched upon the lake.

To recreate the image along the shore of the West Thumb Geyser Basin, Boner and Matthew J. Reilly, PhD, sat in the canoe they used during the summer of 2012 to locate some of Jackson’s original photo spots.

Grand Canyon

Image: Yellowstone's Grand Canyon
July 28-30, 1871 No. 250. GRAND CANYON from the east bank. BOTTOM: No. 251, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, east side, above the Lower Falls. This location is off the designated trail, not accessible to the general public, near the Uncle Tom's intersection. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Jackson originally photographed the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in July 1871. The Grand Canyon was the area in the park where Jackson spent the most time, working together with painter Thomas Moran. Boner found his location off the trail in an area not accessible to the general public.

Earthquake Camp

Image: Yellowstone's Earthquake Camp
Wednesday, Aug. 23, 1871 No. 288. EARTHQUAKE CAMP, near [Steamboat] Point, east side of Yellowstone Lake, so named from several slight shocks of earth-quake, which were experienced at this place on the night of the 19th of August, 1871. BOTTOM: The East Entrance Road now traverses the location of the 1871 Hayden Survey's \"Earthquake Camp\" near Steamboat Point. The 26-mile road between the Fishing Bridge Junction and the East Entrance Station is one of five points of entry into Yellowstone, providing access to the park from Cody, Wyo., via Sylvan Pass. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Jackson photographed Earthquake Camp days after its naming when some small tremors shook the area where members of the Hayden Survey were staying on August 19, 1871. East Entrance road now crosses the same location on the east side of Yellowstone Lake. The road is one of five entry points into the park.

Castle Geyser Crater

Vandalism has always threatened Yellowstone, even as early as the park’s establishment. While from this angle, the geyser shows little change, along the other sides, rock formations have been picked off.

"From every part of the 'Castle' pieces had been chopped, loosening great quantities of the rock and threatening to ruin the construction," observed U.S. Army Captain William Ludlow after a reconnaissance of the park in 1875. "Should this continue for another year or two, the beauty of form and outline of the geyser-craters would be destroyed. It should be remembered that these craters were constructed with the greatest slowness by almost imperceptible additions, which can only be made by a discharge from the geyser."

Yellowstone Lake

Image: Yellowstone Lake
Sunday, Aug. 13, 1871 No. 279. YELLOWSTONE LAKE, [This southern view] includes the Upper Yellowstone [River] and the bay in which it empties. BOTTOM: This photograph, taken a couple hundred yards west and slightly downhill from the Langford Cairn above the east shore of the lake's Southeast Arm, shows rock formations that have changed little after almost a century and a half, and a large tree still stands on the right side of the image. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Rock formations remain little changed after almost a century and a half and a large tree still stands along the southern view of Yellowstone Lake.

Soda Butte Creek

The road alongside Soda Butte Creek has become an active thoroughfare, as one of the few open roads during the winter. A historic tour bus driving on Northeast Entrance road now replaces the horses in Jackson’s image.

Main Terrace

Image: Yellowstone's Main Terrace
July 22-23, 1871 No. 229. LOOKING DOWN upon Gardiner's River from the summit of the main terrace, the beautiful basins forming the foreground, and rising abruptly from the river to a height of from 1,500 to 2,000 feet, is a vertical bluff [Mount Everts] of beautifully stratified Cretaceous and Tertiary beds, capped by a basaltic plateau. BOTTOM: The original point where Jackson took his photograph of Moran at the edge of the Main Terrace, just above today's Canary Spring, is likely a few yards in front of where this photo was made. Several active hot springs in the area have extended the terraces to the east. Mount Everts, the \"vertical bluff\" in the distance opposite Mammoth Hot Springs, was named for Truman Everts, who gained fame for surviving 37 days lost and alone in the Yellowstone wilderness after becoming separated from the Washburn-Langford-Doane party in September of 1870. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

Jackson photographed artist Thomas Moran on the edge of Main Terrace in July 1871. As part of Hayden’s Survey, the two collaborated in capturing Yellowstone, Jackson through his images and Moran through his colorful paintings.

Since then, several hot springs have extended the terraces east, leading Boner to take this photo a few yards away from the original location.

Mounts Doane and Stevenson

Image: Yellowstone's Mounts Doane and Stevenson
Thursday, Aug. 17, 1871 No. 284. MOUNTS DOANE AND STEVENSON. The first [is 10,656] feet above the sea, and the other but a few feet lower. BOTTOM: This is a best guess for the location where Jackson made his two photographs of mounts Doane and Stevenson, as there are no tangible landmarks in the foreground could be found to help line up the scene. It is believed, however, that this is within a few yards of where Jackson and survey physician and general assistant Charles Turnbull stood in the Signal Hills east of Yellowstone Lake. BRADLY J. BONERWilliam Henry Jackson / Bradly J. Boner

With no clear landmarks in the foreground, Boner had to deduce Jackson’s location when he took this image east of Yellowstone Lake. Records indicate that Jackson and survey physician and general assistant Charles Turnbull stood near this spot in the Signal Hills.

William Henry Jackson and Bradly J. Boner's images of Yellowstone National Park are currently on view at The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming until August 28.

"Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time" will be published by the University Press of Colorado later this year.

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