Every historic building in Yellowstone has a story to tell. You may be familiar with the impressive Old Faithful Inn or Fort Yellowstone’s tidy rows of red-roofed buildings. But not every historic building is so recognizable. In fact, the oldest one still standing in the park is viewed by relatively few people. It is a humble little structure, off the beaten path, with a unique story of its own.
Tucked away in the Lower Geyser Basin, about two miles from the nearest road, are the remains of the Queen’s Laundry bathhouse. At first glance it doesn’t look like much — just an abandoned log cabin indistinguishable from the many strewn across the American West. But the bathhouse represents a significant moment in the formative years of the U.S. national park system.
Constructed in 1881, the Queen’s Laundry bathhouse was the first building constructed by the federal government for public use in a national park. And it is the only building that remains from the park’s first civilian administration, which lasted from park establishment in 1872 to the arrival of the U.S. Army in 1886.
This early civilian administration was marked by the tenure of five park superintendents. The second superintendent, Philetus Norris, left a lasting mark on Yellowstone that we still see today. Norris commissioned an early system of roads, promoted the park’s scientific values, hired the earliest park rangers and secured appropriations from Congress to fund park operations.
He also oversaw the construction of a number of administrative buildings, like the station in the Upper Geyser Basin and the blockhouse in Mammoth, which are no longer standing. He was inspired to use federal funds to build the first building for public use in a national park after stumbling upon a unique scene in the Lower Geyser Basin. Norris recounted the story:
“Some of the boys crossed from our camp to the attractive bordered pools below this great boiling fountain, and in one cool enough for bathing discovered its matchless cleansing properties, and from the long lines of bright-colored clothing soon seen drying upon the adjacent stumps and branches, while their owners were gamboling like dolphins in the pools, the envious cooks and other camp attaches dubbed it the Laundry, with a variety of prefixes, of which that which I deemed the most appropriate adheres, and hence the name Queen’s Laundry.”
Thus, Norris ordered the construction of the bathhouse at the Queen’s Laundry Spring (also called Red Terrace Spring). The log structure measures about 8 feet by 19 feet with two separate rooms. The bathhouse was never finished, and one of the two rooms lacks a finished door. The adjacent natural bathing pool was 5 feet deep and significantly cooled from the temperature at the vent of the spring. Bathing there was popular for several years, but no longer occurs due to changes in thermal runoff and park regulations. Vacant, the bathhouse has stood alone in the Lower Geyser Basin for 140 years, slowly reclaimed by the sinter deposition of the hot spring.
Owing to the important role of the Queen’s Laundry bathhouse in early Yellowstone history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Today, there is a backcountry trail passing within 500 yards of the structure. Remember, it is illegal to travel off-trail in a thermal area, so you may not approach the bathhouse. Please admire it from the safety of the trail. Imagine the stories those old log walls could tell.
Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week’s contribution is from Annie Carlson, research coordinator at the Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park.