SI Vault
John O'Reilly
November 02, 1959
A unique report by a nature writer and a photographer on the cataclysmic changes at Yellowstone National Park
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November 02, 1959

Eyewitness To An Act Of God

A unique report by a nature writer and a photographer on the cataclysmic changes at Yellowstone National Park

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The editors had planned to present in this space the first of several articles on the vital problems of conservation. An article by Peter Matthiessen, on the tragic history of American wildlife and our early conservation efforts was to have launched this study. It will now appear in a later issue. As it was being readied for the presses, Nature Writer John O'Reilly and Photographer Richard Meek returned from a western journey with an entirely new and sensational report of recent events in Yellowstone Park, where many of the greatest natural wonders of this country have undergone drastic changes resulting from the earthquake of last August. Penetrating into areas unvisited by any outsider since that cataclysmic upheaval, they brought back stories and pictures of new geysers, old geysers transformed and other hitherto-unseen phenomena which make Yellowstone, oldest and most famous of our national parks and birthplace of America's conservation effort, a more exciting place to visit than ever.

At 11:38 p.m. on the night of August 17 a shift in the earth's crust deep under the Rocky Mountains triggered an earthquake which split a 7,000-foot mountain, sending millions of tons of rock down into the valley of the Madison River in southwestern Montana. The giant slide blocked the river and trapped or buried many campers, taking a toll of 10 lives, with 19 more persons missing and presumed dead.

The attention of the nation was focused on this disaster—on the rescue work, the search for those still buried beneath the slide and the further dangers imposed by the seven-mile lake formed by 85 million tons of rock piled across the valley in a wall 300 feet high. Amid this immediate concern for human life it was not at first realized that the earthquake which caused the tragedy was not a local phenomenon but actually affected some 550,000 square miles of the surrounding area. It was, in fact, the fourth most severe earthquake ever recorded in the United States.

While the avalanche roared down into the valley of the Madison even greater changes in the earth's face were taking place in other mountainous sections near the quake's epicenter. The greatest of these occurred in Yellowstone National Park, the first and most spectacular of America's chain of outdoor playgrounds. Following the earthquake, roads were kept closed to visitors while heavy road-building machines were thrown into the work of moving thousands of tons of earth and rock. A fortnight ago fragmentary reports appeared, indicating there had been major alterations in this most famous American vacation land. Photographer Richard Meek and I went to Yellowstone immediately to find out just what effects the earthquake had had on this historic area.

During our very first day in the park, it dawned on me that Meek and I were witnessing the kind of primeval convulsion which, eons ago, had created the wonders which millions of tourists have so long admired. The face of the earth was being reshaped at Yellowstone—more drastically, perhaps, than at any time in recorded U.S. history.

Dozens of mountains had sent massive rock slides down into the canyons. Boulders as big as automobiles had bounced and rolled like marbles down the mountainsides, cutting swathes through the forests, tumbling across roads and into streams. Highways had cracked and shifted. The underground plumbing system of the greatest thermal region in the world had been fouled and twisted, causing all sorts of changes in the spouting geysers.

And the upheaval was still going on. Brand-new geysers were sending boiling mud and steam into the air. Old thermal springs were bursting into renewed activity, and a few geysers, active for years, had ceased to spout. Occasional plumes of steam rising from the forest testified to the continued activity that was changing the park before our eyes.

Here are some of the major disruptions that happened during the initial shock, the major aftershocks and the lesser tremors that are still occurring as the mountains gradually adjust themselves to the new fractures in the earth's crust:

?Sapphire Pool, in Biscuit Basin, a clear, blue pool that boiled over periodically before the quake, suddenly became violently active and now explodes at irregular intervals to send columns of boiling water 175 feet in the air, with clouds of steam rising several hundred feet higher.

?Grand Geyser, formerly one of the most spectacular in the park, erupted once after the quake and hasn't erupted since.

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