When Fire Threatened Yellowstone's Wooden Inn

Third of a five-part series.

The Old Faithful Inn, designed by Robert C. Reamer, was constructed in 1903-04. i i

hide captionThe Old Faithful Inn, designed by Robert C. Reamer, was constructed in 1903-04.

Laura Krantz/NPR
The Old Faithful Inn, designed by Robert C. Reamer, was constructed in 1903-04.

The Old Faithful Inn, designed by Robert C. Reamer, was constructed in 1903-04.

Laura Krantz/NPR
The main lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. i i

hide captionThe main lobby of the inn, which was constructed out of local materials like lodgepole pine and volcanic rock.

Laura Krantz/NPR
The main lobby of the Old Faithful Inn.

The main lobby of the inn, which was constructed out of local materials like lodgepole pine and volcanic rock.

Laura Krantz/NPR
Old Faithful erupts just steps away from the geyser's namesake, the Old Faithful Inn. i i

hide captionOld Faithful erupts just steps away from the geyser's namesake, the Old Faithful Inn.

Laura Krantz/NPR
Old Faithful erupts just steps away from the geyser's namesake, the Old Faithful Inn.

Old Faithful erupts just steps away from the geyser's namesake, the Old Faithful Inn.

Laura Krantz/NPR
Map: Fires in Yellowstone i i

hide captionEnlarge to see the areas of Yellowstone burned in the 1988 fires.

Alice Kreit/NPR/National Park Service, Yellowstone.net
Map: Fires in Yellowstone

The areas of Yellowstone burned in the 1988 fires.

Alice Kreit/NPR/National Park Service, Yellowstone.net

On Sept. 7, 1988, the North Fork Fire in Yellowstone National Park approached the Old Faithful area. High winds and dry conditions propelled the flames toward the geyser basin, tossing out embers the size of fists as it went.

One of the biggest concerns that day was one of the park's main hotels — the Old Faithful Inn. Bob Barbee, park superintendent at the time, voiced his concern, saying: "You know, there's a lot of things that can burn in Yellowstone and it's probably of no great consequence, but the Old Faithful Inn is the Sistine Chapel and under any circumstances, we don't lose the Old Faithful Inn. And if we do, I'm dead meat and so are you."

Built in the winter of 1903-04, the Old Faithful Inn was designed by architect Robert C. Reamer. He chose to use local materials — lodgepole pines and volcanic rock, known as rhyolite.

"The Old Faithful Inn is constructed of lodgepole pine harvested here about 4 miles south of the site," said Ruth Quinn, who gives tours of the inn and wrote a book about Reamer. "The idea was to bring us inside, but give us a feeling that we were standing in the forest."

The inn's main hall soars 76 and 1/2 feet above the lobby floor. Quinn explains that mature lodgepole pines in Yellowstone are 75 feet tall on average. Reamer's goal had been to make the lobby seem like a lodgepole pine forest. The inn's balustrades and railings are made of twisted and knotted pieces of wood, meant to represent the forest's branches. To go with his indoor "forest," Reamer designed a treehouse, which sits in the rafters of the inn.

The Old Faithful Inn was constructed as part of a system of grand hotels throughout the park. Wealthy travelers would arrive by train in Gardiner, Mont., at the north entrance to Yellowstone. But the railroad never received permission to build in the park and so, Quinn says, visitors had to find another way to get around. For about $50, they bought a 5 1/2-day stagecoach trip through the park. They stayed at hotels that were located 30 to 40 miles away from one another — the distance a stagecoach could travel in a day.

In the 105 years since the inn was built, it has undergone several restoration projects. Perhaps the most important of these came in 1987 and involved improving the inn's original sprinkler system. This included a deluge component on the roof, which would soak the inn should a fire ever threaten it.

One year later, on Sept. 7, 1988, that system was put to the test.

Although she was not working in Yellowstone at the time, Quinn heard stories about that day. "When winds were blowing 50-75 mph and embers the size of men's hands were blowing into the roof of the building, the deluge component was turned on," she said. "We had hundreds of gallons of water pouring off like waterfalls and that system was less that one year old at the time."

Firefighters worked furiously to protect the inn. They draped hoses over the exterior and drenched the building, hoping to make the wooden structure as fireproof as possible. Helicopters flew overhead, dousing approaching flames.

By late in the day, the main front of the fire had passed by and no longer posed a threat to the Old Faithful area. Several small cabins had burned nearby, but the inn remained standing, having sustained only minor damage.

Reported and produced by Laura Krantz.

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