When Fire Threatened Yellowstone's Wooden Inn In the 105 years since it was built, the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park has undergone several restorations. A crucial project in 1987 included the installation of a system on the roof to soak the inn in case of fire. One year later, that system was put to the test.
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When Fire Threatened Yellowstone's Wooden Inn

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When Fire Threatened Yellowstone's Wooden Inn

When Fire Threatened Yellowstone's Wooden Inn

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Today it's hard to visualize the extent of the 1988 fires. The views in Yellowstone are stunning. Blue cloudless skies stretch endlessly over the rugged landscape. Clear sparkling streams and rivers cascade down mountainsides and through meadows.

(Soundbite of waterfall)

HANSEN: Geologic wonders like geysers dot the park, ejecting fountains of steam and water high up into the air. But the attractions in Yellowstone aren't only natural. Some are manmade, like the Old Faithful Inn, a century-old log cabin hotel.

Ms. RUTH QUINN (Tour Guide, The Old Faithful Inn): The Old Faithful Inn was constructed of lodgepole pine, harvested here in Yellowstone Park approximately four miles south of the site. The wood was cut by hand, dragged here behind horses, and it's the wood that grows around us here at the Old Faithful area.

HANSEN: Ruth Quinn works at the Old Faithful Inn and knows its history inside and out.

Ms. QUINN: The idea was to bring us inside the building, but give us the feeling we were standing out in the forest.

HANSEN: She explained that the Inn was built as part of a system of grand hotels throughout the park. Wealthy travelers would arrive by train in Gardiner, Montana, 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.

Ms. QUINN: For approximately 50 dollars they purchased a five and a half day trip through the park, and that tour took place on stagecoaches. They stayed at hotels that were placed 30 to 40 miles apart from each another because that's the distance they could travel in a stagecoach in a day.

HANSEN: Architect Robert C. Reamer designed the Old Faithful Inn, which was built during the winter of 1903-1904. The building is constructed almost entirely from logs. In the lobby you can look up and see balconies and walkways made from gnarled and oddly shaped pieces of polished wood. Frankly, it looks like a gargantuan tree house. Ruth Quinn took us on a short tour of the Inn, beginning with the original part of the building.

(Soundbite of door opening)

HANSEN: You're going to take us into one of the historic bedrooms?

Ms. QUINN: Yes. We'll look at one of the rooms. The Old Faithful Inn was built between 1903 and 1904, and in the original part of the building we attempt to keep the rooms looking like they looked when people stayed here in 1904.

HANSEN: The room is very small. The double bed takes up most of it. The walls are polished pine. There's a copper-topped washbasin and table, and one of the windows looks out toward the geyser.

(Soundbite of hubbub)

HANSEN: We return to the main lobby. It's packed with tourists. Nearby, the Old Faithful geyser has just erupted, and the crowds have moved inside where they now clog the aisles and the gift shop. Ruth Quinn points out some of the lobby's main features and again emphasizes architect Robert Reamer's desire to bring the outdoors in.

Ms. QUINN: He built the lobby to be 76.5 feet tall. Mature lodgepole pines in Yellowstone average about 75 feet tall. So, the lobby measures the height of a lodgepole pine forest.

HANSEN: Reamer sent men out into the forest to find all those twisted and knotted pieces of wood for the Inn's balustrades and railings. The warped shapes were meant to create the feeling of branches. A massive six-storey stone fireplace and chimney dominate the southeast corner of the lobby. In the 105 years since the inn was built, it has undergone several restoration projects. But perhaps the most important of these came in 1987, when the inn's original sprinkler system was updated. There was now a deluge component on the roof, which would soak the inn should a fire ever threaten it. And one year later on September 7, 1988, the system was put to the test. Twenty years ago today a wall of flames approached the Old Faithful area. High winds and dry conditions pushed the fire toward the geyser basin, tossing out ambers the size of fists. Bob Barbee was the park superintendent in 1988.

Mr. BOB BARBEE (Former Superintendent, Yellowstone Park): I met with the fire commanders who were in charge of that fire and said, 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, so to speak, and under any circumstances, we don't lose the Old Faithful Inn. And if we do, I'm dead meat, and so are you.

HANSEN: Firefighters worked furiously to protect the Old Faithful Inn. They draped hoses over the exterior and drenched the building, hoping to make the wooden structure as fireproof as possible. The new deluge system was employed. Helicopters flew overhead, dowsing the approaching flames. By late in the day, the main front of the fire no longer threatened the Old Faithful area. And while several small cabins had burned, the Inn remained standing with only minor damage.

To see photos of the Old Faithful Inn and hear the story of Jeff Henry, a photographer who was there on September 7, 1988, visit our Web site at npr.org. Next week we continue our series on Yellowstone National Park. We'll hear from Roy Rankin. He's a vegetation management specialist with the park, and he'll explain the important role fires play in Yellowstone's ecosystem.

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