“Suddenly, sitting in a pool of light was the most beautiful object I had ever seen in my life – the Inn. Oh my God, my heart stopped. Upon entering the Inn I can remember going round and round as I looked up and up and up. . . I swear it was the biggest and most beautiful building I had ever seen.” – Cathy Baker Dorn, 1970, Old Faithful Inn employee
Old Faithful Inn’s awe-inspiring size is perhaps the first thing a Yellowstone National Park visitor perceives, even from the distant observation benches that circumvent Old Faithful Geyser. Seven stories high, the Inn’s predominant feature is its steeply pitched, gabled and cedar shingled roof that reaches seemingly from the heavens down to the top of the second floor. Reminiscent of a plains skin tepee, the expansive roof communicates to visitors a profound sense of shelter. Perhaps the 10,000-foot peaks just beyond Yellowstone’s high volcanic plateau inspired architect Robert Reamer to match their majesty with this massive hostelry.
We as human beings have a need to tame wilderness, but paradoxically we also need to retreat to wild places. Somehow, by surrounding ourselves with nature’s bounty and beauty, we are restored. Old Faithful Inn acts as a bridge between the two worlds of wilderness and civilization, offering comfort in the midst of the rugged unpredictable world of geysers, hot springs and wild beasts. An early day visitor wrote of the veranda’s view: “You see before you, both ‘Hell’ and ‘Heaven,’ [and] for once you can have your choice.”
In Yellowstone, elk, bison, coyotes and other animals roam at will throughout the Upper Geyser Basin, attracted by the year-round foods available because of its ongoing warmth. While at the Old Faithful Inn and from a safe distance, visitors can experience wildlife from boardwalks or from the comfort of the Inn itself. Like a sentinel guarding the valley below, the grand old hotel stands watch over Mother Nature’s wild, weird and wonderful.
If the roof’s cedar shingles were like icing on a cake, the eight flags that unfurled at the Inn’s apex in 1904 from its “widow’s walk” – a 13’x72′ railed platform – were the candles. Early day guests could access this observation deck by hiking up through the lobby’s expanse. During the Inn’s opening year, traveler Clifford Allen noted: “Some of the party climbed to the lookout on top of the hotel and viewed the situation from that point with the aid of… field and opera glasses. This was no mean climb in these high altitudes.”
This lofty lookout was named after early New England coastal homes equipped with widow’s walks, though early Inn visitors scanned for geysers and bears instead of husbands returning from whaling adventures. A teenage resident fantasized one moonlit evening in 1913: “I dreamed I was on a tall ship playing a faraway sea. ‘There She Blows!’…my reverie ended and it was only Old Faithful I was staring at, filling the night air with steam.”
In the Inn’s early history, flags and decorative pennants flew over it. In addition to the United States flag and the state flags of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, two read “Upper Geyser Basin” and the last two appropriately “Old Faithful Inn.” “Yellowstone Park Association” emblazoned another pennant at one time. Two of the eight flagpoles were removed around 1927. Another flagpole was apparently removed in 1954, leaving five flagpoles marking the Inn’s summit. Bellman Gary Gebert raised a “Yellowstone Park Company” pennant on the fifth flagpole during his tenure (1969-1980). More recently, the fifth pole has been designated for special use. It was last used in 2000 to fly an employee-signed banner as a heartfelt memorial for Inn employee Sara Hulphers. Today, the United States flag and the three state flags proudly fly from the Inn’s peak.
A naval spotlight was erected on the widow’s walk in the hotel’s first year to highlight nighttime displays of Old Faithful Geyser, garbage-feeding bears, or occasionally “rotten loggers,” a term given to young sweethearts. Another spotlight was added to this skyline platform around 1910. These “theatrical” spotlights were removed in 1948. The Inn’s manager at that time stopped access to the upper reaches of the Inn and the Widow’s Walk because of safety concerns. Even after the spotlights no longer crowned the Inn, visitors could experience a nightly illumination of the famous geyser. The first eruption after 9 pm – through at least the 1950s – was highlighted courtesy of a spotlight tucked into a grove of trees near the end of the East Wing, operated by the National Park Service.
Reamer cleverly positioned Old Faithful Inn so visitors could enjoy a grand view of Old Faithful Geyser upon arrival, but this view wasn’t available to guests once inside. Perhaps he was encouraging guests to wander outdoors and engage in the richer pedestrian pilgrimage needed for true appreciation of the geyser basin.
Walk beneath the porte-cochere – the original stage way – and imagine wealthy customers gingerly disembarking from their horse-drawn buggies or stagecoaches dressed in clothes of the early 1900s. Beneath lengthy linen “dusters” (coats rented to protect their fine clothing from fine dust kicked up by horses, wheels and wind), women wore starched white blouses adorned with brooches, long skirts, hats and gloves, while men donned hats and handsome three-piece suits complete with pocket watches.
Many of these tired, dusty folks were accustomed to fine hotels of the east and were no doubt ready for a little pampering. Their journey to the world’s first national park was often not easy or convenient. Early roads were atrocious: steep grades were par, and roads were deeply rutted and sported occasional tree stumps. Water was sprinkled on the roads to keep them “in good order and free from dust.”
Ornamental wrought-iron lamps suspended from the ceiling of the porte cochere cheerfully illuminated the Old Faithful Inn entrance in 1904 and still do today. Their glow must have been a welcome sight to weary travelers, hinting at warmth and comfort to be found inside.