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Hotels in  the Upper Geyser Basin

Shack Hotels - Old Faithful Inn

Copyright 2020 by Robert V. Goss. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author.

Tent Hotel - Hobart Hotel - Shack Hotel


The Tent Hotel


The first formal lodging at the Upper Geyser Basin was a tent hotel established in 1883 by the Yellowstone Park Association (YPA). It was located in the same general area as the current Old Faithful Inn. Not a lot is known about that operation. but one visitor from Manchester England in 1883, was not terribly impressed with the way the, “free-born citizens of the Great Republic” ruled the tent hotels in the park. In an article from his local home newspaper, he lamented,

"At the 'Upper geyser basin' the 'hotel' luxuries are varied. Sheets and pillow cases are provided, and each tent has a washstand of the kind that they turn out in Michigan furniture mills at the rate of 6s

apiece. The mirror and candlestick are still missing, however, and there is even more economy enforced in the use of towels, the average being one towel to four persons every two days. The beer bottle still does duty in holding the candle, and when you get tired of standing you may sit down on the bed, which feels very much as if an elephant had stepped on it . . . if time is of any value to you in the Yellowstone Park it always pays to wait on yourself, especially in the 'dining tent.' One waiter performs the whole service for 70 or 80 clamorous, hungry people, and not a few of the guests find their best plan to pick up plate, cup, and saucer, and go into the kitchen and negotiate directly with the cook for supplies. Sometimes the lady is tractable and you get them; usually, however, the hungry fellow gets thrust out."

[Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner, England, 29 Sep 1883]

Hobart Hotel, F.J. Haynes, Upper Geyser Basin

Hobart Hotel, built in 1885 by Caroll Hobart & Robert Carpenter. FJ Haynes view in 1887.

[YNP #127883]

Hobart Hotel Yellowstone, Upper Geyser Basin

Hobart Hotel, built in 1885 by Caroll Hobart & Robert Carpenter. FJ Haynes view, probably taken at same time photo to the left in 1887.

[YNP #147587]

Hobart Hotel - 1885 to 1894

In the next twenty years there were two hotels at Old Faithful that preceded the Old Faithful Inn.  Both stood on the same site and have been referred to in latter days as the Shack Hotel, although the first was originally known as the Hobart Hotel. They were more commonly referred to as the Upper Basin Hotel, or Upper Geyser Basin Hotel. The first was built in 1885 by Carroll Hobart and former park Supt. Robert Carpenter. Hobart's brother Charles, was in charge of the construction.

However, financial squabbles between the owners caused Carpenter to leave the park the following year and YPA took over the operation around that time. The 2-story hotel was a somewhat crude affair that accommodated 70 guests. The rooms were painted different colors with pigments taken from the Alabastine Basin and 17 rooms were named according to their color. The hotel was situated so that guests sitting upon the veranda would have a grand view of the geyser basin, sometimes viewing several geysers erupting at the same time.

The structure burned down on Nov. 17, 1894. According to The Missoulian in Missoula, Montana, 

"The Association hotel at Upper Geyser basin in the National park, caught fire from a defective flue in the ladies’ parlor last Sunday evening and was burned to the ground. The hotel was a large two-story structure and the loss will be considerable. The amount of insurance could not be learned."  [The Missoulian, 24Nov1894]

Hobart Hotel, Upper geyser basin

Hobart Hotel, as viewed from Bee Hive geyser, undated.

[YNP #114948]

Hobart Hotel Yellowstone, Upper geyser basin

Hobart Hotel in 1890.

[YNP #122304]

A San Francisco newspaper described one patron’s experience in 1886, a year after the hotel was built:

     “But mine host promised us a siesta, and that we thoroughly enjoyed in smallish rooms, roughly boarded, and having cracks between the boards that reminded one of a chicken-coop. The beds were good and the sleep excellent, in spite of constant interruptions. The house is a kind of whispering gallery; a fellow sneezes at one end of it and wakens a baby at the other. Domestic confabs, certainly never meant to be overheard, are like stage asides, audible to the last Involuntary listener on the premises, and but for the general, character of the conversation, which makes the hotel as noisy as a beehive, a sensitive soul would find the situation quite painful.

    People were In and out of doors every moment; the halls were full of baggage; ominous rolls of blankets end bolsters were heaped in one comer of the office—no doubt some pilgrim would thank his stars that he had been fortunate enough to secure this much of comfort in the cold night that was coming on.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 2Dec1887]

Office & Dining Room of Hotel Camp in Upper Geyser Basin.

[Undated photo, courtesy David Monteith]

"Shack Hotel"  -  1894 to 1903

An equally crude building replaced it the next year that served as dining room, kitchen, and managers quarters.  Guests were put up in nearby tents. The tents had 6-8 divisions that only extended about 3/4 the way to the ceiling and created 96 so-called "rooms."  Larry Mathews managed the operation in 1902-03. The old hotel was torn down late 1903, as the OF Inn was being constructed for a 1904 opening.

In 1901 Carl E. Schmidt, daughter Emma, “Uncle Frank,” and his son Everett made a journey to Yellowstone for a tour on their own dime, stopping at the various hotels and lunch station. He described the Upper Basin Tent Hotel:

Upper Geyser Basin Hotel Camp

“We ask for rooms for the night and are shown a long tent ostentatiously marked No. 1. A hallway down the center formed of canvas divides it. At the end of the hall a small wood stove looks pitifully inconspicuous when compared with the size of the tent. The rooms are canvas formed, with a flap, for a door, a deal bed, small table, and a wash-bowl, with a four by six looking glass furnish the accommodations. Scrupulous cleanliness prevails and later on at Yancey's we have occasion to think back to this primitive abode with loving memory.

    A lunch is served by a squat figured black-eyed "Bossy Brander" of Montana and spoiled by an officious landlord with great whiskers, hollow chest, and hollower cough who takes the first opportunity to tell us that four years ago he was dying of consumption but now thanks to the climate etc. etc."  [Sept1901, Carl E. Schmidt, A Western Trip]

Old Faithful Tent Hotel, 1903, managed Larry Mathews.

[Library of Congress, #90715246]

Shack Hotel Yellowstone

Upper Basin Lunch House

[Undated, courtesy Bob Berry, Cody, Wyo]

Upper Basin Lunch House

One of the promises of the tour was that we should sleep in tents one night, and at noon on Tuesday we espied in the distance a snowy line of tents adjoining "Larry's" lunch station. Larry is a garrulous Hibernlan noted in the guide-books, whose jokes have delighted tourists for some ten years. Our party took three meals with Larry and found a great similarity between his jokes and his meals; but he is one of the features of the trip. Our tents were almost convenient enough to be ridiculous for tents. They had all the necessities and were actually supplied with stoves. Each tent has six rooms and a hall. In the morning a voice shouted, "All who want hot water put out their small pitchers," and where should this luxury come from but from the "Old Faithful" geyser, a stone's throw away. They have a barrel set on wheels and all they do Is to ladle out the boiling water and bring it to the tents. We are cautioned not to drink it, however.

[THE INDIANAPOLIS Journal, SUNDAY. Sept. 7. 1902]

Old Faithful Inn

1904 - Present

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone

Old Faithful Inn

In 1898 architect A.W. Spalding was selected by the Yellowstone Park Association (YPA) to desgn a new hotel at Old Faithful. He came up with a Queen Anne style design that was approved by Interior, but was eventually turned down by the financial backers of the Northern Pacific RR.  Harry W. Child (H.W. Child) made the decision in 1901 to select architect Robert Reamer to design the new hotel.  Reamer's original drawings of the hotel called it the Old Faithful Tavern.  Reau Campbell, who published his "Campbell's Complete Guide to Yellowstone" in 1909 claimed to have been the original designer for the basic plan of the building and alleged he sent the first sketch to Harry Child. Regardless of the author of the original design, construction began June 12, 1903 on what became known as the "Old Faithful Inn."

Old Faithful Tavern, Robert Reamer

The Old Faithful Inn opened in June 1904, after a year of construction under the direction of architect Robert Reamer. The design reflected the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts movement, which called for simplicity, the use of natural materials, and a blending of the building with the environment. The immense log structure had 140 rooms, accommodating 316 guests. The walls in the guestrooms were rustic with rough pine boards. The lobby featured massive open ceilings three stories high, embellished with twisted and gnarled pine limbs, and encircled with two balconies. The huge stone fireplace graced the lobby with eight separate fireboxes. A massive wrought-iron and brass clock, designed by Reamer, decorates the north side of the fireplace. Rustic wood candelabra enlighten the first three stories of log columns. Climbing up from the second balcony is a staircase leading to the "Crow's Nest" - a separate small landing near the roof where musicians played for the entertainment of guests far below during the inn's early days.

Old Faithful Tavern, May 1903 drawing by Robert C. Reamer. 

[Courtesy Xanterra Engineering Drawing Archives]

Old Faithful Tavern Construction, Yellowstone
Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone

Upper Left:  Old Faithful Tavern  1903. Stereoview depicting Old Faithful Inn under construction. Click to enlarge.  [Photo courtesy Bob Berry, Cody, Wyo.]  

  Upper Right:  Old Faithful Inn.  Sepia postcard by F.J. Haynes.

Old Faithful Inn 1904
Old Faithf Inn & Dining Room

Upper Left:  Old Faithful Inn in ca1904, shortly after completion. 

[Haynes-Photo PC, Undivided Back]

  Upper Right:  Old Faithful Inn with Dining Room addition at rear of building.   

[Photo courtesy Milwaukee Public Museum #41719]

Located just 1/8 mile from Old Faithful Geyser, the inn is nearly 700 feet in length and its massive gable roof rises seven stories. The imposing quality of the building is offset by unique details, such as irregularly spaced dormers with gnarled log framing, braces and brackets made of irregularly curved tree limbs, a widow’s walk with eight flagpoles, casement windows with various multi-light patterns of diamonds, circles, squares, and rectangles. The first floor is load-bearing log construction that rests on a stone foundation. Upper stories are log and timber framed, with the exterior covered in decoratively patterned wood shingles.

Old Faithful Inn Sepia Postcard by F.J. Haynes.  Man in front is standing next to Bee Hive Geyser. Old Faithful Geyser is to the left, out of view.

Old Faithful Inn, Haynes Sepia postcard

Miss Bettye Adler of Ottumwa, Iowa, wrote a fascinating account of her visit to the “Inn” in 1905, and spoke quite eloquently of her stay there.  The last paragraph is quite amusing.

    “Old Faithful Inn is truly a rustic poem, perfect in its harmony. Catch your first glimpse of it with me as we drive up to the picturesque Swiss veranda; its quaint gabled windows mellowing the sunlight in their many diamond shaped panes; the massive porches upheld by heavy pillars of piled logs, yet every line exquisite in harmony and symmetry despite its bold and rugged outline. Enter with me the heavy doors with their great iron bolts and mammoth key and stand in the spacious office or reception hall and I am sure you will, as I did, receive another and very strong jostle of wonder.

     An enormous chimney, that would be a positive joy for a Santa Claus visit, is the central figure here. It is constructed of huge lava blocks and there are eight fireplaces, in one of which a picturesque fire roared and danced us a welcome, This chimney is 14 feet square and at each side is a huge fireplace with a small one at every corner. A massive corn popper hung close by and in the evening corn was popped in this and passed among the guests.

    Anxious to know something about the man whose genius could design such a unique place as this, I inquired of the clerk at the office. I learned that the hotel was designed; by a man named Reamer, who built the most of it while drunk, so they tell. He is 27 years of age and at present in San Diego, Cal. If this was a drunken dream, I could not but wonder what he might accomplish if: he were sober.”

[Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier (Iowa), 22Aug1905, p6]

Old Faithful Inn Lobby, Haynes No. 135 postcard
Old Faithful Inn interior, H.C. White stereoview

Upper Left:  Lobby, Old Faithful Inn  1903.  F.J Haynes postcard No. 135, ca1910. 

Upper Right:  Great Timbered Interior Of Old Faithful Inn, Most Unique Of Hotels, Yellowstone Park, U.S.A., H.C, White stereoview 12066, ca1904.  Click to enlarge.

Old Faithful Inn Searchlight
Old Faithful Inn Searchlight

A powerful “battleship searchlight was installed on the Widow's Walk in 1904 so that Old Faithful Geyser and oter geysers could be lit up at night, along with occasional "rotten loggers" (romantically-inclined couples).  However, they were removed in 1948 as being inappropriate in a national park.  Around 1927 the number of flagpoles on the Widow’s Walk was reduced from eight to six in number. One visitor from 1904 who seemed greatly entertained by the searchlight commented,  

“From the tower a searchlight is operated. I saw Old Faithful by searchlight, and the sight was magnificent. One of the features of the trip was to see the searchlight man chase the bears with the powerful beam of light. The bears are afraid of the electric glare, and ran like scared sheep whenever the rays were turned on them. On a dark night the searchlight develops many odd and interesting sights."

Upper Left:  Searchlight Now Reveals the Geysers,  [St. Paul Globe, 1Jun1904]

Upper Right:  'Widow's Walk' and searchlight atop the Inn.  [Cropped from YNP photo #7687]

Several additions were made to the original Inn over the years. The East Wing (towards the current Visitor Center) was built in 1913 with 100 rooms. The West Wing was added in 1927-28 with 150 rooms. All of these rooms featured plaster walls instead of pine boards. During the last renovation, the lobby was enlarged and the Porte-cochere extended out with an open veranda on top.

The Yellowstone Park Hotel Co. developed housing and operational facilities between 1913 and 1929 in proximity to the Inn. These included employee dorms, laundry facilities, caretaker and engineers’ quarters, a carpenter and paint shop, pipe shop, tailor shop, boiler house/room and power plant, and hose house.

View of OF Inn showing the West Wing (right), added 1927.

Haynes postcard # 27361

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone
Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, Yellowstone

Old Faithful Inn dining room, 1928 after renovations in 1927. Note the illustrated post & beams, using wildlife and nature illustrations. Robert Reamer used a special sandblasting process to etch the wood.  [Haynes PC#28461]

Old Faithful Inn Bear Pit, Yellowstone

OF Inn "Bear Pit," 1936. Black & white version. The panel along the back were the etched wood bear murals, described in detail below.  [Haynes PC #36417]

The Bear Pit


The Bear Pit Lounge was added to the Old Faithful Inn in 1936, and was located between the kitchen and the west wing (current Snack Shop). The walls featured twelve fir-veneer wood panels depicting humanized bears that were busy bartending, drinking, card playing, and playing piano. The scenes were etched into the wood by sandblasting. Walter Oehrle drew the original sketches, and Robert Reamer and his assistant W.H. Fey worked out the details of having the scenes etched on the panels. It has been said the panels were commissioned in 1933 to celebrate the end of prohibition. The Bear Pit was moved to its current location in 1962.The wood panels were put into storage for many years, and some of them are now on display in the Inn. In 1988 Great Panes Glassworks reproduced many of the original scenes onto etched glass panels, which now separate the Bear Pit from the dining room.

Old Faithful Bear Pit, Oehrle bears
Old Faithful Bear Pit, Oehrle bears

The Bear Pit images were originally painted in the 1920s and 1930s by artist Walter Oehrle and were published in a small pamphlet by the Yellowstone Park Company. They were rendered into woodcuts, which graced the inside of the Bear Pit Lounge at Old Faithful Inn for many years. A couple of these woodcuts are still on the walls of the Old Faithful Inn Snack Shop.

[Click on each set of four to enlarge]



The Idea Behind the Bear Pit Murals

    It would be difficult to find a more fitting medium for decorating the Bear Pit than to use the materials at hand, and in some pleasing way to introduce the bruin population in the general scheme of decoration.

    This perplexing problem was happily solved by the genius of the architect, the late Robert C. Reamer, who originally designed the entire building, and by his assistant, Mr. W. H. Fey of Seattle, Washington.

    Mr. Walter Oehrle was commissioned to execute the original sketches, and under the leadership of Mr. Reamer the work was carried on to a successful conclusion.

How the Bear Pit Panels Were Made

    The panels used are of carefully selected vertical grain Douglas Fir. The entire surface is treated with an acid Stain (ferro chloride, natr.chloride, and alcohol), and when dry, overlaid with a thin film of lacquer glaze for protection and permanency. In order faithfully to preserve every detail of the original drawings as the work goes on, these drawings — approximately 8x16 inches—are by photography reduced in size to about 2x4 inches. In a darkened room the photos are projected on heavy manila paper to the full size desired—in this case 4x8 feet, and a crayon tracing is made directly on the paper. The tracing is then carefully cut by hand into what is termed a reverse Stencil; that is, the background is eliminated, leaving the actual design or picture to be formed by the remaining paper.

    At this point, and in order to obtain the two-tone effect as indicated on the original, the completed stencil is copied on a second sheet of paper. Here we segregate the parts of the design holding the halftones and cut them out as a direct Stencil this time, which means the actual design is cut away, leaving the background minus the halftones on the paper.

    The first, or reverse, stencil is now fastened to the wood and subjected to a stream of carborundum dust or sharp sand blown against the entire surface by means of compressed air at a pressure of from 40 to about 70 pounds pressure per square inch. This process first cleans all exposed parts of the wood free from stain and then cuts away and etches in to the soft veins in the wood and so produces the delicate, combed-like background for the design.

    The panel is then well cleaned and the second, or direct, stencil must be very carefully fitted over the first design on the panel, whereupon the proper shade of stain is applied wherever the half-tones are indicated on the original drawing.

    Finally, after a thorough washing a soft natural wax is applied over the entire surface and vigorously rubbed into the wood and hand polished.

[From a publication published by the Yellowstone Park Co. ca1936, The Beguiling Bear Pit Cocktail Lounge.]

Old Faithful Inn Lobby, Yellowstone postcard
Old Faithful Inn Lobby, Yellowstone postcard
Old Faithful Inn Lobby, Yellowstone postcard

Click images to magnify

Old Faithful Inn Lobby, Yellowstone postcard

Top:  Lobby & Stone Fountain.

Detroit Publishing #12539

Bottom:  Lobby Fireplace & Stairs

Detroit Publishing #12538

Old Faithful Inn Dining Room Yellowstone postcard

Top:  Lobby, Fireplace, Great  Clock.

Haynes PC No. 135

Bottom:  Dining Room & Fireplace.

Haynes Sepia PC No. 517

Old Faithful Inn Bedroom, Yellowstone postcard

Top:  Lobby & Stone Fountain

Detroit Publishing #12546

Bottom:  Inn Bedroom

Haynes PC #10165

Old Faithful Inn bedroom

 Two of the bedrooms at the OF Inn, ca1910.  Postcards by the American Import Co., Nos. G512 & G513 

Old Faithful Inn bedroom

The earthquake of 1959 damaged the lobby fireplace chimney structure, parts of which had to be rebuilt. The upper balconies and Widow's Walk were also closed to the public due to safety concerns. The Inn and other nearby structures were threatened by the great fires in 1988, but was saved by valiant efforts of firefighters and volunteers. In 2004-2009 and 2012-2013, the building underwent a major restoration including structural stabilization, electrical, plumbing, and fire suppression upgrades, repair and replacement of damaged exterior and interior materials, and restoration of all windows, the widow’s walk, original light fixtures, the main lobby fireplaces, and the exterior log cribbing on the main chimney that had been destroyed in the 1959 earthquake. The Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Old Faithful Inn Dance, Yellowstone

Top:  Undated photo of some lively times at Old Faithful Inn.  [YNP #133433]

Bottom:  "Yellow buses" lined up at the Inn, ca1919.

[Haynes Photo #19025]

Old Faithful Inn, "Yellow Buses"
Old Faithful Inn Dance, Real-Photo postcard

Top:  Dance at OF Inn, note band in right corner, 1951.  Real-Photo postcard.

Bottom:  White Motor Co. 706 bus leaving OFI with tourists. [Haynes 38432-C Real-Photo]

Old Faithful Inn, "Yellow Bus"
Yellowstone Park Transportation Co., Yellow Buses

Yellowstone Park Transportation Co. Auto-Stage,

White Motor Co. TEB model.

[Letterhead courtesy YNP Archives]

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