Hotels in the Yellowstone
West Thumb Hotel - Lunch Station
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.
Thumb Lunch Station - 1892-1903
Located along the shores of Yellowstone Lake at West Thumb, a tent camp was established to serve as a lunch station for stagecoaches traveling the route from Old Faithful over Craig Pass to the Lake Hotel. The business opened in 1892 by the Yellowstone Park Association (YPA) and replaced the lunch station that had existed at Trout Creek, located along the previous route to the Lake that traversed the Mary Mountain Road from Fountain Flats. The famous Larry Mathews managed the lunch station that first season, but moved to Norris the following year.
YPA was granted a lease to operate boats on the Yellowstone Lake in 1891 and allowed Ela C. Waters to manage the new boat/ferry operation. The ferry service would eliminate the tedious and dusty ride from the Thumb Lunch Station to the Lake Hotel and the "The Zillah" was put into service for that purpose. The steel-hulled, 40-ton steamer was 81’ with a 14’ beam, and could carry 120 passengers and crew. The Zillah’ was assembled on site by Amos Shaw, of the Shaw & Powell Camping Co., to provide ferry service from West Thumb to Lake Hotel. E.C. Waters would pay the stagecoach drivers fifty cents for each passenger the driver convinced to take the ferry, and then charged passengers $3.00 for the boat ride.
Above: The steamship Zillah docked at West Thumb in 1906. [Glass slide F.H. Maude Photographic Co.]
Top Left: View of the Thumb Lunch Station tents, ca1890s, as viewed from the boat dock on Yellowstone Lake.
[High Grade Original Views stereoview, #1300]
Top Right: "Hotel Camp, Thumb of Lake." View of Thumb Lunch Station tents from the edge of the hot springs basin.
[Detroit Photographic Co., 86-200-2504, Colorado History Museum, Denver]
The 1896 Haynes Guide noted,
“There are no less than seven hot-spring areas surrounding Yellowstone Lake; those of the west arm, or Thumb Bay, are by far the most interesting. They comprise over sixty springs and paint pots and several geyser cones; one of which rises above the lake surface just a few feet from shore, standing upon which one may catch trout, and, dropping them into the hot water in the crater of the cone, cook them without removal from the hook.”
The Thumb Lunch Station was located near the Thumb Paint Pots, and was short walk from the boat dock up a wooden walkway to the station at the top of the rise. Although primarily serving as a lunch station, a few sleeping tents were available for guests that wished to spend the night. Traveler Chas. Maus Taylor noted in1900, “The tents at Thumb Lunch Station appear plain and unpretentious, but the tourist receives a hospitable welcome, and the food is abundant, wholesome and well served.” Note: the Boardwalk can be viewed at left and above left.]
Left: "Hot Spring Basin at the "Thumb" of Yellowstone Lake." In the distance can be seen people walking the boardwalk in front of Thumb Station ca1903. [HC White Stereoview, #12077]
Top Right: The boat dock & boardwalk as viewed from near the Thumb Lunch Station. [From the Philadelphia Free Library, #PCDE00495]
Carrie Belle Spencer, a young school teacher from Nebraska, Yellowstone National Park in July and August, 1892. She was in the company of her older brother Alvah and his wife Adaline. They were “traveling on their own dime,” as they say, and not with the transportation company. She had this to say about Larry’s:
“. . . we were soon on the beautiful waters of the Yellowstone sailing smoothly along toward the Thumb. After a delightful ride of 1 1/2 hr. we landed at the dock on a beautiful beach and saw on a slope not far distant five tents in a row, this is what is known as the Lake Side Lunch station; as we were about ready for lunch and desirous of finding some place to leave our luggage we started in that direction. When not more than half way up the slope a gentleman, with skull cap, white apron, towel etc. started toward us saying "Good morning ladies, good morning", & before we had time to reply he had our luggage in his hands saying "Right this way to the waiting room." & entering this tent, he took me by the arm & pointing out of the tent in an opposite direction he says "Ladies toilet just ahead. . . The waiting room was a tent about 20 ft. sq., dirt floor & contained a few chairs, stove, cigar case & slat benches around the room.
The "toilet" was out doors & too cute for particulars, ta ta. After arranging our "twilight" and entering the waiting room this man "Larry" Mathews as he proved to be began asking questions & entertained us in a royal manner until we heard the rattle of approaching hacks, which were of course the expected tourists. "Larry" no longer had time for entertaining individuals as each new comer was greeted in the same manner.
It was not long until we heard the call "All register" & "Right this way to hash". Soon 40 ladies & gentlemen were seated on slab benches at long home made tables, and the bill of fare was soon commenced; it was not very extensive but every thing was enjoyed, being season with Larry's Irish wit. "Run in the hens." "Let 'er go pie." It was not long after lunch until the tourists were on the steamer & we were left in our glory with "Larry, wife and baby Lizzie.”
Two pieces of souvenir china sold by E.C. Waters at his boat store, who ran the boat & ferry company until around 1907. These pieces were "Made in Germany for M.B. Waters." M.B. being Martha Bustus, EC Waters' wife.
Detroit Industrialist Carl E. Schmidt traveled the Yellowstone and other western areas in 1901, and describes the lunch station in his book, A Western Trip:
“The growth of timber grows heavier until it ends in a fringe at the shore of the lake. There is found a lunch station, that is, large tents, are pitched. We enter the first one which is a sort of a reception room. On inquiring for a drink the gentlemen of the party are motioned to the rear where a canvas flap is lifted and on stepping through we find ourselves in a smaller tent where eight whisky bottles are set on a shelf in a row, and to our delight each is labeled "Canadian Club”.
While waiting around for the lunch to be set on the table a coach party arrives and as soon as they have shaken themselves free of dust we are ushered into the dining room which contains a long deal table with benches along the sides. After all are seated bountiful platters of good, substantial food are set out before us.
Capt. Waters, a striking figure introduces himself and arrangements are made with him to cross the lake on his little steamer “Zillah." The "Zillah” is a small steamer that was transported piece-meal over the mountains to this lake.”
Tourists gathered around the Fishing Cone at Thumb Bay. Included is chef Larry Mathews, manager of Thumb Lunch Station in 1892.
[Keystone View Co. Stereoview #26498]
Thumb Hotel - 1903-1916
Construction began on a new wooden hotel and lunch station at West Thumb the end of May 1903. It was a simple frame building designed by Robert Reamer, architech for the Old Faithful Inn, without his usual rustic embellishments. Work proceeded quickly on the $3,000 building and the station was open for much of the 1903 season. The hotel sported 20 simple guest rooms for those who chose to spend the night.
When the park transportation system was motorized in 1917, the trip to Lake Hotel from Old Faithful became much shorter and more comfortable in the new White Motor Co. auto-stages. The ferry service from Thumb to Lake became obsolete, and the boats were mostly used for pleasure cruises from the hotel. The hotel and lunch station also became unnecessary and closed down at the end of the 1916 season. The building sat empty until 1919 when Chas. Hamilton gained use of it for a general store.
Top Right: Colorized postcard view of the Thumb Lunch Station ca1912. [Haynes Photo No. 208]
Bottom Left Thumb Lunch Station, ca1905. [Yellowstone Park Asso. brochure, 1905]
Bottom Right: Approach to Thumb Hotel. Notice large tent at left. Not dated. [YNP 1875]
The Yellowstone Park Association brochure in 1905 described some of the basics of the lunch station and area:
“At the Thumb Lunch Station you will find everything neat and clean, and an appetizing lunch served, notwithstanding the fact that you are more than a thousand miles from a market of any considerable size, and that everything provided for you has been hauled by freight teams nearly seventy-five miles over mountains rising more than 8400 feet above sea level. On the lake you will find an excursion boat which makes regular trips between the Thumb and the Lake Hotel. This is not a part of the regular transportation trip, the steamer being owned and operated by an independent company, and parties desiring to make this trip are required to pay an additional charge.”
There is good cheer at this lunch place and much to see in the hour-and-a-half stop. The drive-whetted appetites will find no disappointment here; these good people of the Thumb Lunch Station have one duty to perform, the preparation of the noonday meal, and they do it well; they know just how many are coming; there is never any shortage and the last have just as much and just as good food as the first to arrive, and the Thumb lunch is not the least of the pleasant surprises of this every-way surprising drive.
There is an hour-and-a-half wait while the horses feed and rest, so there is time to visit the Paint Pots, and the Cone in the lake where you may catch a fish in the cold water of the lake and cook it in the hot water of the Cone without taking it off your hook.
Top Right: View of Thumb Hotel from near the lake. [YNP #82]
Middle Right: Thumb Hotel from one of the approaches, nd. [Author Digital Collection]
Bottom Right Stagecoach with passengers at loading porch of hotel in 1906. [Wyoming State Archives]
Bottom Left: Thumb Paint Pots near the hotel. Tent at left may be the photographer's tent. A building in trees at right, perhaps part of the hotel complex, 1905. [HC White Stereoview, #12078]
Hamilton Store at the Old Thumb Hotel - 1919-1923
In 1919 Chas. A. Hamilton made arrangements with the Yellowstone Park Hotel Co. to use the old Thumb Lunch Station as a general store. He was owner of the general store at Old Faithful, and desired to expand his business. He remodeled the interior of this lunch station to establish his first store at the Thumb in 1919. According to Park Superintendent Horace Albright, “He is now engaged in building a fine new store at the Lake which will take the place of the boat company’s store . . . Mr. Hamilton expects to arrange for the maintenance of a store next year in the old lunch station of the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company at the Thumb of Lake Yellowstone where the south approach road joins the belt line system” In 1924, Hamilton built a new log store and abandoned the old Lunch Station, which was torn down three years later.
Map of the Lake area showing the Thumb Lunch Station. The Wylie Camp & ranger station were nearby. A Shaw & Powell camp was just north of the hotel along the road to lake. Route of the Zillah are also shown. [Oregon Short Line Brochure, 1899]
For additional information on the West Thumb area after the closure of the Thumb Hotel, please check out the Thumb page on my old website, geyserbob.org.
Info on the Hamilton & Haynes Stores, Thumb Camp/Cabins; Ranger Station and more.
Right: West Thumb map from the 1936 Haynes Guide