When you visit Yellowstone National Park today, the historicity of its hostelry is apparent.
Old Faithful Inn’s Old House, for instance, has stood since 1904. The Lake Yellowstone Hotel, since 1891. They directly connect present day visitors with Yellowstone’s history. Staying there, in fact, makes you a part of this history. With these long-lived examples of late 19th & early 20th century lodging still standing, it’s hard to believe that some parts of Yellowstone lodging history haven’t been so well-preserved.
Such is the case of the Fountain Hotel.
Built in 1891 by the Yellowstone Park Association, The Fountain Hotel was the sister structure to Lake Hotel. Both sought to bring elegance to the Yellowstone National Park experience, which was greatly in the interest of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in order to entice visitors westward. And before the building of Old Faithful Inn, Fountain had the finest upscale resort experience on that side of the Park. Among its famous lodgers include President Theodore Roosevelt, hunter/conservationist Robert Bird Grinnell and naturalists John Burroughs and Ernest Thomas Seton.
The Fountain Hotel offered a completely modern (for the times) resort experience: electric lights, steam heat, hot water from the nearby springs. Visitors tired from the stagecoach ride down could enjoy a glass of wine and fine dining. Bear feeding was also a popular activity, indicated on this map of the area from the 1912 Haynes Guide, shown below.
Besides its host of amenities, the Fountain Hotel had the advantage of being close to portions of the Lower Geyser Basin—most notably present-day Fountain Paint Pots and the Firehole Lake Drive. Although none of these features matched Old Faithful Geyser in terms of visitor appeal, none of the lodging facilities around Old Faithful matched the Fountain Hotel in terms of luxury and accommodation.
Even with the opening of Old Faithful Inn, the Fountain Hotel remained a popular, or at least viable, hotel in Yellowstone. It wasn’t until 1915, when automobiles were allowed within the Park, that The Fountain Hotel’s decline began. Visitors no longer had to fuss with a day-trip between Fountain and Old Faithful; they could get down their in one go on their own. In 1916, the Fountain Hotel closed its doors and stood empty for over ten years.
In 1920, Yellowstone National Park superintendent Horace Albright suggested in a report that the Fountain Hotel (along with lunch stations in West Thumb and Norris) be, “dismantled, torn down, and the valuable lumber salvaged.” Nonetheless, The Fountain Hotel was not torn down until 1927.
The fate of the Fountain Hotel provides interesting insights into the nature of tourism in Yellowstone National Park. Would the hotel have survived if automobiles hadn’t been allowed into the Park in 1915? If Fountain Geyser or the paint pots had the same “wow” factor as Old Faithful Geyser, would it still be standing? Or: what would have happened if someone or some group had decided the Fountain Hotel was worth preserving? Would it be listed alongside Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel in the National Register of Historic Places?
Yellowstone National Park is a volatile place—and not just in a hydrothermal, geologic sense. Who knows what visitor infrastructure will still be standing in 100 years?