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Old Yellowstone: History of The Old Faithful Inn

June 1, 1904: the Old Faithful Inn opened for its inaugural season, after months of construction. And years of planning, hand-wrangling, and disputing.

Today, we may take the Old Faithful Inn for granted. Before its construction, “parkitecture” was an undefined mode of building. Or at least ill-defined. Further, being made primarily of wood, it may not seem like a suitable structure to survive all the extreme weather conditions Yellowstone has to offer. To say nothing of calamitous events like the 1988 Yellowstone fires, which may well have burnt Old Faithful Inn to the ground.

Old Faithful Inn Postcard

Paul Schullery, writing in Searching For Yellowstone, rightly ranked the Old Faithful Inn as not only Yellowstone’s best hotel but also an iconic part of the basin:

The most famous Yellowstone hotel is the Old Faithful Inn. Architect Robert Reamer’s original log structure was augmented by additional (and rather less attractive) wings in 1913 and 1928 and soon became a Yellowstone landmark almost on a par with Old Faithful itself. The cavernous lobby, the massive fireplace, and the rustic interior balconies and stairs still awe visitors today, and many of us find it hard to imagine the Upper Geyser Basin without that gigantic gabled roofline.

But what’s the story of before the Old Faithful Inn? If it’s really “hard to imagine the Upper Geyser Basin without [the Inn’s] gigantic gabled roofline,” what came before it?

Before Reamer

According to Ruth Quinn, writing in Weaver of Dreams: The Life and Architecture of Robert C. Reamer, Park officials had been planning a large hotel for the area since at least 1897. No doubt, said hotel would have been welcomed sooner.

Indeed, even though Old Faithful & the Upper Geyser Basin were the heart (both literal and figurative) of geyser country in Yellowstone, the only “grand hotel” was far north in Mammoth Hot Springs. Both Norris and the Fountain Hotels, however admirable in construction and location, didn’t exactly warrant the designation “grand.”

There were accommodations available at Old Faithful prior to the construction of the Inn, in the form of a camp village and the Upper Geyser Basin Hotel. While the former certainly had its charms, the latter was described as “a shack and a disgrace.” Built in 1885, it burnt down in 1894.

Choosing Reamer

As mentioned, while calls for a new Old Faithful hotel were sounded in 1897, they were not realized until 1904. Why is this? Well, before Reamer was singled out, several other architects were called to submit plans. In 1898, according to Quinn, one A.W. Spalding of St. Paul, Minnesota submitted plans for a hotel after being tapped by the Yellowstone Park Association. His Inn called for a “Queen Anne” style building, which had its roots in a style popular during the reign of the aforementioned English queen (between 1702 and 1714). You can see an example of American “Queen Anne” architecture in the picture of Carson Mansion (located in Eureka, California) below.

carson mansion eureka CA

Try picturing something like that just outside Old Faithful Geyser.

Obviously, Spalding’s hotel never made it off the page. According to Quinn, Spalding’s plans were rejected amid bickering between several important Yellowstone concessionaires and other stakeholders (including the Northern Pacific Railroad) over who could and should build and run hotels in the Park.

After Spalding, and before Reamer, the next serious contender for Upper Geyser Basin architect was E.J. Donahue. Like Spalding, Donahue hailed from St. Paul. This time, however, instead of the YPA, it was park photographer Frank J. Haynes who tried to get a hotel built. Haynes hired Donahue after NPRR turned down his offer to co-build a series of lodging facilities across the basin. Like with Spalding, Donahue’s design never left the drawing board.

Quinn mentions that, before settling on Reamer, one other architect (William Bement) had been tapped to build a set of nine rustic cottages. Those plans were swept aside once Reamer emerged as the favorite.

As to why Reamer was chosen, there are several reasons. According to Quinn, longtime Yellowstone Park Company president Harry W. Child had already settled on a “rustic” design for the Old Faithful lodging complex. Further, Reamer received a very favorable recommendation from one of Child’s good friends (one E.S. Babcock, co-founder of the Hotel del Coronado in California). Reamer, at the time, was living in the area and working for the Hotel’s architects, Reid & Reid.

old faithful inn reamer blueprint

Impressing His Elders

Although Reamer had made a good impression on both Child and Babcock, his good luck was nearly spoiled. Reportedly, after Child had tapped Reamer to come to Yellowstone, Babcock sent Child a letter, intimating that Reamer had lied about his initial salary while working for Reid & Reid and had “seemed to take little interest in his work” before leaving for the Park. Indeed, Reamer left California without giving Reid & Reid notice.

Whatever doubts Child may have had about the young architect, however, were dispelled when he laid eyes on the blueprint for the Old Faithful Inn. And he wasn’t alone. Babcock commented quite favorably on the designs as well. Most interesting, however, is the praise that came from someone who just happened to be in the area. In April 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt was making a tour of the Park with naturalist John Burroughs and a small band of soldiers, and according to Quinn, the President had much to say about the plans:

Harry Child noted that during his visit the president “spent considerable time looking over and examining the plans of the buildings that we are contemplating building in the Park in the next two to three years, notably the Upper Basin structure and this Lake Hotel structure, and went into detail with our architect, and was very profuse in his compliments upon our efforts to improve the architecture of the Park buildings.”

Building the Hotel

Thereafter, construction of the Old Faithful Inn was on, with a tentative plan to open by June 1, 1904, a deadline that pressed harder and harder with each passing day. From Quinn:

The 1903 report of the Yellowstone Park Association detailed progress and expenditures. 90 men were reported to be at work in the park on December 15, 1903, construction continuing on Old Faithful Inn and additions to Lake Yellowstone Hotel concurrently. Neither project was finished, and the $125,000 loaned by the Northwest Improvement Company had been exhausted. Construction expenditures for the year ending October 31, 1903 totaled $70,757.25.

Reamer himself was on site during the construction. A notation in the Army log from November 13, 1903 indicates a package was delivered to him at his residence at Old Faithful. One legend has it that Reamer was totally possessed with the design and construction of the Inn. In a visit to the In, Charles Francis Adams learned that “the architect forgot to shave, forgot to undress at night, or breakfast in the morning, he was so engrossed in his work.”

Through it all, however, they were successful. The Old Faithful Inn opened June 1, 1904—just in time for the summer season. And with its opening came the establishment of Reamer’s reputation.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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