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Yellowstone History: Queen’s Laundry

Near Sentinel Meadows, you’ll find a curious remnant of Yellowstone National Park’s early history: The Queen’s Laundry.

Getting there is easy. The trailhead starts at the end of Fountain Flats Drive, just off the road between Madison Junction and Old Faithful. It’s a meandering hike with no substantial elevation changes that brings you through serene meadowland and (largely) placid geyser fields.

Queen’s Laundry is sure to catch your attention, regardless of whether you’re looking for it. After all, it’s one of the only buildings for miles around.

One of the only half-buildings, at any rate, as you can see from the pictures.

According to Lee H. Whittlesey, writing in Yellowstone Place Names, the area surrounding the Laundry (Sentinel Meadows and Sentinel Group in the Lower Geyser Basin) was originally all named by the Hayden Geological Survey in 1872. Survey Geologist A.C. Peale originally named Queen’s Laundry Spring “Red Terrace Spring,” which Whittlesey says is still an appropriate second name, although the terraces are all but gone now.

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But while the pool itself is beautiful, it’s the odd log structure that really draws visitors. For that, you can thank Philetus Norris, Yellowstone’s second official superintendent. Indeed, it was Norris and his party who officially (re)christened the feature. From Norris, as quoted in Whittlesey:

during a Sabbath’s rest and bathing recreation, some of the boys crossed from our camp to the attractive bordered pools below this great boiling fountain, and in one cool enough for bathing discovered its matchless cleansing properties, and from the long lines of bright-colored clothing soon seen drying upon the adjacent stumps and branches, while their owners were gamboling like dolphins in the pools, the envious cooks and other camp attaches dubbed it the Laundry, with a variety of prefixes, of which that which I deemed the most appropriate adheres, and hence the name Queen’s Laundry (1883, p. 252).

Early visitors to Yellowstone were no strangers to bathing in thermal waters, but the Laundry marked the first time in the Park’s history of someone consciously developing a hot spring-fed laundry/bath. Indeed, in the fall of 1881, Norris began construction on a two-room facility—one room for bathing, one room for a laundry.

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Alas for Norris, his Laundry was never finished. When Norris was replaced as superintendent between 1881 and 1882, his plans went with him, according to historian Aubrey Haines, writing in volume 1 of The Yellowstone Story:

This peculiar little structure still stands on the sinter slope below the Queen’s Laundry Spring. The roof has fallen in, but the wall logs have become so heavily impregnated with mineral from the hot spring waters, during the intervening years, that they remain quite sound. One room had evidently been fitted up for bathing, as there is evidence of a trough for leading hot water in through the rear wall, but the other room was never completed; in fact, the doorway into it was never cut out. And there the Queen’s Laundry bathhouse stands today, an interesting relic of the administration of the Park’s second superintendent, and the first government building constructed specifically for the use of the public in any national park.

While the laundry has been left to stand and become more siliceous, and is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was almost torn down. According to the NRHP, Yellowstone officials proposed removing the structure in 1964. They decided to let it stand, however, as a reminder of Yellowstone National Park’s beginnings.

About Sean Reichard

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

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