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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Old Faithful Inn is rooted in Yellowstone

Visitors to Old Faithful Inn gather for a tour of the landmark hotel at Yellowstone National Park. (Scott Beveridge photo)

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – While a maize of stairs leads to doors and windows where visitors once viewed the famous geyser field outside Old Faithful Inn, the entire building is actually connected to the nation's oldest national park, a tour guide here says.

The 106-year-old rustic hotel - the largest of its kind in the world - is built from the same lodgepole pine trees that still cover the mountains at Yellowstone National Park, and the rhyolite stones forming the inn's 500-ton fireplace came from a nearby quarry, guide Ruth Kansas says to make her point.

"Eighty percent of the trees here are 75 feet tall," Kansas, while guiding a group of nearly 30 tourists around the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "From the floor to the ceiling, it measures 76 feet to give us the feeling we are still outside in the forest."

The federal government hired a developer in 1903 to construct the building for $140,000, a project financed by the Great Northern Railway, which had hoped to extend its railroad to the hotel to fatten its wealth.

However, Congress shot down that plan as it members wanted this land in Montana and Wyoming to be forever preserved to protect its wildlife and especially the underground lava flows that create a string of geysers here, including the nearby Old Faithful, which shoots 180-foot gushes of steaming water into the sky nearly ever hour.

So the railroad promoted "stagecoach trips through wonderland" embarking from a railroad stop 50 miles to the north in Montana, $50 vacations booked mostly by the well-to-do living on the East Coast and Europe. They paid $4 a night to stay in the park's five hotels, Kansas said. That stagecoach trail forms the same roads motorists use today to tour the park inhabited by the grizzly and black bear, buffalo, moose and elk, she said.

"The wealthy wanted to experience the wilderness but didn't want to spend the night in the wilderness," Kansas added.

Ohio architect Robert Reamer
To make that happen, 50 carpenters initially built a 140-room hotel in record time over a bitter cold winter. Construction had been overseen by an unknown 29-year-old architect from Ohio, Robert Reamer, who went on to design other hotels and resorts in and around Yellowstone. He also oversaw expansions to Old Faithful Inn, enlarging its dining room and bar, as well as adding 190 additional guest rooms.

Old Faithful Inn, which had electricity and indoor plumbing from the start, welcomed its first guests in June 1904, and would later hold fancy balls where guests danced in the lobby while others promenaded about the stairs and balconies overlooking the activities.

"It was all about to see and be seen," Kansas said.

Reamer chose to leave the bark on the beams making up the building, but hotel management made the decision after 35 years to strip it off, she said.

"It was scraped off to brighten the place," she said. Housekeepers likely supported the decision, she said, because they had the monumental task of dusting the grooves in the peeling bark.

The rooms - sans televisions - are warm and welcoming with their rough-hewn, pine-plank walls and well-worn period furnishings. They are still used today, but reservations must be made well in advance.

Unfortunately, guests are no longer permitted beyond the third floor balconies overlooking the lobby.

The entrance to Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park (Scott Beveridge)

The Beehive Geyser, which goes off every 24 hours, give or take several, is sexier than Old Faithful at Yellowstone. (Scott Beveridge photo)

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