From early Yellowstone Park, a tale of greed and obsession

Waters

Courtesy of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum of Park County, Mont.

The E.C. Waters, named for the man who owned her, was supposed to be his biggest success. It turned into his most spectacular failure.

It turns out that stupid-people tricks in Yellowstone National Park—you know, people petting bison, taking selfies with bears, walking on thermal features—are not strictly a modern phenomenon.

As Mike Stark makes plain in his new book, “Wrecked in Yellowstone,” things were even worse in the earliest days of the world’s first national park.

E.C. Waters, the entrepreneur and tireless self-promoter who is the focus of this book, was arrested in 1888 for throwing soap in Beehive geyser to hasten its eruption. A few years later he told a newspaper reporter that the park’s bears were “perfectly harmless.”

“Having never been hunted, they have no fear of men,” he continued. “My little daughter, six years old, has sometimes gone within 15 feet of a bear and tossed bits of meat to him.”

EC

E.C. Waters

Stark also reports that when tourists started flooding into the park, women were in the habit of breaking chunks off the fragile geyser cones for souvenirs, “while the men preferred to scratch their names into the geologic formations.”

Men employed by Waters were found with guns, traps and large quantities of strychnine, tools of the trade for poachers. Another employee was arrested with 10 bison hides in Hayden Valley, at a time when the number of bison that had escaped the great slaughter of the late 1800s was perilously low.

Things got so bad that troops from Fort Custer, Mont., were brought in to restore order in 1886. Unfortunately, one of their standing orders was to kill wolves and mountain lions.

These are only sidelights to the engrossing tale of E.C. Water’s strange career, but during this, the Season of the Dumb Tourist, they certainly caught my eye.

Those stories also serve to demonstrate what a different world it was Waters arrived in Yellowstone in 1887. The park was still new and Waters was far from the only person who saw it as a cash cow waiting to be milked.

The native of Wisconsin was lured west by the prospect of the frontier’s opportunities. His first venture was the construction and operation of a hotel in Glendive, the Merrill House, and then the Headquarters Hotel in Billings, both of which were destroyed by fire within a few years.

Waters served in the 15th Legislative Assembly of the Montana Territory, where he met Russell Harrison, secretary of the Montana Stock Growers Association. He was also the grandson of one president, William Henry Harrison, and the son of a future president, Benjamin Harrison.

Russell Harrison was the first of many influential politicians that Waters would cultivate, cajole and collaborate with in the course of furthering his career.

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His schemes were many—including an elevator that would take visitors hundreds of feet to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River—but his chief obsession was building an impressively large steamboat that would ply the waters of Yellowstone Lake.

He did some things well and some things wretchedly, but the one thing he did consistently was to blame all his setbacks on the machinations of his countless enemies, some of them real and some of them existing only in his disordered, paranoid mind.

“He was complicated and smart but carried an air of brittle self-importance,” Stark writes. “He could be warm, even cordial, but many found him petulant, prickly and unpredictable; solicitous one moment, and a shrill bully the next.”

At one point, a park superintendent said in a letter to the secretary of the Interior that “In one way or another (Waters) has been the source of almost every complaint that has come to your office.”

Stark on book tour

Mike Stark will sign copies of his book and give readings at the following locations:

Aug. 17: Gallatin History Museum, Bozeman, 3-5 p.m.
Aug. 18: Harper & Madison, Billings, 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 19: Carbon County Historical Museum, Red Lodge, time to be determined
Aug. 19: Livingston Art Walk, Livingston, 5:30–8 p.m.
Aug. 20: Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m

There were so many times in his life when his enemies, including the powerful Northern Pacific Railway, should have succeeded in banishing him from Yellowstone Park. But Waters, for all his very bad traits, had a decided knack for working on the sympathies of people in power, and time and again he clawed his way back from the precipice.

He did actually run a steamboat for some years, the Zillah, hauled in in pieces from a Minnesota lake and painstakingly reassembled on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, but his undoing coincided with what should have been his grandest moment—the launching of the E.C. Waters, a truly grand steamboat.

It is a great, untold story from Yellowstone Park, though fragments of it have been told in the past. Stark works in loads of other interesting material as well, painting a full portrait of the park’s tumultuous early years.

I worked with Stark during his stint as a reporter for the Billings Gazette, including the years when his beat included Yellowstone National Park, when he first stumbled on the story of E.C. Waters.

He was a fine reporter and he became a good friend, and he is also a natural storyteller with a bent for research and an eye for the telling detail. This is the first of what I hope will be many other books from his pen.

I had emailed a few questions to him to flesh out my review, but his responses were so interesting that it seemed a shame not to present them verbatim, so here’s the complete Q&A.

Cove

Courtesy of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum of Park County, Mont.

The E.C. Waters foundered for years in a cove on Yellowstone Lake’s Stevenson Island.

Last Best News: When did you first learn of Waters?

Stark: I found E.C. Waters like reporters find a lot of their stories: I stumbled on it in the course of doing something else. I was in a boat on Yellowstone Lake with some biologists for a story about cutthroat trout. We were cruising back to the marina when we passed Stevenson Island and I saw the wreckage of the boat on the beach. “Hey, what’s that?”

Years later—I’ve never dared to attempt to calculate the hours that went into it—my book on him arrived in the mail.

LBN: And at what point did you go from thinking, “This guy was interesting” to “This guy needs a book!”

Stark: I remember trying to write my first piece about Waters for the Gazette. I’d spent a day in the archives at Yellowstone and come back with a stack of great letters and memos and a ton of notes. I tried to cram it all into a single story but so many of the juicy bits and the context were being left out—scandals, poaching, congressional investigations, bitter disputes, family tragedy, fires … the list goes on.

It hurts to have great material that never sees the light of day. So I went to my editor and talked my way into a two-parter on Waters. A day or so later, I was back negotiating again and the paper indulged me with a three-part series in 2007.

When I left the Gazette, I took a few boxes with me of research I’d done for stories. One of them was my box of documents on E.C. Waters. I ignored it for a couple of years, but Waters nagged at me and ultimately I felt a strange sense of obligation. I had done all this research about this fascinating chapter in Yellowstone’s life but most of it had never been told.

I love Yellowstone and I loved Waters’ story and ultimately felt like my Gazette stories didn’t quite do his yarn justice. If I was going to do it right, I needed to put his story in the context of the early years of Yellowstone, the crazy cast of characters who ran the park and the stunning setting on the lake, which really is like nowhere else in the world. That meant doing another deep dive into the historical record and piecing it all back together. A book was the only way I could think of to tell the full story.

LBN: I’ve heard it is difficult to write a biography of a generally unpleasant person, and E.C. Waters seems to have been particularly hard to like. Did you develop any sympathy for him at all?

Stark: I was drawn to him because he was so damn ornery and stubborn and despised by almost everyone. What’s not to love about a fly in the ointment at the world’s first national park? But ultimately I stuck with him—and developed a real appreciation for him—because he was a more than just a caricature. He was a complicated guy, perpetually reaching beyond his grasp and a sort of prisoner of his own personality flaws.

We’re all like that in a way, but for Waters, his flaws were often so obviously in contrast to his ambitions that it became crippling. He was petty and brittle and often unable to get through a simple conversation without it erupting into a fight. Those are hard traits for an entrepreneur operating on a stage like Yellowstone.

But I had sympathy for the guy. I thought about him a lot when I was writing the book. Historical documents often hide the true personalities behind them but Waters came through in bits and pieces, sometimes with just a few words and phrases in a letter.

He loved his family. He suffered real tragedy with the suicide of his daughter. I think he loved Yellowstone and genuinely wanted to be liked and successful. I think the boat he had built, the big one, held not only a lot of economic potential for him but also a fair bit of vindication. It was going to be a symbol of his legitimacy as a businessman in the park, as a success, as someone who overcame a system that was rigged against him. The boat, of course, foundered and things fell apart. It’s hard not to have sympathy for someone who goes through that, even if he’s vastly unlikable.

LBN: You alluded to the possible scars left by his having served in the Union Army at so young an age in such terrible battles. Did you think that might partly have explained some of his rather unbalanced perceptions of the world and of other people’s motives?

Stark: He was a child-soldier in the Civil War at some pretty horrific battles. Although he rarely mentioned his most painful experiences in the war in the historical documents I found, it almost certainly shaped who he became as an adult. How could it not? We’re all the sum of our experiences and Waters certainly experienced tragedy and suffering early on.

He was immensely proud of his service in the Army but the trauma of those years, however brief, lingered on, I’m sure. Those around him in Yellowstone saw rage, petulance and persecution. Some said he suffered from hallucinations and mental illness. I’ve often wondered how a mental health professional today would assess him and his behavior.

LBN: In all your research, what was your single biggest discovery, the thing you were most happy to have found?

Stark: If there was one historical document that ultimately tipped me over the edge for writing the book, it was the letter Waters wrote just after his daughter committed suicide in January 1905. It’s an extraordinary document that revealed so much about him, his story and how he viewed the world.

His daughter was 18 years old when she died and, from what I could find, she was depressed and melancholy, as many people are at that age. Waters, though, viewed her death entirely through the prism of his own troubles in Yellowstone. He was certain that she killed herself because of how he was being treated by the railroad, by the Army, by his competitors in Yellowstone. By then, he’d been so consumed by his own sense of persecution in Yellowstone that it clouded everything he experienced, including the death of his own daughter.

I went back to that letter again and again while I was working on the book.

Details: “Wrecked in Yellowstone,” by Mike Stark. Riverbend Publishing, Helena. Paperback, 199 pages. $14.95.

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