National Parks play roles in all kinds of American legends, and Yellowstone, our first park, is no exception. It’s October, time to dust off the ghost stories and feast on three short pieces of Yellowstone lore, as retold by S.E. Schlosser for her book “Spooky Yellowstone.”
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In the wild-west early days of the park, many of the proprietors felt they owned the land, and as our first tale proves, some could never let go.
Yancey was a quirky old-time pioneer, gold prospector and Civil War veteran —perhaps the last of that breed—who came to Yellowstone National Park in the 1870s and built a hotel in “Yancey’s Hole”; current day Pleasant Valley near Roosevelt Lodge. The hotel provided accommodations and provisions to the stagecoach traveling back and forth between Mammoth Hot Springs and the mining camps in Cooke City. It boasted five bedrooms and could accommodate twenty guests. Rooms were $2 per day, $10 per week, and included meals. There was also a saloon handy for anyone wishing a splash of moonshine after dinner.
Folks around Yellowstone called him “Uncle John” Yancey. He was popular with just about everybody in the park and its vicinity. Uncle John Yancey had important friends among the posh families back east, some of whom dropped by the hotel from time-to-time. Yancey knew all the good fishing holes and had plenty of tall tales to amuse people. He welcomed all and sundry with a libation of “Kentucky tea,” reputed to be the best whiskey in the park.
John F. Yancey was seventy-seven years when he traveled to Gardiner, Montana, to witness the dedication of the Roosevelt Arch by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 24, 1903. Yancey met President Roosevelt during the ceremony, but he caught a cold at the event and died of pneumonia a couple of weeks later. He was buried in the old Tinker’s Cemetery near Mammoth, and folks thought that was the last they’d ever see of Yancey. But not so!
It soon became apparent that Yancey’s ghost had gone right back to the Pleasant Valley; and Yancey’s ghost made himself at home in Roosevelt Lodge for the next 100 plus years. According to the park employees, Yancey’s ghost will bang a tin cup on the walls of the staff quarters at three a.m. He hides things and makes them reappear in unexpected places. Yancey’s ghost has also been known to unsaddle horses at the end of a long day on the trail. A trickster and a bit of a nuisance, Yancey’s ghost is still as wild as the West he helped tame.
The Lake Yellowstone has been filled with lore since it was built back in the 1800s. Many workers of all stripes have treated guests over the last century…perhaps some never left. Our next story is a first-person account of a very helpful bellman.
I gasped a bit as I wheeled my heavy bag toward the white-trimmed double doors leading to the hotel lobby. I was having some trouble adjusting to the altitude in Yellowstone after living my whole life at sea level. My husband Frank, on the other hand, took to the elevation as one mountain-born, much to my annoyance. He’d already dragged the rest of our luggage inside the hotel and was checking in at the front desk as I doddered my way into the lobby and collapsed in a chair near the fireplace.
“Come on, slowpoke, we are on the fourth floor,” my husband called happily, and dashed down the hall carrying a load of luggage as expertly as any of the bellmen. I struggled out of the chair, which was very comfortable, and aimed myself somewhat erratically for the hall. About halfway down, a compassionate bellman overtook me and claimed my heavy bag. Relieved, I hitched my handbag over my shoulder and followed the bellman. We chattered about my trip all the way up the elevator, and the bellman had some great suggestions for hikes we might take along the lakeshore, and where we might see wildlife.
The elevator let us off on the fourth floor, and we walked to the end of a long, rather spooky hallway. I shivered a bit, feeling uncomfortable and not understanding why this was so. But the friendly bellman distracted me with his gentle conversation. He left me in front of the open door with my bag, bowing slightly like an old-fashioned gentleman in a movie. I fumbled in my handbag, looking for my wallet, then realized I’d given it to my husband so he could check us in.
“Wait a moment,” I told the friendly bellman and hurried inside the room, calling to my husband. Frank was locked in the bathroom, but my wallet was on the bedside table. Pulling out some money, I hurried to the door, only to find that the friendly bellman had vanished.
“Were you calling for me, honey?” my husband asked, coming out of the bathroom.”I was looking for my wallet to tip the bellman that helped me with my bag,” I explained. “But he disappeared while I was looking for it.”
“We can leave a tip for him at the desk in the lobby,” my husband said.
“Great idea,” I said. “Don’t let me forget. He had some great advice for our trip. Told me to drink lots of water to help me adjust to the elevation and recommended the hike out to Storm Point. Apparently, the view of the lake is lovely!” Frank’s face lit up at this suggestion. He loved to hike.
We turned our attention to unpacking our bags. We were staying at the hotel for two nights before heading up to Canyon. Frank was going fishing for lake trout tomorrow, while I took a tour around the lower loop, learning all about the Yellowstone volcano and looking at the geysers and other hot springs.
Our room was quite lovely. It was at the end of the hall on the backside of the hotel, but I could see the lake out of the side window. Still, something about the room felt a little strange, as if someone was watching. I had goosebumps all along my upper arms as I unpacked. “What nonsense,” I said aloud, trying to make the feeling go away. “What did you say?” Frank asked, looking up from his fishing tackle box. “Nothing,” I said hastily. “Let’s go down to dinner.”
We had reservations for 7 p.m. at the hotel dining room, and it was almost that time now. I grabbed my wallet, remembering that I wanted to tip the friendly bellman. The being-watched feeling returned full force as we walked down the spooky hallway to the elevator. I shivered, and my husband suggested that I go back for my sweater. “No I’m fine,” I said hastily, not wanting to be alone in the room.
We descended in the elevator and walked down the lower hall to the lobby. I paused for a moment at the bell desk, hoping to see my friendly bellman. A nice young man greeted me with a smile, and I asked about the man who’d helped me with my luggage, explaining that he’d vanished before I could tip him. “Do you know his name?” the young man asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said. Then I spied the picture on the desk, showing a group of bellmen. “That’s him,” I said, pointing. The young man’s smile slipped a bit. “That is a historic picture, taken many years ago,” he said cautiously. “None of those men work here now.” “Really? That’s strange,” I said, feeling cold again. “The bellman who helped me looks just like this man.” “That man was the bell captain,” the young man said. “He’s since passed away.” Face devoid of expression; he added: “I’m sorry, I don’t know who it was that helped you today.” “Oh well, maybe I will see him again,” I said with an uneasy glance at the photo on the desk. Strange that the man who helped me looked exactly like the former bell captain.
I shuddered and hurried over to my husband, who was examining some of the lovely photographs displayed around the lobby. “All done?” he asked, taking my hand and leading me toward the dining room. “Not really,” I said uneasily, and told him about the picture. “So, you’re saying a ghost helped you with your luggage?” Frank asked when I finished. Hearing it put that way sent cold shudders down my spine. “Pretty much,” I said. “I’m not sure I want to spend the night at this hotel. What if the ghost comes back?” “If the phantom bellman comes back, we’ll ask him to take our luggage down to the car,” said Frank. “That way, we can make a fast getaway and we won’t have to carry our bags. Works for me!” “Get out of here,” I said with a reluctant grin. He smiled back and took my hand. “Let’s go to dinner,” my husband said.
A 500-passenger ship began touring the massive Yellowstone Lake in 1905. Its owner hired a man to watch the ship for the 1906 winter, but he died of a heart attack as he rowed out to Stevenson Island. The ship never took another cruise and was left on the Stevenson Island waterfront to wither away.
By 1921, the ship had to be pushed onto the Island’s shore and by 1926, her steam boiler was drilled out and used as an island hotel heater. The ship was also used by skiers for warmth, as an overhang for a fish-fry business and as a place to stage full-out bar fights.
In 1930, rangers doused the boat in kerosene and light it ablaze, which really only served to turn it black.
In the time since, the anchor and other items have been removed and put on display throughout the park, but the ship’s ribs still wait on the Island.
Our final story comes from a park ranger’s chilling tale from those early years after the wreck.
My supervisor radioed me just after sunrise on a warm summer morning to report another incident aboard the shipwrecked E.C. Waters out on Stevenson Island. “A bunch of drunks were boozing and brawling on the boat last night,” he said in a grumpy tone that clearly indicated his lack of morning coffee. I sighed. Again! I had no idea why so many summer visitors flocked to the wreck of the old steamboat on Stevenson Island, which lay partially submerged beside a sandy beach.”I want you to head out there and make sure no one got knocked on the head or stranded on the island when the brawl ended,” my supervisor continued. “Right, boss,” I said.
I hurried down to the marina and headed out in the boat we used for official business. It was a short ride out to Stevenson’s Island. I sighed as I drew closer to the creaky old tub listing precariously on the shore. There were empty beer bottles strewn on the beach and floating in the water, always a sign of trespassers. I moored my craft and gathered up as much trash as I could. Then I cautiously ventured onto the rickety steamboat. Thankfully, I found no bodies huddled asleep in the beer-soaked wreck.
Time to check the Island.
Stevenson’s Island was 1.3 miles long, and I was going to have to check the whole darn thing, just in case some of the drunks had gone exploring last night. With a sigh, I headed out in a basic search pattern.
By mid-morning, I was hot, grumpy, tired, and convinced I was on a wild-goose chase. There had been no sign of stranded vacationers – drunk or sober. I headed back toward the sunlit beach, ready to return to the mainland.
As I came over a tiny rise, a huge wind struck me hard, making me stagger backward a few paces in the suddenly freezing air. In front of me, I saw the lake churning in great waves while a huge storm cloud massed overhead. I saw something big and bulky, floating at the edge of the water. Something man-shaped. My heart leapt into my throat, and I rushed forward. Dear God, someone had fallen from the boat last night and hit his head! My hands felt cold and clammy as I fumbled with the radio at my belt. I had to call this in! But when I spoke into the radio, it only returned static.
I dropped to my knees beside the body; noticing that the sodden clothing was old-fashioned, dating from long before 1900. The drowned man looked rather like a fur trapper or explorer from the era when Yellowstone was first discovered. I checked his neck for a pulse. There was no pulse. I turned the body over and stared into a pair of bulging brown eyes on a blue-white face.
And then, in between one breath and the next, the body vanished. Suddenly my hand was gripping empty air instead of an old-fashioned jacket. I reeled backward with a gasp and landed on my rump in the sand. Where had the corpse gone?
I glanced frantically over the calm, sparkling waters of the still lake, searching for the body of the drowned man. The warm summer wind caressed my face as my brain registered the change in scenery. What had happened to the approaching storm? Where were the huge, wind-swept swells that had frightened me so much when I came over the rise?
I scrambled to my feet and stood hyperventilating with my head between my legs, arms braced on my knees. This couldn’t be happening. But I knew it was. Storm, cold wind, and the corpse had vanished in a heartbeat. They had been shades of a former time, a former accident. So that was why the man’s clothes had been so old-fashioned.
Spooked by the incident, I unmoored the official park boat and leapt in, glad to get away from Stevenson Island. Folks said that Lake Yellowstone never gave up its dead. Apparently, neither did the Island. I turned my craft and headed back to the main land and (hopefully) sanity. No more ghosts for me!
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
From Amazon: Pull up a chair or gather round the campfire and get ready for creepy tales of ghostly hauntings, eerie happenings, and other strange occurrences under starry skies. Whether read around the campfire on a dark and stormy night or from the backseat of the family van on the way to grandma’s, this is a collection to treasure.
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