A Brief History of Deaths in Yellowstone’s Hot Springs

A young man who died this month in a boiling hot spring in Norris Geyser Basin is just the latest casualty of the park’s main attraction

Jun 16, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Castle Geyser

Scott’s death was the 22nd on record in the history of park’s captivating, noxious thermal geysers.    Photo: Conor Quinlan/iStock

Last week, 23-year-old Colin Nathaniel Scott of Portland, Oregon, walked off the designated boardwalks in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin and fell into one of the park’s acrid, boiling hot springs. The water, some of the hottest in the park at approximately 199 degrees, likely killed him in a matter of moments.

“It’s hard on everybody,” said park spokesperson Charissa Reid. “We’re certainly sad for his family and it’s not an easy thing for the rangers either,” who were tasked with retrieving the body.

Yellowstone, it turns out, is among the most dangerous national parks and Scott’s death was the 22nd on record in the history of park’s captivating, noxious thermal geysers. “Death is a frequent visitor in raw nature,” the park’s historian Lee Whittlesey writes in Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. “And Yellowstone Park, despite the cabins and roads, is raw nature.”

The park sits atop a large super volcano with a magma reserve so gigantic that its eruption could wreak havoc across the whole continent. (Scientists don’t expect an eruption in the next few thousand years.) The park is home to over 10,000 hydrothermals and half the world’s geysers, many of which, says Reid, are so astringent that a dip in one would be like a swim in battery acid. According to Whittlesey, who spent years combing through archives to uncover as many deaths as he could for his book, the timeline of tragedies stretches back decades.  

No records exist of Native American injuries or deaths from hot springs, Whittlesey says, though “perhaps it happened.” Before Europeans arrived in the 19th century, according to the park’s official history, local tribes used the hydrothermal waters for medicinal, religious, and practical purposes for hundreds of years. The Dragon’s Mouth stream vent, near the Mud Volcano, was where the Kiowa tribe believed their creator bestowed upon them the Yellowstone area as their home; the Tukudika dipped sheep horns into the springs to make them pliable and suitable for bows. 

The first scalding in the region’s history was likely in 1870, when a member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition—a group of explorers that catalogued the park and named the powerful, predictable cone geyser in the upper basin “Old Faithful”—was separated from the pack. Truman Everts, an assessor in the Montana territory, spent 37 days wandering through the wilderness and was burned on his hip near Heart Lake while trying to seek warmth from a nearby hot spring. (Everts survived and was eventually led out of the park.) Once the land was converted to a national park, injuries started occurring more steadily, and at least four people were scalded in the 1880s, including a senator from New York.

The first death was likely that of James Joseph Stumbo, a seven-year-old from Montana who fell into a hot spring on a visit to the park in 1890. Children, Whittlesey notes in the book, are frequently involved in hot spring accidents. (A 13-year-old was burned earlier this month after falling into a thermal.) 

In his book, Whittlesey catalogues the deaths of more than 20 other victims, from the 1905 death of Miss Fannie A. Weeks, a 40-year-old woman from Washington, D.C., who fell up to her waist into a hot spring by Old Faithful and died a month later, to Watt Cressey, a park employee who was headed to a late night “hot potting” party—a soak in a warm thermal—with other park employees in 1975, but accidentally jumped into a pool that was 179 degrees. 

The most unfortunate of all of Yellowstone’s hot spring deaths, however, may be the case of David Kirwan, a 24-year-old from California. On July 20, 1981, his friend’s dog, Moosie, jumped into the Celestine Pool, a 202-degree spring. Kirwan, seeing the dog suffer, prepared to dive in. “Don’t go in there!” a bystander yelled. “Like hell I won’t!” Kirwan replied and dove head first into the water. He died the next morning of his burns.

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