The night the world shook - III: '59 quake changed landscape, structures and more in Yellowstone

160 new geysers sprang to life in the park
Posted at 10:24 AM, Aug 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-16 11:28:57-04

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - It was the peak of the summer season in Yellowstone National Park - Aug. 17, 1959.

The Old Faithful Inn was full. In fact, a beauty contest had entertained guests earlier in the evening.

The inn, a 76-foot-high log structure was built in 1904 - long before earthquake standards were established.

“The fireplace here kind of twisted on its axis, so that two of the four flues were blocked,” said Yellowstone National Park Historian, Alicia Murphy. “Certainly the whole structure kinda swayed and then in the dining room part of the chimney fell through the roof onto the floor. Luckily it was nearly midnight, so no one was hurt.”

The dining hall fireplace was repaired immediately in 1959. But it took 45 years to finish repairs on the the main fireplace.

The building was evacuated immediately following the 7.3 quake.

Then the geothermal features in the park went wild.

More than 160 new geysers sprang to life. Even the park’s iconic geyser felt the quake.

Old Faithful has always remained just that - faithful. But that 1959 earthquake did impact the geyser.

Before the quake, eruption intervals were between 60 and 65 minutes. Afterward, 85 to 95 minutes. The good news for tourists? Before the quake those eruptions only lasted a minute and a half to two minutes. Afterwards, 4.5 to five minutes.

“So it does fewer eruptions during the day, putting out more water in each one,” said Xanterra Historian Leslie Quinn. “Overall, still puts about the same amount of water. The next earthquake could do anything, including shut it off. It is a natural feature. You know, some day Old Faithful should actually stop. That’s natural for that to happen.”

Old Faithful Inn survived. But some of the park’s west side roads did not.

In fact, a group of campers were trapped at the Indian Creek Campground for several days. The Golden Gate area was blocked to the north and the Gibbon Falls area to the south.

Park officials determined they had enough food to last until those roads could be opened.

For others, escaping the park became an adventure all in itself.

Firehole Canyon Drive is a one-way scenic road today. In 1959, it was the main road between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone. When the quake hit, rocks fell on the road, closing it. This forced the park service to use a road that had been abandoned for years to get people out of the area.

“That was opened for the first time in decades,” said Quinn. “Park visitors were allowed to use it to escape the park, and many did, a small dirt road with a tiny steel bridge. It hadn’t been open in decades, it was closed as soon as they had other roads opened and it would never open again.”

It would take weeks for some of the park’s roads to be reopened. But visitors kept coming - just from other entrances.

While no buildings were lost to the 1959 quake, it was an eye opener for the park.

“I think that really did impact how we manage our historic structures, as far as making sure that we go back and retrofit these buildings to protect them for the future,” said Murphy. “Anything that we build now, we make sure that it is up to great standards for seismic activity.”

If you want to see a long-lasting effect of the quake in Yellowstone, head to the Fountain Paint Pots area, in the lower Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful and look for Clepsydra Geyser. Prior to that fateful night, it only erupted every two to three minutes. If you go now, you will see it constantly erupting - it hasn’t stopped since Aug. 17, 1959.

The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The night the world shook - Part II: Waves and tremors at Hebgen Lake threaten dam