A few years back, Editor Kurt Repanshek and I had an opportunity to tag along on a research boat headed across Yellowstone Lake. I remember it vividly, because on the way back an afternoon mountain storm whipped up some foamy whitecaps and our boat started to look pretty small for such a big lake (it covers 136 square miles, at an altitude of 7,700 feet).
Nevertheless, we made it back okay, but when I saw Mike Stark’s book about two steamboats that used to ply these waters, I was intrigued. The book is titled Wrecked in Yellowstone (Riverbend Publishing 2016), and its subhead is, “Greed, obsession, and the untold story of Yellowstone’s most infamous shipwreck.”
Stark covers all of these bases in this book. It’s primarily the story of a man with a vision, E.C. Waters. One of the first entrepreneurs in Yellowstone, he was intent on making his fortune on the waves, from the waves of visitors. In 1891, Waters began taking tourists aboard the 125-passenger Zillah on Yellowstone Lake, and was fairly successful. In 1904, more than 4,000 tourists paid passage.
But, for Waters, good was never enough, and he proceeded to alienate nearly everyone in the park. His cavalier attitude towards the wildlife, park stewards, railroad men, and competitors made him one of the most unfavorable characters in Yellowstone. Complaints did nothing but infuriate Waters, and he was quick to pull any political strings he could, including pressure from a sitting President’s son. The author does a fine job of describing all of the finagling and drama as Waters attempts to monopolize the lake’s boating business.
In 1905, E.C. Waters launched a bigger boat (named for him, of course) which stretched 125 feet long, and could carry up to 500 passengers. But his $60,000 investment never saw service, and Waters himself was soon banned from the park. Superintendent Samuel Young wrote in 1907, “E.C. Waters, president of the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company, having rendered himself obnoxious during the season of 1907, is debarred from the park and will not be allowed to return.”
This dreamboat, the E.C. Waters, was finally moored near Stevenson Island, off shore from the Lake developed area. A few years later it ran aground in a mountain storm, where it began its road to neglect and ruin. The boiler was salvaged and heated the Lake Lodge for years, and the derelict even saw use as a site for a small fish cafe, and a place for skiers to warm themselves.
But, today, it’s just a reminder of one man’s dreams, and its wooden ribs, sunk in the mud, are easily seen by boaters passing by. This is an interesting book, well researched, and shows how wild and crazy the first tourist concessions were in our first national park. It’s available in trade paperback, and runs 200 pages, with black-and-white historical photographs.