William Henry Jackson’s Yellowstone: Then and Now

15 March 2016 Written by   Bradly J. Boner
Mammoth Hot Springs Mammoth Hot Springs © Bradly J. Boner

"Nothing has been, nothing can be said, to magnify the wonders of this national pleasuring ground. It is all and more than all that it has been represented. In the catalogue of earthly wonders it is the greatest, and must ever remain so. It confers a distinctive character upon our country . . . here, the grandest, most wonderful, and most unique elements of nature are combined, seemingly to produce upon the most stupendous scale, an exhibition unlike any other upon the globe. It should be sustained. Our Government, having adopted it, should foster it and render it accessible to the people of all lands, who in future time will come in crowds to visit it." 

Nathaniel Langford, First Annual Report of the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, 1872

I first visited Yellowstone when I was about ten. My parents loaded my brother and me into an old Chevy Blazer, pop-up camper in tow, and we headed west from our home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, destined for the world’s first national park. We were a typical American family on a great American road trip.

One of my most vivid memories of that unforgettable summer vacation was standing at the brink of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, watching the water rush by and plummet more than 300 feet into the Grand Canyon. I remember it being loud, having to almost yell as I barked questions at my dad, questions he probably only pretended to know the answers to.

Above all, I remember being filled with deep and fantastic wonder. I could actually feel the power of the falls—as wind on my face, as an unseen force on my chest. It is what raw power feels like, a feeling that is hard to describe and best experienced.

I was also just a little scared. In my child’s mind everything was just so big. Even though there was a safety rail at the overlook, I held my dad’s hand, and I swear I can remember him squeezing mine, as if he were just a little scared, too.

The overlook at the brink of the Lower Falls is now one of my favorite places in the park, because it always invokes that sense of childlike wonderment I first experienced almost thirty years ago. Everything, from the towering canyon walls to the rushing water and deep roar of the falls, is exactly how I remember it. Everything is still big, and I still feel the force of the Lower Falls in my chest. It is an experience so phenomenal, it is unforgettable. Standing at the overlook today still makes me just a little scared, but I know now it’s not necessarily fear; it is simply incredible to be so close to something so powerful.

One can only imagine what pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson must have felt as he explored Yellowstone with the rest of the 1871 Hayden Survey, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a land so beyond what was considered ordinary that it was almost mythical. There were few trails, vague maps, and little knowledge of the region. Upon entering Yellowstone, they encountered a land that was completely and truly wild.

Yellowstone is always changing. The Grand Canyon is getting deeper and wider as the Yellowstone River carves a chasm into the Earth. The activity of geysers, mud pots, and other thermal features are in constant flux. The flows of the great hot springs at Mammoth are always shifting, creating new layers of delicate, colorful cascades and leaving the old terraces to crumble in decay. These are changes that are barely noticeable in a single person’s lifetime. Some can be witnessed over decades. Others are measured in centuries, millennia, and eons. Most of the changes we can see today are the intrusions of humans upon the landscape.

Today, roads and bridges wind through the park. There are pathways and boardwalks where people can safely walk and restaurants, campgrounds, and hotels where they can eat and sleep. These are inevitable sacrifices that make it possible for millions of visitors to experience the wonders of Yellowstone every year.

Even with the impact of humanity, Yellowstone remains remarkably intact. The Yellowstone River is the longest undammed waterway in the Lower 48 states. The park's landscape and iconic landmarks are relatively unchanged, save for those wrought by snow, ice, wind, rain, and fire. Because of the forethought of those enamored by Yellowstone more than 140 years ago, we can today experience a land that is still mostly wild. As intended, Yellowstone endures as a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (Yellowstone Act, 1872).

As the world’s original national park, Yellowstone stands as America’s first and greatest experiment in the preservation of an extraordinary landscape. When compared with Jackson’s photographs from 1871, my contemporary images, taken during the summer seasons of 2011 through 2014 and sampled in the gallery below, illustrate just how well that experiment has stood the test of time.


Support Bradly J. Boner's forthcoming book, Yellowstone National Park: Through the Lens of Time, on Kickstarter today!

Bradly J. Boner's career as a photojournalist spans almost two decades of documenting some of the most culturally rich corners of the American landscape. He strives to capture the essence and spirit of the subjects in his images and uses photography to illustrate his love for the outdoors. Brad has been the chief photographer at the Jackson Hole News & Guide in Jackson, Wyoming, since 2004. He is also the photo editor of Jackson Hole Magazine, a biannual publication of news and features on the Greater Yellowstone region, and Images West magazine, a guide to the arts in Jackson Hole. Brad lives on the west side of the Tetons in Victor, Idaho, with his wife, Jeannette; their kids, Adeline and Will; and an old blue heeler, Sadie.

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