Drilling Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is a national treasure. The United States has tussled with a fair share of trouble in keeping its first, and therefore oldest, national park protected from industry. However, there was a time in the early twentieth century when the National Park Service gave way to science in the hopes of unlocking seemingly forbidden secrets to the inner-workings of geysers and the earth beneath the surface.

In 1872, Congress issued the Yellowstone Act to prevent the violation of Yellowstone in an address to the Secretary of the Interior. The Act stated that the Secretary must make rules to “provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within, and their retention in their natural condition.”

Scientific drilling by the Geophysical Laboratory at Yellowstone National Park, 1930.


Drilling site near "Old Faithful." Yellowstone National
Park, 1929. Photograph by C. N. Fenner.



Another Act followed in 1916 mandating that “no curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public.” This Act was also instrumental in establishing the National Park Service.

Blocked by these two Acts, scientific research was at best difficult. This trend was soon to change. Aid came in 1919 when Horace Albright became the first National Park Service superintendent. A true friend to science, he permitted academic institutions and government agencies to collect geological specimens from Yellowstone.

Geophysical Laboratory scientists Arthur L. Day and E. T. Allen quickly pounced on this incredible opportunity. The Yellowstone caldera was, and still is, one of the most complex in the country. It is the largest and most active seismically and geothermally in the western United States. Every scientist dreamt of the chance to study such a location. Day and Allen had recently published the book The Volcanic Activity and Hot Springs of Lassen Peak on the volcanic geology of California’s Lassen Peak and wished to conduct the same study at Yellowstone to honor and complete the work of United States Geological Survey’s Dr. Arnold Hague from the 1880’s.

Albright willingly issued Day a permit “to collect geological specimens of all kinds in Yellowstone Park and also specimens of plant life growing in or near any of the geyser basins or other areas affected by subterranean heat.” Day and Allen were essentially allowed full authority to take specimens of any kind that suited their scientific studies.


In addition to excavation rights, Day and Allen were permitted to ride in and have freight hauled by government vehicles, given reduced rates for park accommodations, allotted laboratory space in the basement of the Mammoth Hot Springs canteen building, and provided field assistance by a specially assigned park ranger.

In 1927, Yellowstone bought the Geophysical Laboratory a Dodge sedan from Blair Motor Company of Livingston, Montana to be used by the researchers. The Geophysical Laboratory later reimbursed the $1,100 purchase.

Between 1929 and 1930, the Geophysical Laboratory drilled the first boreholes ever permitted in Yellowstone in order to obtain a better understanding of the park’s underground structures, temperatures, and circulation in the geyser basins. The holes reached depths of 123.8 meters at the Upper Geyser Basin and 75 meters at Norris Basin. Bottom temperatures in the boreholes reached up to 205 degrees Celsius.

Drilling was completed by 1935. Soon after, Day and Allen published their classic book, Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park, to detail the findings. The book proved to be the definitive literature on Yellowstone’s thermal environment for years after the study, as the Geophysical Laboratory was the last institution to drill at the park until the 1980s.

Workers at the "Old Faithful" geyser drill site. Yellowstone National Park, 1929. Photograph by C. N. Fenner.


  • Allen, E. T., The hot springs of the Yellowstone National Park, Carnegie Institution of Washington News Service Bulletin Staff Edition, 4 (no. 1), 1-201936.
  • Biel, Alice Wondrak, The bearer has permission, Montana54 (no. 4), 15-31, Winter 2004.
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