Thomas Moran made what could be called the ultimate travel adventure. He experienced a new, wondrous almost mystical travel destination. As one biographer wrote, “Moran had found himself.” Moran found himself in what would become Yellowstone National Park.
In 1871, a U.S. Geological Survey group was being organized to travel to and explore the Yellowstone region. Moran, 34, was a respected painter, engraver and illustrator. He was invited to travel with the expedition. However, he had never ridden a horse and had only camped once. But he was determined to do whatever it took to explore and paint what was there. He was so thin that he used a pillow on his saddle.
Yellowstone was a remote area out West that practically no non-Indians had seen. But unbelievable stories were filtering back East about the region. A mountain man, Jim Colter, had described mountains of steam, boiling mud, geysers, and the ground shaking. The area was called Colter’s Hell.
Moran was teamed with Henry Jackson, the expedition photographer. The trip and their images made history. In those days there was no color photography. Moran’s watercolor paintings of Mammoth Hot Springs and several falls made him and the area famous. The images he painted not only defined Moran for the rest of his life, they changed how America viewed the nation’s natural resources.
After arriving back home, Moran’s paintings were submitted to several popular magazines. More important, his sketches were circulated through the halls of Congress. His work with “the wonderful coloring” – he masterfully captured the region’s yellows, oranges and reds – made all the difference. The congressmen who had not personally seen the region “… were convinced that such wonders should be preserved for the people forever,” wrote Hiran Chattenden, with the Corps of Engineers and member of the expedition. In only seven months after the survey Yellowstone National Park was established.
Moran’s paintings became so popular and financially rewarding that he soon returned to the West to make more sketches and paintings. He traveled to Yosemite, Utah, Arizona and to the Grand Canyon. But his most successful work was done in Yellowstone.
He said later in his life, “I have always held that the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful in nature, would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful pictures.”
Moran had found himself by traveling to the Yellowstone territory. When signing his paintings he started including a Y. Friends had begun calling him Tom “Yellowstone” Moran. This was an exceptional trip and adventure by a man who influenced the creation of our first national park. Today our trips into unknown destinations may not be as dramatic, but the opportunity to find oneself by a stream, mountainside or paint pot can still be a life-changing event.
The wonders that Moran saw are still in Yellowstone. It’s striking to look at his paintings and recognize that most of the park features haven’t changed since his visit. Moran spent much of his time at the falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Find some time during your visit and walk to artist’s point, where Moran painted his most significant painting on the trip. Perhaps you too will find yourself astounded by the natural beauty of the place.
Moran’s original and reproduced watercolors can be seen at the visitor center at Mammoth Hot Springs. The Hayden expedition can also be viewed on video, ask at the front desk for a showing. Mammoth Hot Springs is about 2,000 feet lower than the rest of the park. Consequently it is open year-round to cars, and the facilities are open.
Moran’s paintings preserve what Yellowstone looked like in 1871. Today’s travelers can compare what has stayed the same and what has changed. Artist Point with the dramatic view of the falls and the canyon looks almost like it was for Moran and the original explorers.
Other areas, like Mammoth Hot Springs, have changed dramatically, with hot springs terraces going dormant and other terraces growing, encroaching and covering up nearby trees. The changes and constants found in this park continue making trips here a fascinating experience.
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