Commentary

Yellowstone’s former Fountain Hotel still has a mystery to solve

On the night of July 30, 1900, a 36-year-old Ohio man named Leroy R. Piper was a guest at the hotel in the national park. Then he “vanished utterly,” writes guest columnist Annie Carlson.

December 6, 2022 4:10 am
Yellowstone's Fountain Hotel

In this undated photo, the Fountain Hotel is seen with Leather Pool in the foreground and the hot water pipe visible in the meadow. (JP Clum Lantern/National Park Service)

Millions of visitors enjoy the wonders of Yellowstone National Park each year.

Most of these people need a place to stay overnight in or around the park; thus, many hotels and campgrounds have been constructed to accommodate overnight visitors. Several large hotels are no longer standing.

Here, we shed light on the history of one such building: the Fountain Hotel, which was located just north of Fountain Paint Pot in the Lower Geyser Basin. It was opened in 1891 by the Yellowstone Park Association, an early park concessionaire. The three-story structure cost $100,000 to build and could accommodate 350 guests. The hotel was fancy given its rustic surroundings, and guests would wear their finest clothes to regular evening balls.

The Fountain Hotel was in operation during the stagecoach years of park history. Before modern roads and cars, visitors toured the park along dusty dirt roads in horse-drawn stagecoaches.

It was a full day’s ride from the former National Hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs to the Fountain Hotel. Guests of the Fountain Hotel had access to bubbling mud pots, active geysers, scenic meadows and mountain views.

Another popular attraction was a bear feeding station just behind the hotel. Kitchen staff would throw food and garbage out for the hungry bears, to the delight of guests who watched nearby.

Google Earth Image of Fountain Hotel site
This is a Google Earth image of the north part of Lower Geyser Basin showing the site of the Fountain Hotel and nearby Leather Pool, which was tapped to provide a source of hot water for the hotel. (Google Earth)

In those years, it was common to divert hot spring water for use in hotels, greenhouses and even swimming pools.

The Fountain Hotel enjoyed steam heat and hot spring bath water provided by Leather Pool, located about 500 yards south of the hotel. Sinter on the north side of Leather Pool was cut to allow hot water to flow through a pipe laid across an open meadow between the pool and the hotel.

In fact, to this day you can still see the former location of the pipe as a dark line running through the meadow.

Site of former Fountain Hotel
This is the site of the former Fountain Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Red arrows indicate the location of the pipe that ran through the meadow between Leather Pool and the site of the Fountain Hotel (yellow arrow). (Annie Carlson/Yellowstone National Park)

The Fountain Hotel was the setting of a notorious unsolved mystery.

Newspaper clipping about disappearance of Leroy Piper
Here is a newspaper clipping from the Dec. 21, 1900, edition of the Billings Weekly Gazette detailing possible reasons for the disappearance of Leroy R. Piper on July 30, 1900. (Courtesy of Newspapers.com)

On the night of July 30, 1900, a 36-year-old Ohio man named Leroy R. Piper was a guest at the hotel. According to historian Aubrey Haines, on that night Mr. Piper “ate his dinner, bought a cigar at the stand in the lobby, and stepped out into the night, where he vanished utterly.”

Although a $1,000 reward was offered and detachments of cavalry searched for weeks, Mr. Piper was never found. With the hotel’s proximity to hydrothermal features and a bear feeding station, it is tempting to imagine what fate may have befallen Mr. Piper.

A 1900 newspaper clipping also put forth theories that “his mind became unbalanced and he wandered away” or that “he was murdered for what money he had with him.” We will likely never know what happened to Mr. Piper.

Compounding changes in Yellowstone National Park led to the eventual closure of the Fountain Hotel. The iconic Old Faithful Inn opened in 1904 in the Upper Geyser Basin, reducing the need for a hotel in the Lower Geyser Basin. Road alignments in the park had also shifted, providing a southern route from the Upper Geyser Basin to the Lake Hotel.

And in 1915, automobiles were first allowed into the park, forever changing the visitor experience. With visitors now able to travel farther and faster, overnight lodging in the Lower Geyser Basin was no longer needed.

The Fountain Hotel closed in 1916 and was torn down in 1927. And so it joined the ranks of many grand structures that have come and gone from the Yellowstone landscape.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. 

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Annie Carlson
Annie Carlson

Annie Carlson is the research coordinator at the Yellowstone Center for Resources at Yellowstone National Park.

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