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Calling All History Buffs and Fishermen!

Learn a little fish hatchery history along with some modern-day restoration efforts.

While most staff have encountered and even spent a solid chunk of time in and around Yellowstone’s most iconic historic structures (the Old Faithful Inn, Lake Hotel, Roosevelt Lodge to name a few), a treasure trove of lesser-known historic cultural buildings exist within the park’s boundaries; all with their own story to tell and each playing a significant part of Yellowstone history.

One such building is the Lake Boathouse which was part of a long time fish hatchery operation in the park’s early days. Fishery management operations at Yellowstone Lake began at West Thumb just after the turn of the century and for the next 50 years, Yellowstone National Park was the largest single source of wild cutthroat trout eggs in the United States. This management practice reflected a time when it was, more often than not, believed that nature needed human help to improve fisheries and subsequently make for the best possible sport fishing.

While smaller hatcheries sprouted in a handful of areas around the park, the center of the park’s operation was developed at Hatchery Creek with three ponds housed in a newly constructed building where young fish were raised before being set into park waters. Other buildings were built there including a bunkhouse (1930), mess house  (1929), and two boathouse buildings. Sadly, little is known about the boathouse structures that supported the hatchery operation in the early part of the century. Ultimately, the completion of the Lake hatchery and boathouse complex gave the park fishery operation the shot in the arm that it needed in order to function efficiently for the next 25 years.

Then came a shift in management philosophy which moved away from human manipulation and towards natural processes. In fact, science was starting to find that these operations may have proven to be a detriment to fish populations.

Fast forward to 2018.  These buildings, a significant part of Yellowstone’s cultural history, still stand and are feeling their age. Both the National Park Service and Xanterra utilize the boathouse to store some of their vessels over the winter season. In need of both interior and exterior repair, collaboration ensued. The National Park Service took charge of the interior servicing that was needed and the Xanterra Historic Preservation team went to work to restore the original boathouse doors to provide better protection of the building.  Not an easy task

It is easy to glance at some of the dilapidated or older structures around the park and not think much of them but many have a storied history and provide a window into Wonderland. To quote Lee Whittlesey, retired park historian, “The {boathouse} building commemorates a time in the national parks when natural processes were subordinated to the will of humans, and the story of what went on there in the history of Yellowstone fishery operations is fascinating indeed. For although buildings may not stimulate our imaginations in the way that fish do, they are part of the cultural resources that supported the park’s natural resources {…} that is an integral part of the larger Yellowstone wonderland.”

If you find yourself in the lake area, pay the new doors on the Lake Boathouse a visit and imagine a different era in Yellowstone’s past. Check out the fine work that Yellowstone’s historic preservation team accomplished. It was no easy feat! Challenges included:

  • Getting the doors off of the building and up to their shop in Gardiner. There are 12 doors, all 15′ long and weighed about 300lbs each. They couldn’t have done without help from the Park Wide Heavy Equipment Crew (aka the Bull Crew).
  • Determining how much wood to replace and simultaneously retaining as much of the original fabric as possible. The goal was to only replace the wood that was deteriorated to the point of failure. Finding wood to use is a challenge; matching the species is easy but the turn of the century wood was much higher quality than what is available today (old growth vs. second or third growth). The wood used is clear vertical grain fir.
  • Matching the profiles of the milled details of old woodwork can prove challenging.
  • Returning the doors back to their home; not causing any damage to the fine handiwork accom­plished was critical.
  • Replacing the windows; in 1937 all the windows were broken out and plywood eventually was put over all the openings which required cutting 54 pieces of glass to be installed!

Take a moment in your explorations around the park to notice the buildings and learn about the history around them. There are many avenues to learn more about the park – www.nps.gov/yell, the Yellowstone Research Center in Gardiner, MT has a library and amazing collection of cultural resources (and you can sign up for a tour!), or take Leslie Quinn’s Old Faithful Tour just around the corner – July 18 (he is fountain of information!). For the full story behind the boathouse operations in Yellowstone (and where much of the info from the article was found) visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/upload/YS_14_2_sm.pdf.