BILLINGS – It’s hard to imagine a better monthlong trip with friends: dancing, camping under the stars, catching large trout and seeing some of the grandest mudpots, geysers and hot pools in the world.
“It was a classic road trip with buddies,” Luke Murphy said.
Yet the adventure from Butte to Yellowstone National Park took place in 1907, its details recorded for posterity in a journal written by a then 23-year-old James J. Murphy – Luke Murphy’s great grandfather.
“The way he talks about it, it’s not really different from today,” Luke noted, equating it to road trips he took with friends in his early 20s.
In a premonition, James’ wife Agnes, upon reading the typewritten account, wrote to her children: “You could really make a good story of this if you wanted to do so. It’s great reading, especially when I remember I was ‘His Hon!’ ”
Sometime this spring, James’ detailed description of his trip will be available to the public.
In 1993, historian and author Douglas Westfall was introduced to the journal by one of James’ great grandchildren – Pat Ward-Llewellyn.
“I was totally intrigued,” Westfall said. “You’re reading the words of a guy on the trail and, odds are, nothing has changed (in Yellowstone).”
Westfall retraced the Butte travelers’ route, compiled a wealth of historical background on the park, used Richard Tolbert’s photographs of places they visited, collected old photos of the period and recorded sounds along the way, all of which he assembled into a book set to be published this spring, “A Century in Yellowstone, From the Journal of James J. Murphy in 1907.”
“I’m not an armchair historian,” Westfall said. “I have to go.”
An outdoorsy Californian who has backpacked since he was a youngster, Westfall said the journal made him feel like he was traveling with the group. He’s hoping other readers feel the same, while also learning about Yellowstone. He has plans for two similar books using young people’s journals, one on Glacier National Park (circa 1920) and the other on Yosemite (circa 1911). He calls them “get off the couch and go books.”
Once available, the book can be ordered at the Paragon Agency at www.specialbooks.com.
And they’re off
Like today’s budget-minded travelers, the dozen 20-something men and women from Butte set off in the station wagons of the day – horse-drawn wagons. A cook and his wife piloted a separate chuck wagon.
It took nine days for them to reach Old Faithful, trudging up muddy hills outside Virginia City, Montana, sleeping in haylofts with pigeons and battling repeated wagon equipment failures. Although the inconveniences sometimes wore on the travelers, James nevertheless was enthralled at finally visiting Yellowstone’s grandest geyser.
“Coming toward it in the dark, all the lights burning from the windows, and the search light playing on Old Faithful, I have never seen a prettier sight in my life!” he wrote.
When James and his disheveled friends visited the Old Faithful Inn, receiving dismissive looks from the well-heeled clientele “all swelled up,” they purchased postcards and wandered around the massive log building with its imposing rock fireplace climbing three stories high.
“We made the best of it and walked right over to the clerk’s desk, asked for our mail as though we were a duke, or count or something,” James wrote.
“After mailing our cards, we went out and Grace (Dawson, 18) was disgusted with life after seeing those things in the hotel and the comforts of it,” he wrote. “She was going to commit suicide to think of having to go back and crawl into that old tent like a gofer (sic) goes into his hole, as she put it, but we jollied her up.”
The economic disparity of travelers James encountered included “a young fellow from Chicago who is out traveling for his health. I found out he had nervous prostration from studying too hard.”
Dudes could afford to stay in the park’s hotels, or paid one of the camping concession companies – like Wylie Permanent Camping Co. or Shaw & Powell – to house, feed and transport them in stagecoaches.
“It was like having a hotel room in a tent – and without all the hotel requirements of dress, formality of social norms – and without the cost,” Westfall wrote. “Wylie would deal with the park soldiers, indifferent stage drivers and ruffians. He also handled the natural residents of the park: bison, bears, mountain lion and other critters.”
Similar accommodations are now referred to as “glamping,” short for glamorous camping. With glamping’s revival, canvas camps are sprouting in scenic vacation areas outside Yellowstone and across the West.
Walking back to their less luxurious camp, James and a companion saw some dudes looking their way and shouted: “Hello, bele, below, beloum, What the hell is the matter with us; hidie, kidie, gosh almighty, we are from Butte Dam.”
Similar but different
Road trips to Yellowstone could be a bit rugged in 1907, yet more than 16,400 people visited. A snack for James included a can of tomatoes when food supplies ran low. Camping was in large, sometimes leaky, canvas tents. Cooking was over an open fire. Travel was slow, dusty and bumpy.
Yet much about the trip still resonates as timeless, especially the ability to see Yellowstone’s famed geysers, mudpots, hot pools and stunning mountain scenery. Today’s tourists likely see even more wildlife than the Butte group, since in the early 1900s Yellowstone was still in the process of restoring its wild inhabitants after years of human over-hunting.
Cutthroat trout were plentiful, including some “great big fellows,” as Murphy wrote of his joy at easily catching fish from Yellowstone Lake and the river just below. Unlike wildlife, which now thrive compared to 1907, cutthroat trout populations are slowly rebuilding after a precipitous decline that started in the mid-1980s. Predacious lake trout, illegally introduced, dined on cutthroat for years, driving their numbers perilously low before action was taken to net and reduce the nonnative fish.
Word about Yellowstone National Park’s many natural wonders and wildlife was spreading quickly in the early 1900s. By 1909, Yellowstone visitation had risen to more than 32,500 tourists, almost double the amount when James and his friends took their wagon trip. In 2022, that amount of visitors was nearly equal to visitation during the entire month of March.
Last year saw more than 3.29 million visitors to the park, a drop from an all-time high of 4.86 million in 2021, due to historic flooding that prompted closures and restrictions during Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary.
In all, the young Butte tourists spent two weeks traveling around the park’s Grand Loop, making stops at Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris and Mammoth. By the end of their park visit, the nights in the mountains were getting so cold James was sleeping in all of his clothes and warming his bed with fire-heated rocks.
Driving to Norris from Canyon on the 18th day of the journey, the devil-may-care side of James was apparent as he wrote: “It was all downhill and we had Nell and Kate scared to death. The horses were feeling fine. After a two days rest, and as one of them was always scary, the girls were up in the air. They called and begged me to go slower myself, but the horse would not hold in.
“Then Maud and Grace would make it worse for them for whenever we would come to a turn, one or the other would sing out, ‘Lord, we are going right over this bank, jump girls,’ and the Cosgroves, sitting in the back seat could not see the road very well, were about driven crazy, and once or twice almost jumped out.”
Dan Murphy, James’ grandson and Luke’s father, said the accounts make his grandfather sound like a very outgoing, fun-loving man. “It seems like he’d be a really good buddy go on a trip with,” he said.
Born in Ireland in 1874, James came to Butte with his mother to join his father in the United States when he was 9 years old. By then, Westfall noted, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco.
Based on census records Luke found, James’ mother gave birth to nine children in eight years but only three survived.
“In that short time, they had a lot of tragedy,” Luke said. “That had to be tough.”
In 1908, James married Agnes Kelly, the “hon” he refers to in his journals. Why she didn’t accompany the group on the trip is unknown, but the fact that she was deeply religious and the group was not chaperoned could be why.
“What woman would let her boyfriend go off on a two week wagon trip?” Dan Murphy asked. “But she was cool with it.”
In 1907, James was a clerk at Hennessys Department Store in Butte, starting in the business when he was 16. Five of the Yellowstone vacationers also worked at the store, as did Agnes. James had a college education and soon advanced to store buyer before opening his own Butte ladies clothing store with partners in 1923. About five years later, James took a job in Los Angeles, moving his wife and six children. Ten years later, he died at age 55.
Although Dan Murphy never met his grandfather, the family lore is that he was “pretty tough.” Historical accounts refer to him as “fully committed” to Butte’s “numerous Irish organizations, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians.”
A 1915 letter written by James scolds the mayor for prohibiting firearms in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, accusing the official of being “influenced by a few underground bigots.”
Dan did know his grandmother, “Aggie,” calling her a saint who was very kind.
Through the years, Dan and his sister have reconnected with some of their relatives still living in Butte, visiting the town. Dan and Luke have both toured Yellowstone, but not since having read James’ journal.
“I wish I had known more about it to retrace his trip,” Luke said, adding that he’s now excited the adventure will be brought to life again.
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