A Visit To Pyramid Park

Colonel Clement Lounsberry is best known (and actually quite well-known by North Dakotans) as the founder and first editor of the Bismarck Tribune, and the man who brought the news of the “Custer Massacre” to the world through his telegraphed story to the New York Herald in the summer of 1876. Six years later, at the beginning of a quiet fall in North Dakota, Lounsberry and a friend took a trip to western North Dakota, getting off the train on the west bank of the Little Missouri River at the town of Little Missouri, and The Colonel wrote one of the first really good printed descriptions of the Bad Lands that I’ve been able to find. As you will see, the area was already a tourist destination. Lounsberry’s account was published in the Bismarck Tribune October 6, 1882.

LITTLE MISSOURI – Meeting Dr. Elliot of Minneapolis, who was on a search for fossils for the academy of science, we determined to stop off at this point and spend a little time in the bad lands, visiting the Burning Buttes and other points of interest.

We found pleasant quarters at Moore’s Pyramid Park Hotel, which, by the way, will soon be enlarged and immensely improved and made as interesting as money can make it, with a view to accommodating the many who come here to hunt for game or on tours for observation. Frank Moore, the genial proprietor, will always be ready with guns or guides to make the hunt for game or the visit as interesting as possible.

The Bad Lands, for beauty called the Pyramid Park, are very interesting indeed, and at this point are seen in all their grandeur.  Not only that, but they abound in game—elk, deer, antelope, and even bear, being abundant. They range from five to forty miles in width, and extend from the headwaters of the Little Missouri to its mouth. This region at one time appears to have been an immense basin covered with heavy forests, which together with an accumulation of drift, were buried by glacial action and by time converted into coal. Beds ranging in thickness from eight to twenty-odd feet are found. By some process of nature, perhaps by lightning, these beds of coal were fired and for untold ages have continued to burn, forming a series of craters of the bad lands, through which water has rushed, leaving here and there heaps of burned clay called scoria, others of unburned clay as barren as the rocks themselves, patches of slag entirely destitute of vegetation, or extensive bars or tracts of alluvial deposit on which are found the most nutritious grasses. At some points the fires were smothered, leaving portions of the coal veins intact. And here rise majestic buttes—pyramid like—from which the park takes its name.

Six miles south of the Little Missouri station are what is known as the Burning Buttes, and here may be seen the process of bad land formation in full blast. A Tribune reporter, Mark Kellogg, who was killed in the Custer Massacre in 1876, gave an interesting account of these burning buttes when on his way to the Big Horn. The Custer trail passes near it. Since then probably three hundred feet of new crater has been formed, which looks, as Sully described the bad lands—like the bottom of hell with the fires out. We stood near the brink of this newly-formed crater and heard the roaring and crackling fires, which burn not only the coal but the earth and rocks as well. The fire was under our feet. The earth had parted an inch or more here, and two or three inches there, and through the crevices here steam issued, there the flames were just beginning to creep through, and in a few days more another section will be added to the crater. Passing round to the right we found an opening in the burning mine several feet in width, the sides of which were a white heat, and from it issued flames and a strong smell of sulphur. The body of earth covering the coal is much heavier here, and as it burns and tumbles down, there will be left a huge pile of scoria or burned clay and earth. Time will fill the lower portion of the crater and make of it a rich pasture, while the mound of burned clay will remain destitute of vegetation.

Changing our position a mile or two to one of the highest points, the eye rests upon thousands of acres, covered with craters and burned buttes, as rough and broken as the ruins of a burned city—reminding one of the same.

The bad lands are drained by the Little Missouri and its tributaries. At many points along these streams there are extensive bottoms which are covered with a heavy growth of grass, a thick mat of it, probably fifteen inches in height. At some points there is a skirting of timber—small cottonwood generally, but in some instances ash or box elder, and all through the bad lands are basins similar in character to the bottoms along streams. As rough and broken as the bad lands are, they afford the best grazing lands in Dakota, and are the favorite resort of game of all kinds. They afford an interesting study and should be visited by all who seek the west for pleasure or profit.

Knowing my bias for the Bad Lands, you will understand why I think these are some of the best words ever written about North Dakota: “. . . all who seek the west for pleasure or profit.” My dad used to take us to the Burning Coal Vein north of Amidon in the 1950’s, when we were kids, and it was indeed as Lounsberry described it, fascinating and probably a bit dangerous, although I think that if you kept to a rough Forest Service walking path, you’d be okay. At that time you could actually see the glowing coals in some of the crevices in the ground. They’re out now, but the area was a tourist destination for a lot of years, and the Forest Service built a very nice campground there. As recently as ten years ago there was a coal seam still burning in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as I recall, but Superintendent Valerie Naylor says it is no longer burning, or at least no longer visible.

Lounsberry’s trip pre-dated the arrival of the Marquis de Mores by about six months and of Theodore Roosevelt’s first visit by just under a year. The Bad Lands haven’t been the same since.

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