By Ruffin Prevost
Yellow Stone Gate
Yellowstone Lake and the rugged backcountry that surrounds it is a place where millions go seeking solitude and silence. Yet it in a well-documented but rarely discussed phenomenon, some visitors to the Lake area have experienced remarkable celestial sounds of unknown and unexplained origin.
“They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead, and then fading as rapidly in the opposite direction,” wrote Hiram M. Chittenden in 1895 in his book, “The Yellowstone National Park.”
Chittenden’s description is one of several in the historical record — as well as many more from popular anecdotal accounts — of strange sounds or “lake music” coming from the skies around Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone lake.
Chittenden was an accomplished engineer with rigorous scientific discipline who built roads and bridges in the park, as well as locks in Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal. He was not given to idle speculation or unsubstantiated gossip about seemingly magical events.
But he is hardly the only — or even the first — prominent Yellowstone visitor to write about the strange and unexplained lake sounds.
Edwin Linton, a professor of biology at Washington and Jefferson College and a specialist in marine parasites was working in Yellowstone in the summer of 1890 as part of a project for the U.S. Fish Commission. Linton, his colleagues and his guides heard the mysterious sounds more than once during that trip, and he drew from his own diary entries when he wrote an account of the odd experience for the Nov. 3, 1893 edition of the prestigious journal Science.
“On the following morning, we heard the sound very plainly,” Linton wrote. “It appeared to begin directly overhead and to pass off across the sky, growing fainter and fainter towards the southwest. It appeared to be a rather indefinite, reverberating sound, characterized by a slight metallic resonance.”
Linton and others have described the sounds as “harp-like” or similar to human voices or the sound of metal cables crashing against each other, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered for their origin.
Lee Whittlesey, historian at Yellowstone Park and a longtime resident of the region, said that the Yellowstone Lake sounds aren’t often discussed by park insiders.
“You have to have a real interest in Yellowstone history to even be familiar with it,” said Whittlesey, who has written several books and articles about Yellowstone history. “There are a number of pieces written about it, but it’s often deeply buried in the literature,” he said.
Despite how far-fetched the phenomenon sounds, Whittlesey said he’s confident the sounds have existed and the historical accounts about them are credible. “It has been reported by too many people for it to be any kind of Bigfoot thing or something like that,” he said.
Respected scientists and prominent park figures have reported hearing the sounds, and accounts have appeared in books, journals and newspapers, Whittlesey said, although the last new written report may have been as far back as the 1930s.
Typically, accounts of the sounds state that they take place at or near Yellowstone Lake or Shoshone Lake on a clear day when there is little or no wind and the waters are still, usually in the morning. Geologist Frank H. Bradley explored and documented Yellowstone’s natural wonders as a member of the Hayden Expeditions, and wrote in 1873 about hearing odd sounds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.