Yellowstone National Park is regarded as both the oldest, and one of the most iconic American parks. With its history extending back to well prior to the establishment of the National Park Service, it remains one of the most beloved protected wilderness areas in the United States.
Yellowstone is also home to its own brand of mysterious natural phenomena. For more than a century, visitors have described hearing unusual sounds, particularly around the vicinity of the park’s lakes Yellowstone and Shoshone. These odd noises have been variously described as sounding like metallic beams or cables knocking together, or at times being similar to ducks in flight, or even “ethereal organ music.”
According to Yellowstone park historian Lee Whittlesey, written accounts of these strange sounds date back at least as far as 1890, with some recollections dating to even earlier periods. In 1895, the engineer Hiram M. Chittenden included references to this peculiar sonic mystery in his book The Yellowstone National Park: Historical and Descriptive.
As Chittendon tells us, “A most singular and interesting acoustic phenomenon of this region, although rarely noticed by tourists, is the occurrence of strange and indefinable overhead sounds. They have long been noted by explorers, but only in the vicinity of Shoshone and Yellowstone Lakes.”
“They seem to occur in the morning,” Chittenden’s account reads, “and to last for only a moment.” Chittenden likened these unusual sounds to “the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees.”
In his entry on the unusual sounds, Chittenden also recounted reports from as early as 1892 like that of Edwin Linton, who claimed to have heard what he likened to “a medley of wind in the tree tops…the echo of bells after being repeated several times, the humming of a swarm of bees, and two or three other less definite sources of sound, making in all a composite which was not loud, but easily recognized, and not at all likely to be mistaken for any other sound in these mountain solitudes.” Associates of Mr. Linton had also described hearing these noises, which one described as “a twisting sort of yow-yow vibration.” Elwood Hofer, who had been the guide accompanying Linton and his group at the time, called the noise “the most mysterious sound heard among the mountains.”
The following year in 1893, a scientist named S.A. Forbes recalled hearing a sound he likened to a harp-like vibrating “clang” that appeared to emanate from around the area of the treetops above him. Forbes said the noise sounded at times like the movement of telegraph wires moving in the wind, and at others almost like “faintly heard voices answering each other overhead.”
“It begins softly in the remote distance,” Forbes was quoted by Chittenden as having said, adding that the sound “draws rapidly near with louder and louder throbs of sound, and dies away in the opposite direction; or it may seem to wander irregularly about, the whole passage lasting from a few seconds to half a minute or more.”
“In other lands and times [the noise] would have been an object of superstitious reverence or dread, and would have found a permanent place in the traditions of the people,” Chittenden wrote in his 1895 account, adding that “No rational explanation has ever been advanced for this remarkable phenomenon.”
There had, in fact, been earlier accounts of Yellowstone’s strange sounds recorded as far back as 1871 by a geologist named Frank H. Bradley. Bradley had participated in the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, an expedition that explored portions of northwestern Wyoming which, at the time, had not yet been designated as Yellowstone National Park (the park’s official establishment would occur in March of the following year). The expedition had been the first federally funded operation led by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, which became instrumental in helping to convince Congress to pass the legislation which secured federal protection for the Yellowstone property.
While participating in the expedition, Bradley wrote that on one occasion, “While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a horse whine.”
“The sound increased in force,” Bradley’s account adds, “and it now became evident that gusts of wind were passing through the air above us, though the pines did not as yet indicate the least motion in the lower atmosphere.” Had this sound recorded by Bradley been the same as that which has persisted around Yellowstone’s lakes now for decades?
In 1930, Popular Science also featured a brief account of the sounds, supposing that there could be a seismic origin for the strange noises. Seven years later, Neil Miner, a Ranger Naturalist who was employed at Yellowstone from 1935 to 1938 proposed an aeolian idea instead, arguing that “horizontally moving whirlpools of air” rushing downward off the nearby mountain peaks had been the likely cause.
Throughout the ensuing decades, there have been several occurrences of unusual sounds that have been logged at various locations around the world. The strange “whispers” heard on Yellowstone’s lakes appear to fall into this category, and represent one of the many instances where curious sonic phenomena have been recorded in the Americas. While the exact sources of these mysterious sounds remain in question, it seems of little doubt that they have natural origins, but have nonetheless fed speculations over the years about one of the most unusual traditions associated with America’s oldest National Park.